Warpaint by Alicia Foster

I was recently recommended Warpaint by Alicia Foster, a historical novel inspired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the work of a propaganda unit putting artists to work finding creative ways to demoralise the enemy.

The WAAC was established by Kenneth Clark, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, during the Second World War in order to provide employment for some of the country’s leading artists away from direct action. Whilst big male names were involved in documenting the war, Warpaint takes its inspiration from a small number of women artists – who, unlike the men employed, were not salaried but instead received commissions for artworks. Several of the artists at Pictures for Schools had been employed as war artists, either abroad or on the home front, including the women artists Evelyn Gibbs and Evelyn Dunbar.

Although some characters in Warpaint correspond to real-life personalities – including Kenneth Clark, who appears as a larger-than-life, womanising caricature, and the painter Dame Laura Knight, the oldest and most established of the artists featured in Warpaint – the plot develops through interconnected and fictional stories imagining the lives and love lives of lesser-known painters living in London and the home counties, based very loosely on Isabel Delmer, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar (here reimagined as Vivienne Thayer, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne).

Warpaint is an engrossing and page-turning read, with elements of romance, thriller, tragedy and espionage, and period detail. However, it’s not merely an easy read. Underlying Warpaint are questions about attitudes towards women at the time, their role in society and the art world, and the type of work that was considered suitable for women.

As well as institutional and individual sexism, Warpaint conveys an atmosphere of state and establishment paternalism: if the role of male painters in the WAAC was to document action on the front line, and women’s place was to portray life on the home front, there was also a ‘right’ kind of observation, and a ‘wrong’ kind of subject. Some of the artists in Warpaint are naturally drawn towards destitute: the ragged, hungry families eating in municipal canteens for those left without kitchen facilities due to bombing raids. This is discouraged, in favour of pictures of scenes such as upper-class ladies knitting army socks, that will ‘make people feel better’, and give an impression of togetherness across the class divide. In another episode in the book, an artist finds herself practising self-censorship, in order to produce the kind of picture that will go down well with the Ministry: a lace slip, silk sockings and a clandestine pregnancy are edited out of a scene depicting landgirls in a dormitory, in order to make it appear more wholesome.

For this reason, the most interesting story artistically is that of Laura Knight, who manages to get prolonged access to an airfield in order to paint a longed-for ‘serious subject’. Rather than the abstracted shapes of planes in the sky, observed from afar, she develops an intimacy with the pilots, getting to know how they work and how they experience the cramped cockpit of the plane, working as individuals and a unit alongside the machinery of war.

 

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