Photograph of Felicia Browne’s mother, Edith Johnston herself an actress and an opera singer shown alongside an undated self portrait of Felicia her daughter.
Our fourth post on Through An Artist’s Eye, portraits, pencils and a couple of Basque berets.
I’ve become quite fascinated by these two portraits, especially when viewed side by side. One a self-portrait by Felicia Browne and the other a photograph of her mother Edith Johnson. The self portrait is undated but appears to be of a younger woman than that which we see circa 1936, in the photograph we featured in our last post We Are Children Of The Spanish Civil War. Allowing for some stylistic distortion in the self portrait there is nonetheless a strong resemblance between the two women. Their pose is also strikingly similar.
I’m struck by the absence of her glasses in the self-portrait, which are present in the only other self portrait we know of (I found no digital image sadly) and in her photographs. A description of Felicia by a fellow art student features “horn-rimmed spectacles and a black hat” and so it’s interesting that they don’t feature in what may be a work from her art college days or later, especially as corrected vision would be important for painting. Their absence led me to an early confusion – as these two images are often thrown up together in google searches on Felicia I first mistook the photograph to be of the young Felicia.
You will read in some online sources that Edith died when Felicia was a child but this is wholly inaccurate. Her parents separated when Felicia was very young and she was brought up by her father. She was also bed bound for a period of time due to a “crippling illness”1. Adversity was perhaps one aspect of her formative years which lent her notable compassion to those in hardship. The fourth child of five siblings, Felicia’s actions run true to the controversial theory that subsequent positions in birth order may predispose a child to become radical in adulthood. This has been explored elsewhere in the context of British women volunteers to the Spanish Civil War. 2 Although speculative in nature, this becomes a relevant context information in a consideration of the radical trajectory of Felicia’s tragically short life.
As we feel our way into the work we’re beginning to focus on decisive moments in Felicia’s life around which to make our responses. Her birth and early years are an obvious starting point, and a life begun in the tranquility of the suburb of Thames Ditton reaching it’s final breath under rifle fire on the Aragon front presents quite a contrast.
Theodore Hook, just over 100 years before Felica fell in Spain, was inspired write this verse:
“Here in a placid waking dream,
I’m free from worldly troubles,
Calm as the rippling silver stream
That in the sunshine baubles;
And when sweet Eden’s blissful bowers
Some abler bard has writ on,
Despairing to transcend his powers,
I’ll ditto say for Ditton.”
Underscoring all of our research is the question; Who was Felicia Browne? While we can’t hope to arrive at a definitive answer we can try to get closer in our understanding of her as a most singular woman of her time. Felicia was not only the first and only British woman to die in combat for a free Spain, she was most probably the first British casualty of that civil war. Not only this, it is also likely that she was among only 11 other British volunteers who were professional artists. The more you learn about Felicia the more you begin to grasp how extraordinary her position in history truly is.
One of the methods I’ve employed to get closer to her is to explore her sketches, and last week I spent a fruitful morning inside Sketchbook 3 in the digital archive held at Tate Britain.
This was one of the pages I found particularly arresting.
It demonstrates many things. We see her observational skill and the speed with which she was able to gather impressions – studies of working people and militias begin to people it’s pages towards the latter part of this sketchbook which spans 1925- 1936. Her captures are fleeting and we see a scattering of studies of heads, faces or hands. On other pages rifles appear. This is undoubtedly witness, it is also a form of reportage. Her carefully honed ability to gather lines to create these fragments as vivid rapid fire portraits and figures, come back to us as fresh as the day she drew them. She did it all with the point and the flat of her graphite pencil or graphite stick. I’m interested in which kind of graphite instrument she would have used, so what do the marks suggest, what would have been available at the time, and what would have been practical for her while travelling?
“Graphite has a layered crystal structure with very weak chemical bonds between the layers. As a result, a graphite pencil slides easily over paper leaving marks which result from the shearing away of tiny shards of graphite from the parent crystals. A graphite pencil can also be sharpened to a fine point, enabling accurate, fine lines to be drawn.” Peter J F Harris, Reading University Chemistry Dept.
Graphite sticks can be sharpened too with a craft knife so I think the width of the flat lines of shading she employed could be a helpful indicator.
Meanwhile as part of my preliminary research I will be using some new graphite sticks to explore point and edge marks myself. Probably I’ll pour over Sketchbook 3 and try out working with my eyes closed in my own sketchbook, feeling my way.
Other research involves the fabulous objects Felicia conjures with equal ease. I love a hat at the best of times and it’s true of these depictions of the traditional Basque beret (boina). I will probably find myself be combing charity shops and flea markets for men’s black berets of this kind. For some reason I see them hanging in the air installation style, but we’ll see. First I have to find some.
- Tom Buchanan, The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain: War, Loss and Memory. Sussex Academic Press, 2013 edition, p65.
- Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War, Routledge Press, 2014 edition, p16.