Felicia Browne’s Letters: rich in content, honest in conviction

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(This photograph shows the barricades in Barcelona at the outbreak of street-fighting witnessed by Felicia in July 1936. Taken from Barcelona Historias del Tiempo blog)

 It’s been a few days since our last blog post. That’s because my inspirational partner Sonia – a prolific and expressive blogger – has been waiting patiently for me to post my first. I’m Jenny Rivarola, the writing half of this partnership – I’ll be producing a series of poems in response to Felicia Browne’s extraordinary life and work.

Not only did Felicia leave an extensive legacy of beautifully crafted drawings – many depicting her tense days at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, she also wrote some of the most strikingly forthright letters I have ever read. We’ve been lucky that our academic partner, University of Oxford historian Tom Buchanan, discovered these while visiting one of Felicia’s beneficiaries and that, further down the line, the Tate bought the majority for its archive. They mostly cover the period shortly before she left for her fateful trip to Spain, the journey itself, and her days in Barcelona and at barracks waiting for an opportunity to ‘do’ something.

Their content combines riveting documentary accounts of what was going on around her – whether in England, Paris (en route) or Spain, her growing political convictions and efforts to recruit more women to the Communist cause, and her very personal reactions to her close friends. The letters also reveal how widely read she was, with references to Baudelaire and lines of Verlaine interspersed with mundanities of daily life. But perhaps most interesting of all, they illustrate her constant struggle with herself. Throughout her short life she seemed to be searching for an identity she could be comfortable with and a purpose of which her very honest heart could be proud. Her confict between art and action is perfectly summed up in these words from a letter to her close friend Elizabeth Watson:

“You say I am escaping and evading things by not painting or making sculpture. ….. If painting and sculpture were more valid and more urgent to me than the earthquake which is happening in the revolution, …….. I should paint and make sculpture.”

Happily for all of us, she did produce a sketchbook during her final tumultuous weeks in Spain – and we hope to share much of its content in our exhibition.

2 thoughts on “Felicia Browne’s Letters: rich in content, honest in conviction

  1. I wonder if there is anything in Felicia’s letters about the Workers Olympiad in Barcelona, which was due to open on 19th July, but was of course abandoned because of the war ? Carles Vallejo Calderon, whose father was one of the organisers of the Olympiad, is putting on an exhibition this year on the anniversary, 19th July, that am hoping to attend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is some reference I’ve heard about Stuart, which may be in the Nat Archives at Kew. Jenny and I will be visiting on Friday and if there is any ref I will let you know. Thank you for this comment – fascinating as ever, and I really hope you get to the event in July! Sonia

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