The battlefields of World War I are regarded by historians as the birthplace of modern aviation. A nearly forgotten Scottish artist named John MacGilchrist was there – quite literally 5,000 feet in the air - to observe its birth. MacGilchrist was a balloon pilot-observer for the Royal Flying Corps high over the battlefields of France. Shot down in flames four different times, it's not surprising that he later applied his fine arts training and recorded for history the images of aerial combat – images forever seared into his memory through his near-death experiences as a young lieutenant.
Born near Sterling, Scotland in 1893, the young MacGilchrist showed an early interest in art. As a boy, he thought there was nothing more beautiful than old Scottish castles and he spent his spare time making pen and ink sketches of the ancestral homes in his neighborhood. The training he received as an architect's apprentice lent a convincing quality to these early works. MacGilchrist later recalled: "When I was 17, I exhibited some of my drawings at a school exposition. The world famous Scottish etcher, David Young Cameron, was a neighbor who came to see my drawings. He was so taken with them that he asked my father to allow me to become his pupil. I immediately did and have been grateful ever since for the sound foundation I received at so young an age."
In Scotland, MacGilchrist had only begun his study of architectural drawing. In 1913 he traveled to the United States to complete his degree in architecture at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. He earned his diploma there in 1914. When World War I began, MacGilchrist quickly returned to his homeland and enlisted in the Royal Engineers of the British Army. In 1915, with the war raging across most of Europe, he was sent to the Western Front in France. By 1916 he was selected for officer training and received a commission as a second lieutenant. After quickly developing an interest in the observation balloons that floated over the countryside, MacGilchrist transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and became a balloon pilot-observer. The balloons of that period were powerless kite balloons tethered at the end of a long cable, often floating at an altitude of a mile or more. Because these stationary, hydrogen-filled balloons were literally "sitting ducks," the average life of a pilot-observer was about 50 hours in combat. Amazingly, MacGilchrist beat the odds and endured more than 200 hours in combat as he charted enemy movements and directed artillery fire. By the end of the war, he was a captain and the only balloon pilot-observer in the company to survive this extremely hazardous duty.
During his long hours in his mile-high balloon, MacGilchrist began sketching battle scenes, often as they unfolded over the landscape below. Those sketches – of dogfights between Sparks and Fokkers, Camels and Hanoveraners – became the inspiration for his later paintings and etchings. MacGilchrist created an exciting, hand-written account of the final time – his fourth – that he was shot down in battle: "The last jump was on the 17th of September, 1918 in the afternoon of a beautiful sunlit day just east of Bourlong Wood in northern France. The approach of enemy aircraft was not notified to me. I was carrying out direction of artillery fire when suddenly the wicker work of my basket exploded and the gauntlets of my glove were shredded, but without injury to me. "Jumping onto the basket outside, I saw the smoky streamers of incendiary bullets flip up into the balloon, and, not seeing any fire, I prepared to re-enter the basket when the top of the balloon flamed out with billowing smoke. Dropping off backward and down, I catapulted down for about 200 feet and having an emergency canvas harness which nearly broke my back when the 24-foot chute opened. "Scared spitless, and with the breath knocked out of me, I passed over three barbed wire Bosch defense systems...just like great rusty rivers stretching to the horizon. (After I landed safely) the gunners cut up my beautiful white silken parachute to send as souvenirs to their girlfriends in Blighty. The Battery Officer approached and, after congratulating me on my safe landing, invited me to a spot of tea in his nearby dugout – an invitation I gratefully accepted. The attacking plane was a silver white Albatross with black Maltese crosses on the fuselage and wings. It was a beautiful sight, but scary. Altitude at time of attack was 6,000 feet. Summer cable spliced to reach that altitude.”
After the war, MacGilchrist returned to the United States to pursue his chosen profession as an architect in Philadelphia and New York. In 1926, though, he walked away from architecture, yielded to his yearnings, picked up his etching needles once again and returned to his art and his romance with the airplane.
MacGilchrist's first national recognition occurred in December 1927, when three of his new etchings were selected for the most prestigious national, juried exhibition available to graphic artists: the Annual Exhibition by Living American Etchers at the National Arts Club in New York City. During this and subsequent exhibitions at the Brooklyn Society of Etchers and the Society of American Etchers in New York, MacGilchrist's works hung alongside those of the most famous graphic artists of the time, including John Taylor Arms, Childe Hassam, Martin Lewis, Luigi Lucioni and John Sloan. Along with the scenes he had witnessed during World War I, MacGilchrist depicted the great airplanes and aviation triumphs of the 1920s. The Boeing Carrier Fighter, the Vought Corsair, the Curtiss Hawk Monoplane, the Ford Tri-Motor, the Spirit of St. Louis and Commander Byrd's Antarctic Expedition all were captured by MacGilchrist in memorable images. His reputation as an artist grew and orders for his work poured in from all over the United States and Britain.
Attracted by the quality of his work, some of the great industrialists of the time commissioned MacGilchrist to produce private edition etchings. They included Henry B. DuPont, Harvey Wannemaker and Gustave Lindenthel. The pre-eminent aviation pioneer of the time, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, purchased several of MacGilchrist's etchings for his personal collection. In New York City, Admiral Richard E. Byrd was presented with a framed MacGilchrist work at a special dinner honoring the famous explorer. The peak of MacGilchrist's meteoric rise occurred in the summer of 1930 when the prominent Kennedy Gallery in New York City held an exhibit of his aviation etchings and lithographs. The newspaper reviews of his exhibition were full of praise, but MacGilchrist's success as an artist would be cut short – not by a lack of talent or a lack of desire for his work – but instead by an economic depression.
By the mid-1930s, the struggles of the Great Depression brought the career of this most prominent aviation artist to an end. Because the purchase of art was regarded as "frivolous" during such difficult economic times, MacGilchrist was forced to abandon his pioneering aviation art and return to his earlier profession of architecture. He signed each of his unsold graphic works, constructed an air-tight wooden box and carefully placed this treasure of a lifetime inside. In 1935 MacGilchrist joined the United States Department of Reclamation as an architectural design engineer. He worked in New York and Denver and contributed his expertise to such major projects as the Grand Coulee Dam and Hoover Dam. After a busy engineering career, MacGilchrist retired in 1953 and moved to Coronado, California, where he resided until his death in 1977. For almost half a century, from the end of his art career until his death, MacGilchrist kept his sealed treasure chest of aviation art among his personal possessions. Along with the collection of his etchings, lithographs, and paintings, he left behind an autobiography, a handful of poems, a collection of pipes and the medals awarded to him for his service in World War I. After his death, his works were stored away for almost 20 more years before they were discovered. This treasure of one man's lifetime is now recognized for what it is – an exquisitely detailed and dramatic pictorial history of the birth and development of modern aviation. Now that his works have been rediscovered, MacGilchrist has once again gained the respect and interest of aviation enthusiasts, historians, and serious art collectors.