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War through women’s eyes

Female artists have charted wars throughout the 20th century, both at home and abroad, and found uno

In April 1982, the British artist Linda Kitson boarded the QE2, which had been requisitioned as a troop carrier, and set out for the Falkland Islands, and for war. She was the first female artist – at least, the first with an official commission – to accompany British troops into action. In the three months she spent with the soldiers on board ship, in harbour and in the sheep pens they used for shelter on the islands, she made more than 400 swift, deft line drawings: an anti-aircraft gun in the QE2’s luxury shopping parade (beneath a sign saying “Perfumery boutique”), two Sea King helicopters squatting like giant insects on the flight deck, the bombed landing ship Sir Galahad ablaze.

A selection of these drawings is now on show at the “Witness: Women War Artists” exhibition at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. The museum holds a 20,000-piece collection of war-related fine art, much of it the result of official commissions. Kitson herself was sent to the Falklands by the museum’s artistic records committee, which since 1972 has been solely responsible for all government war art projects. “You’re trusted the minute your presence is known, provided you use the old-fashioned title of ‘Official War Artist’,” she says. “Historically, every soldier aged 19 knows about war artists – it’s part of their tradition. And they’re about tradition. That’s how they keep going.”

Her official status did not cushion Kitson from the hardships of the conflict. She clipped her sketchbook down against the brutal South Atlantic storms and drew wherever she happened to be. “It was an appalling situation,” she says of following the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards into their rough shelters on the islands, “and I don’t think I’ll forget that one sight.” Also on show are her army-issue camouflage gear and protective goggles, as well as a large waterproof package begging the finder to return her drawings to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) “if anything should happen to me”.

The Falklands drawings are some of the most recent in the “Witness” exhibition, which covers conflicts involving British troops throughout the 20th century. The show focuses mainly on the First and Second World Wars, when large numbers of artists were inevitably drawn into the conflicts that reshaped every aspect of British life. The earliest official works are large, stately oils by the society portraitist Flora Lion and the Slade-trained painter and etcher Anna Airy. In Airy’s A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London (1918), commissioned by the IWM’s munitions committee, a gloomy factory floor stretches away from the viewer, punctuated by glowing bars of red-hot metal fresh from the forge. “The floor got black hot. I burned a pair of shoes right off my feet,” Airy later remembered, also recalling how the (male) factory workers had treated her with enormous gallantry, grilling kippers for her on the newly forged shell casings.

These official memorial images give little sense of the realities of the war then being waged across the Channel – for that, the exhibition relies largely on independent artists. Twenty-six-year-old Olive Mudie-Cooke went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1916. Though she was eventually commissioned to record Red Cross activities after the war, many of her sketches were produced between 1916 and 1918, and they bring the chaos and devastation of front-line combat vividly to life. In her hurried, shadowy watercolours and chalk drawings, a cigarette flares as a female ambulance driver offers a light to a helpless uniformed patient, a Red Cross ambulance skids on a snowy Italian mountainside, and silvery barbed wire stretches over a cratered battlefield. These are unvarnished accounts of both suffering and the messy logistics of the war machine, confirmed more starkly in Olive Edis’s solemn photographs from 1919 of massed uniformed women tending war graves, lined up in the wards of hospital ships and operating telegraphs at a signals post.

Only a handful of female artists won official commissions for the 1914-18 conflict, but by the time of the Second World War, of the more than 300 artists commissioned by the ministry of information and the IWM, 48 were women. “They tended to be from well-connected, socially privileged backgrounds,” says Kathleen Palmer, the museum’s acting head of art. “At the time, you had to have these things to make it as a female artist.” The photographs of the artists that accompany their work are intriguing glimpses into their backgrounds and personalities.

Some are movie-star glamorous: the film artist Rosie Newman, immaculate in a sharp jacket, lipstick and pert hat, squints into her revolutionary 16mm colour film camera; the French-English lithographer Ethel Gabain, in tweed suit, gloves and leopard-print stole, balances her easel amid the rubble of a bombed-out building. Some are impressively tough: the former landscape painter Evelyn Dunbar perches on a windy hillside in sturdy outdoor gear; the anti-fascist ­activist Priscilla Thorneycroft lounges on one elbow, scowling at the camera.

The best-known female artist of the Second World War, however, was the Royal Academician Dame Laura Knight, who later painted the Nuremberg trials. During the war she worked on several commissions for the War Artists Advisory Committee, including one that became a defining propaganda image of the era, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (1943). Designed to help the government recruit women for factory work, it shows a young woman in paint-spattered but becoming blue overalls, her dark curls tied up in a green scarf, intent on a gleaming and complex expanse of heavy machinery. A ministry of information newsreel – included in the exhibition – shows the real Ruby Loftus, a 21-year-old worker at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport, accompanying the artist to see the painting on show at the Royal Academy in London. As Knight points out the work’s finer details with her cigarette, an announcer observes in clipped tones that it demonstrates perfectly “how a typical British girl served her country in wartime”.

Yet even favoured official artists such as Knight could fall foul of the wartime censors. Her 1940 portrait of Corporal Daphne Pearson, the first female recipient of the George Cross, had to be hastily altered after Pearson was originally shown holding a rifle. Women were not, at that time, permitted to bear arms, and the rifle had to be hastily painted out in favour of a gas mask. Pearson, a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer who had saved a pilot from a burning plane that crash-landed near her base, must have been ­disappointed. “I say if Germans kill women and children deliberately in their homes and in their streets, machine-gunning – then the women must be prepared to kill to protect their children,” she wrote to her mother during the preparatory sittings for the portrait.

With information tightly controlled across the country, official permits were required for any and all public sketching and painting. Permission was not always forthcoming. Margaret Abbess, an art student, was conscripted into war work and sent to an aircraft components factory. Without a permit, she produced drawings of factory scenes in secret – “sometimes in a break, or I could go to the loo or something”, she remembers. “It was all done very secretly and hopefully without being noticed.” In 2005, she considered destroying her drawings, but was persuaded to offer them to the IWM.

The ink and watercolour sketches reveal an austere, washed-out world of queues, buses, warehouses and windowless factory storerooms. And yet, in Tea Time (undated), factory workers male and female, usually so strictly segregated, gather around a huge, gleaming tea urn to chat and laugh. The roughly drawn figures glow with cheerful animation, a rare glimpse of merriment in wartime. Reflecting on her secret sketches, Abbess conceded that they conveyed an unvarnished sense of life in the streets and factories, in a way that even documentary photography could not. “The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees,” she said. “When you look at a subject you see the things in it that are important to you. The camera sees everything flat.”

At the time, it was still customary for female artists to be assigned “women’s subjects” such as uniform-making, catering, nursing and female factory workers. Much of the work in the exhibition was produced for the Women’s Work commission of the IWM, recording and commemorating the activities – from clearing bomb rubble to canning food – undertaken by women during the Second World War. From their unpromising surroundings, many of the artists drew an unorthodox beauty. In Evelyn Dunbar’s Stanley Spencer-esque An Army Tailor and an ATS Tailoress and Land Army Girls Going to Bed (both 1943), rough army-green serge and blankets coil in sinuous folds; in Eleanor Erlund Hudson’s Forces Canteen (1943), middle-aged ladies toil cheerfully beneath snowy billows of clean linen hanging up to dry.

“I think artists can see, in all kinds of circumstances and conditions, design and beautiful compositions – whatever the subjects,” said Hudson of her paintings. The best works in “Witness”, from Airy’s factory oils to Kitson’s Falklands sketches, go beyond the official remit of “recording” to bring to life the strange, cruel and occasionally beautiful world of Britain at war.

“Witness: Women War Artists” is at Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, until 19 April. For details visit: http://north.iwm.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd