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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Carel Weight’s paintings and the Folkestone art collection

Growing up near Folkestone, I loved visiting the Metropole Art Gallery, situated in a huge, horseshoe-shaped late-Victorian pile with parquet floors, polished fireplaces and large windows overlooking the English Channel. Situated on Folkestone’s cliff-top Leas promenade, and bordered by lawns and a sweeping driveway, I thought it was incredibly glamorous – this was the only area of the town where you could imagine the rich and interesting may once have stayed, partied and relaxed in the town’s heyday as a Victorian and Edwardian resort.

The Metropole regularly hosted exhibitions of emerging and established artists, from the visceral paintings of Derek Jarman to the inventive and eclectic experiments of local Foundation degree students. I was sad, therefore, that it closed in 2008, with the town’s Creative Foundation focusing instead on the new Folkestone Triennial, held for the first time that year. Although the Triennial places new commissions across the town every three years, with a small number being retained as permanent exhibits, the town now lacks a major contemporary art gallery bringing changing exhibitions to the town.

Whilst I’d always known that the politician and diarist Alan Clark lived in the secluded Saltwood Castle, just up the hill from my hometown of Hythe, it was only later that I learned more about his father, the art critic and broadcaster Kenneth Clark.

Clark supported the establishment of the New Metropole Art Centre in the 1960s, and the development of a town collection of modern art in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection contains a lot of names familiar from the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – the Surrealist print-makers Michael Rothenstein and Julian Trevelyan, the Kitchen Sink painter John Bratby, the print-makers Gertrude Hermes, Valerie Thornton and Anthony Gross, Kent-based painter Fred Cuming, who was featured in Pictures for Schools as a young artist and continues to work and take an interest in the collection today, and the sculptor and print-maker Elisabeth Frink, along with Sandra Blow and Michael Stokoe.

Among the most notable is the Royal Academician Carel Weight, who was a friend of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and helped organise and select work for the exhibitions. Like Youngman, Weight was active in the Artists International Association. As well as being professor of painting at the Royal College of Art in London, Weight periodically taught at the Adult Education Centre at the Metropole.

When the Metropole closed, it looked likely that Folkestone’s collection of modern art – which had been placed in Kent County Council storage – would be sold too, but fortunately it’s been retained by a Trust. Several paintings by Weight are now on display across the road at another huge Victorian complex – the Grand (a network of tunnels, predating both the Metropole and the Grand, linked the two buildings, and apparently treasures from the British Museum were stored for safekeeping in a tunnel underneath the Grand during the Second World War).

The Grand, with its shabby-eccentric chic, has certainly seen better days, declining in the second half of the twentieth century as Folkestone lost its status as a holiday destination for the royal and well-connected. Today, five of Weight’s works hang in the drawing room, a formal room just off the main reception and palm court restaurant with neoclassical columns, chandeliers and William Morris block-printed wallpaper featuring green-tinged birds.

Much of Weight’s work which I have seen has, like many of the artworks exhibited in Pictures for Schools, depicted very everyday places and activities, such as the small-scale excitement of a village football match. At the Grand two green-dominated country scenes, ‘Young Lovers’ and ‘Old Lovers’, offer an intimate and almost intrusive glimpse of two unassuming, guarded figures and convey the vicissitudes and tensions of a relationship at different stages of its development. ‘Portrait of a Poet’, which apparently depicts the artist in his studio, foregrounds a serious man in an overcoat. In the background are stacked paintings offering a glance of the backs of yellow-brick Georgian townhouses, viewed from their gardens.

The most interesting picture, however, is the large ‘Battersea Park Tragedy’, painted in the 1970s, split between a dark and dusky scene and a large, brushed sky sunset. Whilst at first sight portraying the mundane – the skeletal outlines of winter trees, the high fence of a tennis court, a small passageway overhung with trees and the excitement/fear-inducing twists of a deserted rollercoaster in the background – the painting introduces an element of the mystical. In one corner, an angel rises above a figure with a bowed head, blank face and clasped hands: the painting is named after the Battersea funfair disaster of 1972, in which children were killed in a fairground accident.

A small, tucked away room in a vast hotel might not be the most prominent place for these paintings, but at least they are still in a semi-public, accessible place. The paintings, created over forty years ago, and not particularly artistically adventurous or striking in their quiet realism, nevertheless form a thoughtful response, observation and reflection on then-contemporary events, public and private, as well as a document of artistic patronage and collecting at the time.

For more information about the Folkestone art collection, and to see details of upcoming exhibitions, visit http://folkestonearttrust.org.uk.