Jack Chalker was an artist whose sketches and watercolours recorded life as a prisoner of war on the 'Death Railway’
Jack Chalker, who has died aged 96, was a British artist who drew and painted the atrocities he witnessed as a prisoner of war on the Burma-Siam Railway, also known as the “Death Railway”.
Made famous by Pierre Boulle’s book (and David Lean’s film) The Bridge on the River Kwai, the railway is now a byword for war crimes. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners perished during its construction, along with at least 90,000 Asian labourers. “The sad thing is that here is a race, the Japanese, with an enormous sense of beauty,” said Chalker, “and yet suddenly there was this.”
The construction of a 258-mile railway line between Bangkok in Thailand to Rangoon in Burma during 1943 was intended to provide a supply route for Japanese forces in Burma. Chalker, a bombardier who had been captured at Singapore, worked on a stretch of the line at Kanchanaburi Province in the west of Thailand. His sketches and watercolours, along with the works of his fellow PoW artists, Philip Meninsky, Ashley George Old and Ronald Searle, now form a valuable record of the brutality experienced by the men who were made to work for the Japanese forces, sometimes for up to 16 hours a day.
In later life Chalker described the conditions on the railway as “singularly horrific”. Torture, malnutrition, illness and execution were daily perils. “If you weren’t working hard enough they would make you stand and hold a stone above your head,” recalled Chalker. “You picked it up, which was better than collapsing because then they kicked you all over the place.”
That image – of a sick, beleaguered man holding a boulder aloft – is one of many that he captured on paper. Chalker managed to produce an exceptional body of work, numbering over 100 drawings, sketches and paintings, detailing the hellish circumstances of his captivity between 1942 and 1945.
On his capture, Chalker hid a few watercolour paints and pencils in a secret compartment in his haversack. For canvases, he stole paper from his captors and used the pre-printed postcards that prisoners were given to send home. His works provide a gallery of horrors: emaciated prisoners at the dysentery latrines; cholera tents; a man having his hands hammered for stealing food; a spoon used as a surgical device to extract maggots from a wound. In one, the celebrated Australian surgeon Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop carries out an amputation. In addition to Chalker’s unflinching images he kept microscopic diary notes.
He stashed the drawings and paintings in hut roofs and bamboo polls, which he then buried, and even in the artificial limb of a prisoner. Only once did he get caught.
“A guard found me hiding some stuff and I got beaten up,” Chalker recalled years later. “The guard tore one drawing up in front of me, but when I came back later I found the pieces under a rice sack. All the others had been destroyed, but this one had survived. It is a symbol of the whole thing.”
Jack Bridger Chalker was born on October 10 1918 in London. His father, Alfred, was a stationmaster who had been appointed MBE for dispersing troops during the First World War. Jack won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but found his studies interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He joined the Royal Field Artillery and was posted in February 1942 to Singapore, where he was captured by the Japanese. He spent time in Changi Prison and two labour camps before being sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway, arriving at a camp on the Konyu River in Thailand after a five-day train journey.
During his time on the railway his camp commandant learnt of Chalker’s artistic talent and made him produce watercolour postcards to send back to his family in Japan. “I was ordered to produce 20 paintings a day under threat of being beaten up and incarcerated unless they were forthcoming, and this I did for a few wearisome weeks,” he recalled. In contrast to the devastation shown in much of his work, other drawings capture the beauty of the local plants and flowers.
His art helped him to retain a semblance of humanity . “I was glad to have something to do, and it was such a privilege to be with so many interesting, wonderful people,” said Chalker. “There was one man, who was absolutely skeletal, a senior lecturer in mathematics at university, and he really loved mathematics and he talked quietly about maths and what a lovely subject it was and he made me feel that calculus must be wonderful. And then he suddenly died one afternoon.”
On Chalker’s release in 1945 he joined the Australian Army HQ in Bangkok as a war artist; some of his work was used in evidence at the Tokyo war trials. On his return to England he resumed his studies, graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1951.
For more than a decade after his repatriation he could not sleep properly. Nor could he look at his drawings and paintings: it would take 40 years for him to take his works out of the box in which they were stored.
In 1950, after teaching History of Art at Cheltenham Ladies’ College he became principal of Falmouth College of Art and, in 1957, principal of West of England College of Art, where he remained until his retirement in the mid-1980s.
He also worked as a medical illustrator and was elected a fellow of the Medical Artists Association of Great Britain. In retirement, he made anatomical models for the medical firm Limbs and Things (he was “famous for his bowel”) and, having settled at Bleadney in Somerset, gave regular talks about his wartime experiences.
Chalker wrote two books: Burma Railway Artist (1994) and Burma Railway: Images of War (2007). The latter was published in Britain and Japan.
In recent years he was sought out by the Japanese media keen to interview him as part of the process of reparation. A BBC Four documentary, Building Burma’s Death Railway: Moving Half the Mountain, screened earlier this year, drew heavily on Chalker’s stark images to illustrate prisoners’ stories.
He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of the West of England.
In 2002 Chalker, then 83, auctioned a collection of approximately 100 of his wartime works at Bonhams in London. “I feel reluctant and in a way guilty about doing this, but it will help us out,” he said.
Bidders competed fiercely for works and many were later donated by a buyer to the Australian War Memorial, including Two working men, Konyu River camp, a pen, brush and ink work on paper which 70 years ago had been ripped up by a Japanese guard.
Jack Chalker married, first, during the war, Anne Maude Nixon; the marriage was later dissolved. He married, secondly, during the 1950s, Jill; that marriage was also later dissolved. He married, thirdly, Helene (née Merrett-Stock), who survives him with a son of his first marriage and a son and daughter of his second marriage.
Jack Chalker, born October 10 1918, died November 15 2014
Obituary originally published in The Telegraph - www.telegraph.co.uk