Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationWARSHIP WEEKS

John Buchanan:"The artist without hands"

Inscribed 3,500 scrolls for villages throughout Britain which adopted warships

Between October 1941 and the end of March 1942, Warships Weeks were organised in cities, towns and villages throughout Great Britain.  The intention was to raise a sum by investment or deposit in all types of war savings representing the cost of building one of His Majesty’s ships ranging from the smallest to the largest vessels.  Once the target had been raised the community adopted the vessel along with its crew and the bond was strengthened by presentations in recognition of the money raised.

Replicas of the crest of the ship mounted on a wooden shield were presented by the Admiralty to the Councils and a plaque bearing the crest of the town or city was presented by the Council to the adopted vessel. Where Rural and Urban Councils supported the fund raising efforts of a municipal borough or city they received a separate plaque from the Admiralty. The villages in the area covered by the rural councils were presented with a printed scroll bearing the standard Admiralty anchor but with the name of the parish, the date of the Warship Week and the name of the ship adopted inscribed on the scroll. These were intended for framing and hanging in the village hall or a similar place where they would be on public view.

Most of these were done by John Buchanan, "the artist without hands", whose story is told by Cecil F. Walpole in "Artist without Hands: a memoir of John Buchanan" (London: Epworth Press, 1953), a slim 48 page hardback with many coloured plates demonstrating John Buchanan's ability at producing illuminated manuscripts despite his lack of hands. Cecil Walpole was a former General Secretary of the National Children’s Home and this account of John Buchanan's life is largely based on his book.

John Buchanan as a child writing without handsJohn Buchanan was born in Glasgow in 1908 but his parents moved south and he spent his childhood in a Hampshire village near Portsmouth. His father had served in the Boer War and lost a leg which made it difficult for him to support a wife and five chilren. His wife went out to work in a laundry near their home but earned very little and her husband was frequently unemployed.

John Buchanan was born without hands. He had two imperfectly formed fingers where his left hand should have been and the right arm finished with a stump at the elbow. Friends suggested that he should be taken into the care of the National Children's Home and when he was nine he went to their Branch for Crippled Children at Chipping Norton in the Cotswalds.

"Those who knew him before he went to Chipping Norton declared that as a little boy he had run rather wild, but in his new environment his mind and chracter developed in a wonderful way and he soon began to to exercise a real and gracious influence on other boys and girls. His cheerful outlook and keen sense of humour speedily made him a favourite with everyone."

He found a way of "holding a pen or paint-brush between the stumps of his arms, the two imperfectly formed fingers on the left arm making this possible, and he soon began to produce work that would have been a credit to any ordinary child". Once his ability as an artist was recognised he was enrolled as a student at the City of Oxford School of Art and travelled 21 miles to Oxford every day. He took the General Arts Course "but his special genius lay in the illuminations of literary quotations, with superbly decorated borders." He had a wonderful sense of colour and he wrote texts or mottoes in colour on large plain postcards which were sold for him in London by a former Sister at Chipping Norton. When he left Chipping Norton he went to London and took his savings with him.

John Buchanan's first commission from Lord Montagu of Beaulieu when he was only 17 was to copy onto stiff boards some ancient deeds relating to the Abbey. This was followed in 1926 by winning first prize in a Competition for Industrial Design organised by the Roysl Society of Arts. The judges had no knowledge of his handicap. A year later he was commissioned by Queen Mary to paint some Christmas  cards for her. He was soon self-supporting with a studio in Highbury.

With encouragement and help of the portrait painter, Frank Salisbury, he travelled to Rome - in a heat wave - but returned home two weeks early. There were so many flies "and I hadn't any means of knocking them away from my face." Most of his holidays were taken at Alverstoke, the Branch of the Children's Homes on the South Coast, and it was there that he met Jane Jones, a young child care worker. She became John's wife and they adopted a  baby girl. "At this time John Buchanan was doing some of his finest work and his working hours were long and strenuous".

Illuminated poem by John Masefield

Illuminatedv scroll by John Buchanan
Illuninated Scroll

A friend, Lt Cyril R Bayley RN, got him the Commission from the Admiralty to inscribe the scrolls awarded to villages which met their targets in their Rural Council's Warships Week:

"During the war, the Admiralty were hard put to it to meet their commitments in connection with Warship Weeks. The Board of Admiralty had undertaken to present to each parish which reached its target on National Savings a certificate with the name of the parish, the ship adopted, and the week in whih the effort was made, dully engrossed upon it. John Buchanan was eventually given the bulk of the work, and in the result completed over 3,500 certificates in considerably under twelve months."

For a man who loved colour and embroidered borders it must have seemed dull montonous work but he may have seen it as his contribution to the war effort. Most of these scrolls have been lost, thrown out or sold but the village of Winteringham in North Lincolnshire has theirs framed and hanging in their village hall and the villagers take great pride in having adopted HMS Vanity in 1942. Please contact me via the link at the foot of this page if you have one hanging in your village hall.

During his last year or two he spent much of his time in hospital and died in his forty-fifth year on 12 January 1953. A year later the John Buchanan Memorial Hall was named and opened by his widow at the National Children's Home in Chipping Norton.

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on a V & W Class destroyer you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link:

If you have stories or photographs of a V & W Class destroyer you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster

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