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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual atmosphere of Pictures for Schools, which was largely dominated by realism and familiarity (though there were a few more bold or abstract artists, such as Tadek Beutlich). A high proportion of the artists who sold and exhibited work had been war artists, or involved in projects such as Recording Britain, to document places at risk of disappearing due to war and modernisation. One of them (and the best-named!) was Malvina Cheek, who primarily sold and exhibited paintings of trees at Pictures for Schools. I recently found at that she died last year, at the age of 100, making her one of the longest-surviving artists of that era. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.
I recently made a trip over to Leeds to see a new exhibition of works by Maurice de Sausmarez at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, held to mark the centenary of his birth and continuing until 20 February 2016.
De Sausmarez was closely involved in Pictures for Schools, serving on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in 1969.
De Sausmarez also moved in the same kinds of social circles as Nan Youngman and other Pictures for Schools artists, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA), of which he was chairman in the 1940s, although his widow, the artist and colour specialist Jane de Sausmarez, told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with politics after the war. I visited Jane in London earlier this year and she told me that he was good friends with Herbert Read and Betty Rea, and admired her as an artist. He also lived in a caravan at Peggy Angus’ home in Firle, Sussex, and made melon and ginger jam in return for paying rent. He was one of the many artistic and intellectual visitors to Firle to be painted by Angus. Jane met Maurice in 1960. She taught in the textiles department one day a week, under Constance Howard, who had malachite green hair. Howard’s work, along with other artists in the department, was very popular at Pictures for Schools and Jane recalls that people went to the Goldsmiths degree show especially for the textiles.
Like several of the other Pictures for Schools artists, de Sausmarez was involved in the Recording Britain project. He was also an influential figure in art education. His book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form, published in 1964, influenced the way art is taught in universities, and he taught in Leeds for many years. Jane pointed out several of his former students in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I showed her, including at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, where he was Principal in the 1950s.
Among the work on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery are works shown with the AIA. These include ‘A Garden – God Wot!’, from 1939, which was shown at Picture Hire Gallery as part of the Everyman Prints series, a small, black and white zinc lithograph depicting an air raid shelter in a back garden. Another, ‘Red Cross Nurses, Long Liston Practices’, is a study for a painting in the AIA exhibition For Liberty.
There were also some pictures exhibited at Pictures for Schools in 1967, including ‘Faceted Still Life’ (1961/1962), a linear and fragmented still life. Most of the works in the exhibition are either still lifes or landscapes, depicting places in France and Italy as well as the coast of the North East, together with a few portraits. There is a noticeable contrast between those which are representational in a relatively straightforward way, and those which use colour, form, patterns, light and movement in a distinctive palette of purples, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues to create varying degrees of abstraction. On display alongside the paintings were a number of studies, suggesting a process before which works became abstracted. Interestingly, some of the more the abstract works made their way into schools, including ‘Head Form’ and ‘Abstract’, both of which can still be borrowed today via the Artemis scheme.
Also on display were materials relating to de Sausmarez’s involvement in education. This included a pamphlet detailing ‘Talks for 6th Forms’, broadcast by the BBC to schools in Spring 1960. De Sausmarez was among the speakers, introducing the series with a lecture on ‘art and public’, with Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Reg Butler and Denys Lasdun following, prior to a series introducing children to trade unions.
I was struck by De Sausmarez’s skill as both a draughtsman and a painter, and his distinctive style, and wondered why he is not a more widely known figure today. I hope that both this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, will help raise his profile and find him a new audience.
Whilst in Leeds I also stumbled upon a selection day for the Leeds picture hire scheme, which is open to the public. A selection of paintings and prints were propped up on chairs for perusal in a small room at Leeds Art Gallery, and could be taken home in special carry bags. It is amazing what you can get for £4 a month, including prints by Pictures for Schools artists Julian Trevelyan, John Addyman and Edwin la Dell, and it made me wish there were such schemes were more common.
A poster about an aspect of my research for another of the annual in-school research events for members of the Grenfell Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire to share what they have been working on.