The recent sale of a William Orpen painting (c.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 (c.1916). Mistakenly listed as John Letts in DeVere’s catalogue – Lot 49 – Estimate: €20000 – €30000 (Sold for €20,000 – hammer price) 20th Nov 2018. Catalogue text below.
Oil on Canvas: 30″x25″ (76 x 63.5 cms): 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 Lincolnshire Regiment OSD (Officers Service Dress) Cap Badge, with which John Letts served.
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 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, c.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.
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.
Individual Report for Egerton Michael Letts
Father: Sydney Edward Letts Mother Janet Amelia Watts
Born: 25 Aug 1891, Baptised; 13 Dec 1891 in Haringay, England.
Joined Military Service 1915.
1915 – Lieutenant, 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
1917 Lieutenant, Royal Flying Corps.
1918 Lieutenant, Royal Air Force.
Married between April & June 1917 – Twin daughters born 1st Nov 1917. First wife died 1943.
Married again in 1946 – no children.
Death: 21 Oct 1950, Essex, England
DeVere’s Irish Auction catalogue entry: –
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 (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, 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 www.facebook.com/SirWilliamOrpen or www.twitter.com/SirWilliamOrpen