War years



From 1942 to 1947 war service intervened. Canney chose not to be commissioned, serving instead as a draughtsman in the Royal Engineers in North Africa, Italy and Austria. (He had made this choice partly because he been told he would be able to spend his time painting camouflage, but this did not prove to be the case.) He documented his journeys with many drawings, most now lost. Italian art and architecture came as a revelation, and encouraged a lifelong affection for the country and its people; he finally returned to live there in 1984 for seven years.

While in Florence, in 1945, Canney met Giorgio De Chirico in his studio, who made favourable comments about a series of drawings and an etching of the Ponte Vecchio. Asked to comment on his own famous early works, De Chirico replied, ‘Those were the errors of youth!’ In Austria, he became art editor of an army newspaper, ‘The Oak’, and later joined B-7, the British Forces Radio Network in Graz and Vienna, an early indicator of the other, broadcasting strand of his career.

When on leave in Britain, Canney saw an important Picasso exhibition, and on returning to Austria, made a number of experimental drawings in “an Analytical-Cubist manner”. In 1942 he met Naum Gabo briefly, and during other periods of leave, between late 1945 and 1947, he saw exhibitions in St Ives of what was later to be called the St Ives School, with works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth,  Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Bryan Wynter, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Margaret Mellis and many others. These exhibitions were first held at Downing's Bookshop and at the St Ives Society of Artists' Gallery in the Mariners' Chapel. Later exhibitions by the now historic ‘Crypt Group’ took place in the crypt below the chapel. The Crypt Group exhibitions marked his first encounter with certain aspects of Constructivism, a movement that was to play an important part in Canney’s own art and thinking some 25 years later. ‘In retrospect, these exhibitions were the most exciting events that I can recall in St Ives, reflecting as they did, a unique period of creativity,’ he recalled. ‘One really did feel that one was at the forward edge of art in Britain, and that this was a moment that would never be repeated.’




War duties

Above: “The Q Store Tent”, watercolour of a tent and cork tree, 1943

Right, from top: Michael Canney broadcasting on forces radio in Austria; one of many illustrations for the cover of the regimental magazine; sketch of the Forum in Rome, 1945

Italian initiation