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The Wartime Artwork of Owen (Miles) Spence

Introducing the wartime artwork of Able Seaman Owen (Miles) Spence

Artists have always played an important role for the world’s militaries, immortalising decorated leaders and heroes in formal portraiture, or depicting glorious and gory scenes of history’s great battles. From the celebrated portraits of Van Dyck, Raeburn and Sargent, to the epic Bayeux Tapestry and Picasso’s Guernica, war art has played a vital story-telling role.

In addition to those formally tasked with depicting the stories of war, active-duty soldiers, sailors and airmen have also documented their own first-hand experiences. By 1916, Australia, the UK and Canada had established official war art programmes, but here in New Zealand, the cost associated was considered unnecessary and expensive. Members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were therefore encouraged to document their own experience through poetry, song, drawing, painting and cartoons. Artists like Horace Moore-Jones created wartime masterpieces on their own account, and eventually, in 1918 with Henry Nugent Welch, New Zealand had employed its first official War Artist. The value of visually documenting war, and the people involved is long established, and artists are still employed by militaries to continue this traditional form of visual storytelling. Perhaps most recognizable in the present day is the employment of Defence photographers, however the tradition of military artists (in the sense of using paint on canvas) also continues to this day.

Owen (Miles) Spence falls into the category of “unofficial” artist, documenting his experience on his own accord. He was born in Christchurch in 1922 and enlisted as a radar operator in the Navy in 1941 at the age of 18. He trained at HMS Tamaki and Philomel, following which he was posted to HMNZS Cook in Wellington. In June 1943, he was promoted to Able Seaman Radar Operator, and around this time was posted to a radar station on Cuvier Island. From August of the same year, Spence was posted to the administrative base HMNZS Cook II in the Solomon Islands.

In 1945 Spence was seconded to the Royal Navy, and travelled to Australia where he undertook further training at HMAS Golden Hind in Sydney. Following this, he joined the crew of HMS Victorious, the Illustrious-class aircraft carrier, operating as part of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) off the coast off Okinawa. The aircraft carrier departed Sydney in early July and reached the BPF’s forward operating base at Manus Island, where it formed Task Force 37, part of the United States Navy’s Third Fleet for operations off Japan. HMS Victorious was forced to return to Sydney, just prior to Japanese surrender due to fuel shortages. Soon after, Spence returned to New Zealand aboard the cruiser HMNZS Achilles, remaining at HMNZS Philomel until he was demobilised on Christmas Day 1945.

Following the war, Spence spent time in the United States, pumping gas during the day, and indulging in his love of playing jazz at night. He toured the West Coast with a jazz band in which he was the only white player. On his return to New Zealand, he kept playing jazz saxophone and clarinet well into his 90s, and also wrote a number of books, including War & Pieces, a fictional account of a young sailor in WWII based on his own real-life experience. Spence passed away in 2019 in Nelson, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Following in the tradition of other active-duty war artists, Spence’s drawings depict scenes of camp-life ashore in the islands, and onboard ship, as well as scenes of battle. The drawings shown here are from the collection of the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy, and a selection of these are displayed in the museum galleries.

-By Leading Musician/Museum Guide Host Michael Jamieson.

Copyright: All Rights Reserved, reproduced with the kind permission of Pamela Frost and the Estate of O.J.H. Spence. Please contact the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy for permission to copy or use these images.



Wynd, M. (2010). SPENCE, ABLE RADAR RATING OWEN, Navy Museum Historical Research

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