WICKED SIMPLICITY: the Supermarine Spitfire.
In October 2006 I reviewed a new "biography" of the Spitfire, written by the art critic Jonathan Glancey.
Mk IIa P7350, the last Battle of Britain veteran still flying.
I spent many a short-trousered hour, half stoned on modelling glue, clumsily cementing together the moulded blue plastic sections of Airfix Spitfires. These, as Jonathan Glancey writes in his new account of the fighter plane, were the toy firm’s first and most popular model, introduced on the 1:72 scale in 1955 and sold in their millions by Woolworth’s at two shillings. Although it was a decade after the plane’s operational obsolescence, we modellers knew perfectly well this was not any old aircraft. The Spitfire was a legend. But was it also, as Glancey asks at the start of his first chapter, a work of art? That’s a difficult one.
The prototype first flew in March 1936, the design of R.J. Mitchell, an early school leaver from a poor Stoke-on-Trent background who'd put himself through night-school to qualify as an aeronautical engineer. While working on the Spitfire he also developed a cancer that would kill him at 41, only a year after his brainchild took to the air.
The Spit was not the first British monoplane fighter – that was the Hurricane, the work of another aeronautical genius, Sidney Camm. Mitchell's design owed much to Camm’s (though also to German Heinkels and Messerschmidts) and both Camm's and Mitchell's planes were to play key roles in the Battle of Britain, as they fought off those Heinkels and Messerschmidts. But, as every schoolboy knows (or did in my day), the Hurricane was Dr Watson to the Spitfire’s Holmes – just as honest, but slower, uglier and a good deal less deadly. So strong, stable and adaptable was the Spitfire's airframe that it evolved through numerous modifications, including increasingly powerful versions of its original Rolls Royce Merlin engine. These upgrades, masterminded by Mitchell’s brilliant but unsung assistant Joe Smith, made the Spitfire ever faster and ever deadlier, before it inevitably yielded, after 1945, to the new jets.
Good design is the quality in form, or arrangement of forms, that makes an object pleasurable to use, or merely to contemplate. This may sometimes rise to the higher status called classic, but it is hard to say what precisely makes the difference. Complete originality isn't mandatory. Nor is an object made a classic by its historical importance, or even its level of efficiency, although both are relevant to the case. But for whatever reason almost everyone agrees the Spitfire is a design classic. Even that, however, doesn’t mean that it is art.
Virtually everyone who knew the Spitfire loved it. Pilots spoke of the aeroplane's extraordinary responsiveness, giving them the sense that, once airborne, it could be treated as an extension of their own bodies. In 1940 Goering asked the Luftwaffe flying ace Adolf Galland what the Reich could get for him, and was not best pleased at the reply: "a squadron of Spitfires". Galland’s was the admiration of a punch-drunk contender; RAF pilot and writer Richard Hillary’s response was more aesthetic. In 1943 he wrote memorably of the Spit’s power, balletic agility and "the wicked simplicity of its lines".
That "wicked simplicity" is very good, but it prompts an obvious problem about the Spitfire-as-art: its only purpose was death and destruction. Yet, to some, the smell of napalm in the morning gives a mysterious frisson. By sharpening the imaginative senses, battle and art sometimes do the same job, and in combination the result can be, say, The Iliad or Uccello’s Battle of San Romano.
The Spitfire’s own mystery cannot be discovered from the London Science Museum's current exhibition, in which visitors are able to peer into the guts of a dismantled Mark 22. These may be the core of its extraordinary effectiveness as a flying and killing machine, but the key to the plane’s legendary status lies elsewhere – in that perfectly distinctive silhouette, especially of the elliptical wings, as seen from, say, a field in Kent during August 1940. When this powerful image fused with notions of the plane as a protector, even a saviour, the Spitfire became an emblem so strong that it still burns in the national consciousness a lifetime later. Is it art? In the course of his thorough life-story of the aircraft Glancey, himself an art and architecture critic, becomes distracted by the less aesthetically challenging matters of thrust, torque, climbing speeds, service ceilings, battle handling and the like, and in the end dodges the question he began by posing. Call me windy but, rather than prang in flames, your reviewer will do the same.
Spitfire: The Biography by Jonathan Glancey, 2006.
This review was originally published in the Independent on Sunday.