A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Robert Back

Robert Trenaman Back (1922-2004) was born in Adelaide, South Australia, the son of William Back,  a frustrated artist turned aircraft designer, who had emigrated to Australia after the Great War. "I inherited a family tradition of the sea from both my father's and my mother's sides of the family. In 1833 my ancestor, Captain George Back RN, sailed in search of the North West Passage. Two cousins were admirals in the First World War" (Prints 1984 6(2) March / April).

The family returned to England when his his father inherited the family estate in Norfolk in 1931 and the long voyage on the Jervis Bay aroused his interest in the sea. Robert was educated at St George's Chapel, Windsor, and at Felsted where he won the school artist prize in three successive years. During the holidays he learned to sail on the Norfolk Broads in his father's old fourteen foot clinker built boat, Ursula.

In later life in an interview with Prints (March / April 1984) he recalled that in 1938 "I joined a dirty British coaster with a tall black smokestack at Great Yarmouth, with a pass in my pocket to allow me to sketch in the London Docks. I remember Lord Courtauld buying a dockland water colour of mine for five shillings". He was only fifteen when he was awarded the President's Prize of the Royal Drawing Society by The Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, for "Snapshot Drawing - Old Tramp Being Towed Past Tilbury" (on left below). A water colour of SS Parapindi (on the right) painted in the London docks when he was a sixteen year old schoolboy is one of several paintings of his being offered for sale by the Dutch art gallery, Simonis Buunk, at somewhat higher prices.


Tramp being towed by tug painted by R.T. Bacl when 16SS Parapindi painted in 1938

He won a scholarship to study at the Edinburgh College of Art where "I soon learned to hide my watercolours and never mention marine art, because it was considered unimportant to great art".  After a year he volunteered for the Royal Navy and in March 1942 was posted to HMS Venomous as a gunner in time for arctic convoy PQ.15 to Murmansk:

"the forward mess deck was constantly awash with sea water. Any blankets dropped on the deck were doomed to stay wet for the next nine days; we slept in our clothes. No matter how much we wrapped up for a four hour watch, within the first ten minutes the cold was through to the bones. Hours were spent chipping ice off the guns. I remember one occasion, following behind a Russian ice breaker in line ahead, we had an enemy air attack and every gun on the ship had frozen."

Before leaving the Clyde for the Mediterranean to escort the convoy which relieved Malta Robert Back was:

"doing a pencil sketch of an armed merchant cruiser anchored in the Clyde. I was in the lounge bar of the Bay Hotel, which happened to be full of merchant seamen. 'That's nice' said a voice from behind me, 'can I have a look?' In a minute I replied, 'I will just finish it off'. After a few more questions, I was aware all eyes were on me, and there was a deathly hush. The two gentlemen behind me were plain clothes police!"

He was escorted out of the hotel, his sketch book confiscated, and he was warned he would hear more from his ship's captain. Eventually his sketch book was returned, having had each drawing stamped and passed by His Majesty's Censor.

R.T. Back and fellow Gunners at HMS Bristol, 1943Gunner Robert T Back, HMS Bristol 1943
Studio portrait of Robert T. Back and his fellow Gunners at HMS Bristol in 1943
Rear from left: Jock Dick, Fred Bing, Ted Tudor, Len Alston, Myself (RT Back)
 Front from left: ‘Chiefy’ Fenton (Gunners Mate), ‘Gunns’, Ernest Buckley.


He was almost certainly aboard HMS Venomous when it rescued the survivors of HMS Hecla and may have met the South African artist, Herbert H. McWilliams who painted Hecla sinking after his rescue by Venomous. He would have left Venomous at Falmouth in October 1943 and was posted to HMS Bristol, the shorebase in Bristol, where this studio photograph was taken. His portrait is cropped from a group photograph of Back and his fellow gunners with their names written on the reverse. Had they served together on HMS Venomous?

Captain Class frigate painted by Rober Back, 1944
HMS Byard, a Captain Class frigate, built near Boston in 1943
Courtesy of Alison Travis, daughter of Robert Back


HMS Byard painted by R.T. Back, GunnerThe ship's company of HMS Byad
The ship's company of HMS Byard with R.T. Back on left in second row from front
From "Reminiscences of the Spirited Horse"
HMS Byard - history of the ship, book cover
Only two of his wartime painting are  known today, the Captain Class frigate in a busy harbour is probably HMS Byard, which he joined soon after leaving Venomous. The other with the pennant number of HMS Byard (K315) clearly visible is badly water damaged. HMS Byard was built near Boston in 1943 under the lend-lease programme and from January to June 1944 had an American captain, Lt Cdr E.M. Ferris RNVR, who had enlisted in the Royal Navy in Canada before America entered the war. He was the first US citizen to command one of His Majesty's ships. On arrival in Britain Byard was stripped of her dishwasher and ice cream machine and joined the Fourth Escort Group at Belfast.

Robert Back probably joined Byard in November a month after it had sunk U841 and rescued twenty seven survivors while escorting an Atlantic convoy. For most of 1944 Byard was in the Mediterranean escorting converted passenger liners being used as troop carriers to Naples. From November 1944 until VE-Day Byard was in the English channel and Irish Sea hunting down the new schnorkel equipped U-boats. These brief details of Byard's wartime activities are taken from a wartime history of the Fourth Escort Group and HMS Byard written by "Henry" (Mr J.H. Hathaway, Temp. Wt. Eng. RN), illustrated with cartoons by Robert Back, and privately published as Reminiscences of the Spirited Horse in June 1945.

"On returning to England after the end of hostilities ... I found my Norfolk home half demolished by a flying bomb. Fortunately, nobody was killed." He was a passionate dinghy sailor and with his 65 year old father as crew he sailed his Uffa Fox designed dinghy, Shrimp, to victory in all six races during Regatta Week on the Broads and in 1950 he was an Olympic trialist for the Helsinki Games. When he completed his studies at the College of Art in Edinburgh in 1949 he found it impossible to get a job as a commercial artist in advertising in London and turned to teaching art at a school in Northern Ireland for a year. This was followed by a period selling Dexion industrial shelving and as sales manager of a turkey farm before going to sea in the Merchant Navy for five years on the liner, Edinburgh Castle, and the Royal Mail ship, Alcantara.

"Before long I was back at sea, this time at the wheel of a 29,000 ton liner sailing out of the Solent for South Africa. I had never helmed any ship that size in my life but nobody knew. Four hours on, eight hours off, gave me plenty of time to paint portraits of the crew for 1 a picture. Apart from exercising French poodles or oiling Dennis Compton's cricket bat, there was little chnce of an extra bob on one's salary." From the interview with him in Prints, March / April 1984.

He met his wife, Denise, a speech therapist in Edinburgh in 1957 and they married the following year. They had two daughters, Clare and Alison. He left the sea after marrying and returned to teaching art at Seaford, Sussex, and built a studio in the attic of his cottage. He crewed in the Admiral's Cup and the Fastnet Race in 1965 and continued to sail into his sixties: "I have a fine geriatric crew and have taught them all to sail. My retired bank manager cooks for us and looks after the money; my church organist offers up a hymn and a prayer, and my solicitor looks after the legal side should we ever get bumped." He lived in Seaford for 46 years and was a much liked if eccentric figure in the town.


Tobert Bacck with Princess AnnR.T. Back and his "geriatic crew"
Left: Robert Back showing Princess Anne his painting of the Sea Cadet Training Ship TS Royalist sailing through Greenwich
Right: Robert Back (centre) with his "geriatric crew"

Courtesy of Alison Travis

His reputation as a marine artist took off when he was "introduced to Malcolm Henderson who had a gallery in London.  When Henderson moved to America, Back's market moved with him. In 1983, he had his first major American exhibition at the Atlantic Gallery in Washington, others following" (from his obituary in the Independent, 12 July 2004).

Painting by R.T. BackPainting by R.T. Back
Left: Schooner yacht, Flower of Kent, leaving Dover, circa 1840
Right: The Steam Packet North Star astern of Nelson’s Old Flagship, HMS Foudroyant, off Portsmouth, circa 1850
Courtesy of Alison Travis - artist signed prints available

Painting by R.T. BackPainting by R.T.Back
Left: Sir Thomas Sopwith's yacht Creole off Europa Point, Gibraltar
Right: The 1993 Doggett Coat and Badge race for City of London Lightermen and Watermen in single sculls

Courtesy of Alison Travis

His success was based on his historically accurate meticulously detailed oil paintings of eighteenth and nineteenth century warships in historical settings which were very different from his prewar drawings and water paintings of merchant ships and his only known wartime painting. Prints magazine summed up his appeal:

"His success lies in his talent as a romantic painter. He has a sense and understanding of the sea which allows him to exagerate the drama of a scene and at the same time maintain its realism. Like the successful historical novelist, Robert gives the facts as seen through the eyes of the contemporary observer, adding nuances which spike ones sense of occasion, balancing known facts with plausible fiction."

His paintings can be seen in public galleries and private collections in America as well as in this country.

Signed prints of some of Robert T. Back's paintings are available from his family.
E-mail his daughter Alison Travis for further details



The South African architect and war artist, Herbert H. McWilliams, was rescued by Venomous when HMS Hecla sank


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