A Journal of Events

It’s not every day the door bell rings and your postman hands you an unexpected parcel through the rain. Once in a lifetime (if you’re lucky) I’m guessing, will you open the wrapping on such a find. In this case a 90 year old handwritten journal detailing a journey taken by sisters – one of whom was the extraordinary artist and anti-fascist Felicia Browne, who I got to know rather well through the Arts Council funded project Through An Artist’s Eye.

A Journal of Events – commencing January 31st 1927 is exactly that thing – and I am exactly in that place of awe and wonder. As I stroke the cover and marvel at the exquisite handwriting and animated stick drawings I’m simultaneously pinching myself.

The journal traces a trip to southern France, but the tone is set in the first pages by a quite hilarious declaration “Relating to Mutual Behaviour & Deportment” solemnly signed by Felicia and Helen.  Hungry glances further ahead confirm that it’s brimming with incident and reveals that while Felicia missed out on a visit to the Lourve in 1936 (en route to Barcelona) she was there in 1927. In 1936 she’d wandered the streets of Paris in a state of savage loneliness finding even the Lourve closed to her for Bastille celebrations. Her companion Dr Edith Bone had abandoned her for other friends and she was dizzied and alienated by Paris on this occasion.  Within weeks she would be shot dead by enemy fire near a railway bridge in Tardienta (Aragon). She was the only British woman to fight in the Spanish Civil War and the first British volunteer to die in combat. Her 1927 journey could not have been more of a contrast it seems. I’m so incredibly glad for her.

I’m somewhat busy on other projects these days, but it seemed fitting to blog about this extraordinary journal as a postscript to TAAE. There’s a whole new chapter of the story and the potential for more creative responses held in these pages.

My immense gratitude to Felicia’s nephew – the ever generous Peter Marshall – for sending it to me to read and scan before I return it. I think my first job is an email to all my TAAE collaborators with the news!

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Through An Artist’s Eye at the Cañada Blanch Centre, LSE.

Thank you to Professor Paul Preston for inviting us to present our work at the LSE and for chairing the Seminar. Thanks also to Susana Grau for the photographs. felicia-browne-seminar-17-11-16-6felicia-browne-seminar-17-11-16-7felicia-browne-seminar-17-11-16-12felicia-browne-seminar-17-11-16-31

Project Launch at the Marx Memorial Library: Through An Artist’s Eye.

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(Photograph of Meirian Jump Library manager and archivist.)

SOME REVIEWS OF OUR CENTRAL LONDON LAUNCH LAST WEEK:

‘Through an Artist’s Eye’ is a brilliant use of visual arts and poetry to tell us more than can be read in conventional histories about the short but extraordinary life of Felicia Browne. Together, Sonia Boué and Jenny Rivarola demonstrate the power of art to fill those imaginative spaces and at the same time bring Felicia’s inspiring work and example to new audiences.”
Jim Jump, Journalist, Secretary of International Brigade Memorial Trust

“I should like to congratulate the instigators of this most inspiring evening. The film, the lecture by Professor Tom Buchanan, the works of art and the poems by Sonia Boue and Jenny Rivarola respectively did much to bring this heroic but largely unknown woman/artist to life. With the ghost of Lorca hovering in the background I had a most delightful experience. The final treat was the booklet of Sonia’s paintings and Jenny’s poems responding to the life of Felicia Browne to take home with me. I shall relish it.”
Joanna Graham

Through an Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War, is a real eye-opener. Sonia Boué, visual artist and Jenny Rivarola, poet, both descendants of Spanish Republican exiles draw on their own personal experiences to bring back to life Felicia Browne, a woman ahead of her time who paid the ultimate price to stop fascism. Through a combination of paintings, poems and video, the two artists shed light on a remarkable life that for too long has been relegated to a footnote in history. This is vital work as relevant today as it was 80 years ago. I hope this is only the beginning of many more to come.
Ferran Nogueroles

 

THROUGH AN ARTIST´S EYE

The Rescue of Felicia Browne
Marx Memorial Library, Friday 30 September 2016

I had never heard of Felicia Browne, but the Instituto Cervantes´s newsletter advertised a series of events which grabbed my attention: who was this woman artist I had never heard of? why would two contemporary artists want to use her as a springboard for their own work? The mixture of the historic (the Spanish Civil War context, the International Brigades, the first foreign miliciana to die in combat just one month after the start of the war, in August 1936) and the contemporary (a collaborative visual and poetic project of two British artists both daughters of Republican exiles) was definitely the reason I went to the first event of the series, appropriately held at the Marx Memorial Library where the International Brigades Memorial Trust’s archives are based – I have not regretted it!

The historical Felicia, who turned out to be an artist of no great artistic importance per se, but whose short life (she died at 32), crisscrossed the private and public spaces, the personal and the group struggles of her time, allows and encourages a rich variety of readings. From an upper-middle class background, this Slade student evolved onto a committed Communist activist. It was extremely interesting to listen to Professor Tom Buchanan sketch of Browne’s life and the role of the archival material in Tate Britain and elsewhere which has rescued her from obscurity and is the backbone of the work produced by Sonia Boué and Jenny Rivarola.

During the evening, both artists gave a taste of their work in the form of a film and a reading of some of the poems, followed by a full Q&A session. They articulated clearly the aims and process of their collaborative project and I am now looking very much forward to reading the poems in front of the actual works which will be exhibited in Esher. I found particularly interesting how the work of Boué and Rivarola, by quoting directly from Browne, rescues and re-presents the dead woman´s life, art, and ideals (Boué makes striking use of some of her surviving charcoal drawings, placing them in an abstracted figurative landscape punctuated by objects which I am sure will be even more forceful in the flesh, whilst Rivarola lifts from Browne´s own words as found in her letters to construct a vital journey; she read some of the seven poems during the evening). In fact, the project seems like a triangular conjunction of realities, past and present, which I for one found intriguing and surprisingly resonant in our present historical moment: Felicia Browne resurfaces in the present through what appears to be a parallel artistic endeavour to her own, political and poetic, and where personal family memories are salvaged from all protagonists concerned.

Clarisa Rucabado Butler

OUR TASTER EVENT WILL BE ANOTHER CHANCE TO EXPERIENCE THIS PRESENTATION OF OUR WORK, AHEAD OF OUR EXHIBITION OPENING (see below)

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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.

Felicia Browne: An Unusual Woman

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This photograph, taken by Felicia’s nephew Peter Marshall, is of a tea set given as a wedding present from Felicia to her sister Helen, known as Gypsy, in April 1931.

We’re getting quite nervous on An Artist’s Eye. By our calculations we have a week to wait until we hear about our Arts Council England funding application.

Waiting has caused a slight hiatus on the project. The creative work won’t begin until a decision is made because funding can’t be granted retrospectively. So it’s been an opportunity to reflect and digest the mass of information which came flooding into the project in the early stages.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have made contact with several living relatives of Felicia Browne, who herself died so tragically young (aged 32) and left no direct descendants. We are immensely grateful for the emails containing memories passed down from Felicia’s sisters – the only two Browne siblings to survive war (Spanish Civil War & WW1) –  providing additional layers of information, which add to the picture we’re building of this remarkable artist and volunteer to Spain. We feel it’s important to try to view Felicia more in toto. It often seems that the manner of her death at the Aragon front in 1936, overshadows her brief life, and we’ve wanted to counteract this feeling in our work.

We have also met with great generosity from beneficiaries of Felicia’s artistic estate, who’ve granted us long distance viewings of their collection via Skype. We will be featuring scanned copies of some of these previously unseen works in our show in October.

It’s also been quite a revelation to unearth details about the unusual schooling Felicia received, which may indeed have had some bearing on her later political life.  This information about Kingsley School can be found in The Shadow Man: At the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle by Geoff Andrews, in a chapter about Kitty Klugman, who was Cambridge spymaster James Klugman’s sister, and went to this small yet radical private school within the period that Felicia was also in attendance. It was Felicia’s latin teacher Susan Stebbing  who wrote a piece In Memoriam in the school magazine after Felicia’s death in Spain. To my knowledge this piece is not available online.

On page 12 of this remarkable account of Kingsley (remarkable in that such information exists nowhere else that I know of, and has been gathered by Geoff Andrews at first hand from conversations with a former pupil) we learn that topics included, the League of Nations, peace, women’s suffrage and a critical history of Empire. Later as fascism loomed we learn that Stebbing, and her colleagues, were active in providing homes and education for refugees of Nazism.

We know that Felicia undertook all her schooling at Kingsley, and we’ll be hoping to explore more of this material in future posts. For the meantime we leave you with the thought that as a young girl Felicia was schooled by unusual and quite radical women (for example the history teacher Kay Beauchamp was at the time a communist and later became a leading figure in the Communist Party International Department p 13), that she was schooled during an important era in terms of women’s suffrage, and that her last reported words to a British journalist were,

“I’m a member of the London Communist Party and I can fight as well as any man.”

 

Across Madrid Tours – in service of art and historic memory

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Dr Almudena Cros, holds a B.A (Hons) in History of Art, a Master of Arts in Venetian Art History, and a PhD in Late Medieval Art History.

An Artist’s Eye is currently in an intensive research and development phase in which we are also applying for Arts Council Funding (a research project in itself!), and so we’ve been a bit quiet on the blog.

Today we received a timely email from one of our great colleagues and supporters in Spain, Dr Almudena Cros of the Across Madrid Tours. Almu is also president of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internationals . We will be linking our blogs in a gesture of mutual appreciation and from our side as a thank you for invaluable assistance with our research.

Tragically, Felicia Browne was killed in Aragon in August of 1936 and didn’t live to witness the lengthy siege of Madrid commencing in October of that year. In linking with Across Madrid Tours (in view also of Almu’s role with the amigos and her extraordinary civil war tour) we consider anew what Felicia volunteered, and gave her life for. Her incredible commitment to anti-fascism sits with us as we go about the business of preparing for our works phase.

More news on our research soon.

Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist

We’re hugely excited today at An Artist’s Eye! TATE Britain’s exciting new film animating Felicia Browne’s archive and partly filmed at Sonia Boué’s studio is ready for viewing.

“Through her archive, this film uncovers the work and untimely death of Felicia Browne, a young artist who lost her life in the first months of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This event reverberates through the work of artist Sonia Boué, here reflecting on the significance of British volunteers, like Browne, who helped republican exiles like her father.”