The recent sale of a William Orpen painting (circa 1916) of Captain John Herbert Towne Letts MC (1987-1918) appears to be in fact his 1st cousin Lieutenant Egerton Michael Letts, (1891 – 1950) who didn’t have as colourful a military record as John.

Lieutenant Egerton Michael Letts by Sir William Orpen (circa 1916). Mistakenly listed as John Letts in DeVere’s catalogue – Lot 49 – Estimate: 20 – 30,000 Euro.

(Sold for €20,000 – hammer price on 20th Nov 2018. See Catalogue text below.

Oil on Canvas: 30 inches by 25 inches. Signed, Lower Right; ‘ORPEN’

The cap badge is the first clue –

The Buckinghamshire Battalion Cap Badge, the Battalion of  Egerton Michael Letts which is the badge on the subjects cap.

The confusion may have arisen from the Military Cross which was won by John Letts but this was never worn on the cap, only on the uniform.

The Lincolnshire Regiment – Officers Service Dress – Cap Badge, with which John Letts served.

The second clue is this record of the original painting by the National Portrait Gallery.

Sir William Orpen R.A. – E.M. Letts.

London, Sotheby’s, Sale 18th May 1977, Lot No.22, as E.M. Letts, sold for £80; Arches Gallery, Belfast; Private Collection, Northern Ireland, circa 1990; thence by descent.

 

The third clue is this Official Photo of John Letts which is clearly a different man, the face is more rounded than that of his cousin Egerton Letts.

John Herbert Towne Letts.

Supplementary Note: John Herbert Towne Letts (1897-1918).

 One of Egerton’s first cousins also served in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force in the First World War, and his war service, whilst being more auspicious, was also more tragic. The cousin in question was John Herbert Towne Letts (1897-1918). He was the son of an elder brother of Sydney Edward Letts (Egerton’s father), Walter John Letts (1862-1934), a railway superintendent, and Charlotte Helen Robertson (1862-1929).

Having volunteered for flight training he was seconded to No. 2 Reserve Squadron at Royal Air Force Gosport. On 19th March he made his first solo flight after only 4 hours of flight instruction. His second solo flight, later the same day, ended when he crashed into the side of a shed. After gaining his Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificate on 24th March, John was appointed a flying officer on 4th May 1916.

 John was posted to No. 27 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in France on 15th June but was invalided home with knee trouble on 11th August 1916 and was posted to No. 47 Reserve Squadron as an instructor based at Waddington, Lincolnshire.

On 17th January 1917, John was declared fit for military service and was transferred to No. 48 Squadron RFC, which was equipped with the new Bristol F2b Fighter and in March the squadron was sent to France. In April 1917 he was appointed a Flight Commander with the rank of temporary captain to replace William Leefe-Robinson VC, who had recently been shot down and taken prisoner.

On the afternoon of 9th April 1917 Letts and his observer, Lieutenant Harold Collins, were flying with another Bristol Fighter when they became engaged in a dogfight over Arras with five German aircraft from Manfred von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus”. During the course of the engagement Letts shot down two of the German fighters, but his own aircraft was “cut to ribbons” and his observer fatally wounded.

On the 24th May 1917, John, already with six confirmed victories, was flying a patrol when he was attacked by four German two-seater fighters. Despite the heavy odds, John and his gunner shot down two of their assailants and drove off the other two. The official report on the action stated that John had exhibited “indescribable pluck and dash” and he was subsequently awarded the Military Cross (M.C).

By the late summer of 1917 John had shot down 10 enemy aircraft and he was an established ace. On 22nd August 1917 he was flying with his observer, Lieutenant Harold Power, with two other Bristol Fighters, when they encountered ten Gotha bombers returning from a raid on the Kent coast. In the running battle that followed Power was fatally hit and involuntarily struck his pilot across the head with the barrel of his machine gun, leaving John with a deep wound and concussion. John managed to nurse the stricken aircraft back to base, but Power died during the flight home.

By September of 1917, John had increased his score to 13 kills, but any hopes of adding to his tally were dashed when he was appointed as a testing instructor at the Aeroplane Experimental Station at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. John held the post of Group Commander at the School of Air Fighting from October 1917 to January 1918 and during this period he flew and tested a range of new aircraft.

A few months later John asked to be returned to active service and, before embarking for France, he was posted to No. 42 Training Depot Squadron on 1st October 1918. He was eventually asked to join No. 87 Squadron, which was equipped with the Sopwith Dolphin, and he flew to France on 10th October 1918. The following day he borrowed a SE5a fighter to fly to his new squadron, but shortly after take-off he attempted to roll the aircraft, which stalled and nosedived into the ground. John was killed instantly and was buried at Bailleulval Cemetery, near Arras, France. He was 21 years old.

On leaving school, John attended The Royal Military College, Sandhurst and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment on 26th January 1916.

 

And finally – Orpen’s studio book, page 29 records the sale of a sketch of Lieutenant E.M. Letts (War) for £50. It was normal for Orpen to do a preparatory sketch before doing a painting and this was sold separately if the sitter required it.

 

Literature: P. G. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen; Artist and Man, Seeley Service & Co. Ltd, London, 1932, Appendix – Chronological List of Paintings, 1915, page 270, incorrectly recorded as “Lieutenant Letler”.

 

Individual Report for Egerton Michael Letts

Biographical Details: Egerton Michael Letts (1891 – 1950) was born at St Andrew’s, Holborn, London on 25th August 1891, the eldest of five children (three sons and two daughters) of Sydney Edward Letts (1868 – 1940), a cabinet maker and dealer in works of art, and Janet Amelia Letts (née Watts) (1869 – 1946). His paternal grandfather was the Reverend John Davis Letts (1826 – 1902), Vicar of St Ann’s, Tottenham, in London.

Egerton was educated at Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire, from 1905 to 1908, and attended Cambridge University as an undergraduate between 1910 and 1911. He lived at various addresses between 98 and 101, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, until the early 1920s.

On 20th February 1915, Corporal Egerton Michael Letts, of the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The Battalion was recognised as a separate unit on Septem­ber 26th, 1914, and after training and garrison duty at home proceeded to France, as part of the 184th Infantry Brigade, 61st Division, in May 1916. This explains why Egerton never received the ‘1914 – 1915 Star’ decoration, as he was not deployed in the field in this period.

It was also in this period, whilst stationed in England, that Egerton’s portrait was painted by the artist William Orpen, (and was not a portrait of his first cousin, John Herbert Towne Letts (1897 – 1918), as sometimes has been suggested, who also was also to serve in the Royal Flying Corps (see Supplementary Note below)). Orpen was in London in 1915 – 1916 and did not go to France until April 1917.

On 2nd April 1916, Egerton became a Temporary Lieutenant. Effective from 21st July 1916, he was confirmed as a Lieutenant on 17th June 1917. Between 3rd March 1917 and 7th August 1917, in addition to marrying Gwendoline (Gwendolen / Gwendolyn) Collinette Hodgson (1893 – 1943), in St Giles, London, between April and June, he undertook pilot training, in Reading, Netheravon, and the Central Flying School, Upavon. Having been seconded to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 1st August 1917, he was posted to serve with No. 70 Squadron from 10th August 1917. However just twelve days later, on 22nd August 1917, on returning from an offensive patrol at Lichtervelde-Roulers-Menin, France, he crashed landed and completely wrecked his Sopwith Camel, Registration No. B2317, resulting in elbow and back injuries. Hospitalised, he was invalided back to England, on 26th August 1917, and was admitted to the Hospital Ship St Andrew.

Over the next few months Egerton slowly recovered, becoming fit for light duties (no flying) by 13th November 1917, just ten days after the birth of his twin daughters on 3rd November 1917. On 31st December 1917, he reported to Eastern Training Base, transferring on 2nd January 1918, from Eastern Training Base to Headquarters 18th Wing [Originally R.F.C. Training/Home Defence Wing]. On 5th January 1918, he joined No. 85 Squadron, based at Hounslow Heath Aerodrome, and was declared fit for active service (but no flying), on 24th January 1918. No. 85 Squadron had been formed at Upavon on 1 August 1917 and moved to France in May 1918. The unit, equipped with S.E.5As, flew fighter patrols and ground attack missions for the rest of the war. It returned to the UK in February 1919 and the squadron disbanded on 3 July 1919. It is however unlikely that Egerton ever saw active flying service with No. 85 Squadron, as there is no evidence in his service record to suggest, unlike other aeroplane types, that he ever flew SE5As. On 6th March 1918, he was finally declared fit to fly, but only in aeroplanes with dual controls. On 1st April 1918, he transferred from the disbanded Royal Flying Corps to the Royal Air Force, upon the latter’s formation.

On 26th May 1918, Sopwith Camel pilot, Lieutenant Letts transferred from S.L. to D.A.P. South East area for Dispersal. However, what this entailed is unclear, as is what happened in the subsequent months, as he is next recorded as being hospitalised on 23rd October 1918, the reason for which is also unrecorded. On 2nd November 1918, he was transferred from No. 44 Training Depot Station (T.D.S.) [21st 2 (Training) Group South Eastern Bicester] to South East Area, North Eastern Offensive Patrol (S.E. Area N.E.O.P.), Bicester, but by 17th December 1918, he was back in hospital, the Central Hospital. On 27th February 1919, a Medical Board declared him Unfit for 24 Weeks General Service; Unfit for Active Service 8 Weeks; but Fit for Light Duties. However, it seems that he never returned to active duty, as on 6th March 1919, he was transferred to the unemployed list.

Since joining Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Lieutenant Letts had flown the following aeroplanes; Maurice Farman S.11 Shorthorn, Avro 504, Sopwith Pup, Sopwith 2 seater, and Sopwith 1F.1 Camel. In 1923, for his service with both the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Royal Flying Corps / Royal Air Force, he received the general medals, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal; but not the 1914 – 1915 Star, for reasons stated previously.

After the War, Egerton returned to live in Great Russell Street, along with his wife and parents, but by 1922 had moved to Little Bardfield, Braintree, Essex, England, along with his parents. In 1939, he, and his parents, are recorded as still living in Little Bardfield, living on private means. Apparently separated by this time, his wife Gwendoline, died 27th May 1943, at the Middlesex Hospital in London. In the third quarter of 1946, Egerton subsequently married Roberta Margaret Young (nèe Mearns) (circa 1902/1903-1985), a widow, in Marylebone, London. She had one son from her previous marriage. Egerton and Roberta continued to live in Little Bardfield, until Egerton’s death, age 59, on 21st October 1950, at St.Thomas´s Hospital, Lambeth, London, S.E.1., England. He was buried at St Katherine’s Parish Church, Little Bardfield, on 25th October 1950. Roberta died in January 1985 in Colchester Essex.

Both of Egerton’s daughters qualified as State Registered Nurses in the 1940s.

 

DeVere’s Irish Auction catalogue entry (wrong guy!): –

William Orpen KBE, RHA, RA 1878-1931.

PORTRAIT OF JOHN LETTS.

John Herbert Towne Letts was born at Steep Hill House in Lincoln on 10th June 1897, the only child of Walter John Letts, a railway superintendent, and Charlotte Helen Letts (née Robertson).

He was educated at Lancing College, Sussex, where he excelled at sports, representing the school at swimming, football and cricket and was a sergeant in the Officer Training Corps. On leaving school, he attended The Royal Military College, Sandhurst and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment on 26th January 1916. Having volunteered for flight training he was seconded to No. 2 Reserve Squadron at RAF Gosport. On 19th March he made his first solo flight after only 4 hours of flight instruction. His second solo flight, later the same day, ended when he crashed into the side of a shed. After gaining his Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificate on 24th March, Letts was appointed a flying officer on 4th May 1916.

Letts was posted to No. 27 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) in France on 15th June but was invalided home with knee trouble on 11th August 1916 and was posted to No. 47 Reserve Squadron as an instructor based at Waddington, Lincolnshire.

On 17th January 1917, Letts was declared fit for military service and was transferred to No. 48 Squadron RFC, which was equipped with the new Bristol F2b Fighter and in March the squadron was sent to France. In April 1917 he was appointed a Flight Commander with the rank of temporary captain to replace William Leefe-Robinson VC, who had recently been shot down and taken prisoner.

On the afternoon of 9th April 1917 Letts and his observer, Lieutenant Harold Collins, were flying with another Bristol Fighter when they became engaged in a dogfight over Arras with five German aircraft from Manfred von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus”. During the course of the engagement Letts shot down two of the German fighters, but his own aircraft was “cut to ribbons” and his observer fatally wounded.
On the 24th May 1917, Letts, already with six confirmed victories, was flying a patrol when he was attacked by four German two-seater fighters. Despite the heavy odds, Letts and his gunner shot down two of their assailants and drove off the other two. The official report on the action stated that Letts had exhibited “indescribable pluck and dash” and he was subsequently awarded the Military Cross.

By the late summer of 1917 Letts had shot down 10 enemy aircraft and he was an established ace. On 22nd August 1917 he was flying with his observer, Lieutenant Harold Power, with two other Bristol Fighters, when they encountered ten Gotha bombers returning from a raid on the Kent coast. In the running battle that followed Power was fatally hit and involuntarily struck his pilot across the head with the barrel of his machine gun, leaving Letts with a deep wound and concussion. Letts managed to nurse the stricken aircraft back to base, but Power died during the flight home.

By September of 1917, Letts had increased his score to 13 kills, but any hopes of adding to his tally were dashed when he was appointed as a testing instructor at the Aeroplane Experimental Station at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. Letts held the post of Group Commander at the School of Air Fighting from October 1917 to January 1918 and during this period he flew and tested a range of new aircraft.

A few months later Letts asked to be returned to active service and, before embarking for France, he was posted to No. 42 Training Depot Squadron on 1st October 1918. He was eventually asked to join No. 87 Squadron, which was equipped with the Sopwith Dolphin, and he flew to France on 10th October 1918. The following day he borrowed a SE5a fighter to fly to his new squadron, but shortly after take-off he attempted to roll the aircraft, which stalled and nosedived into the ground. Letts was killed instantly and was buried at Bailleulval Cemetery, near Arras. He was 21 years old.

 

Post by Dominic Lee who may be contacted via facebook Sir William Orpen or twitter Sir William Orpen