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.”

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The Beret as a Symbol of the Spanish Civil War.

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The Basque beret arrived! The perils of eBay mean that it is child sized. The beauty of metaphor – and the deep resonance that begins to form when your research is expansive – is that this becomes intensely meaningful in terms of the exile of almost 4,000 Basque children to England in May of 1937. This as a result of voluntary efforts to save the lives of Basque children after the massacre at Guernica. Many children were killed in the war against fascism, which took the life of Felicia Browne in August 1936. Felicia’s commitment to anti-fascism, her reportage in drawing  ordinary working people in their Basque berets and the efforts to save the Basque children are all intimately connected.

Felicia Browne & The Spanish Civil War in 2.35 mins

Who was Felicia Browne? Portrait of the Artist.

 

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.

Felicia Browne, Five sketches of men’s heads [c.1925–36] Graphite on paper 350 x 252 mm 

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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.

  1. Tom Buchanan, The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain: War, Loss and Memory. Sussex Academic Press, 2013 edition, p65.
  2. Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War, Routledge Press, 2014 edition, p16.

We are Children of the Spanish Civil War

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Photographer unknown? Black and white photograph of Felicia Browne holding a child [c.1936] Black and white photograph on paper 87 x 134 mm.  Held in the Tate Archive and purchased by Tate Archive from Jim Sproule, Lin Sproule and Felicia France, November 2010.
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It’s been an extraordinary first week for the blog – we’ve had over 400 visitors and made some wonderful connections. Here’s the low down.

For new readers I must explain, Felicia Browne is the subject of a collaborative project called Through An Artist’s Eye marking the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain. Felicia was the only female British volunteer combatant of the Spanish Civil War, but also an artist who documented her encounters with Spanish working people and militias while on a road trip with her friend and photographer Edith Bone. Tragically she died in action in August 1936 at the age of 32.

The title for this blog is inspired by the family histories of the two creative collaborators, Jenny Rivarola (poet) and myself, Sonia Boué (visual artist). We are both in a manner of speaking children of the Spanish Civil War, born in England of Spanish Republican exile fathers and English mothers, and we inhabit a curious space between two cultures. Last week we met in my freezing cold studio to plan our work. It was our first meeting in real time after copious emails and Skype contact. We repaired to the local pub for lunch and Jenny showed me some beautiful photographs of her father taken in 1940 and a poem written shortly after his passing in 2008, which I confess drew tears. I recognised her grief and felt it as my own. We are exploring the possibility that our Republican fathers may have at some time known one another in the early days of exile in London or at Birmingham University.

Jenny puts it well in describing a shared perspective this bi-culturalism confers.

“I’m half English and half Spanish, which I think affects the way I look at the world (I don’t belong 100% anywhere).” 

Our bond was palpable on meeting and our place between two cultures formed a playground of parallel anecdote and memory conferring a sisterly tenderness. Our backgrounds could explain why our creative vision for the project is eerily similar. We have a great deal to achieve in a short space of time – but I can’t imagine a better collaborator.

Our plan is to focus on the stages of Felicia’s journey. We’ll be working closely with the archive material and our academic partner Professor Tom Buchanan to identify some of the key moments and locations. We’ll also approach the material thematically. We hope thus to connect word and image in a series of works the number of which is yet to be decided.

I’ll be working with the abstract landscape form, and in showing my sketchbook to Jenny we uncovered a shared concern with line and detail. I’m not generally a sketchbook kind of artist although I have used them in the past at times. Revelling in Felicia’s sketchbooks in the Tate Archive I have been inspired to go back to this practice to explore line. Its a way of getting closer to Felicia and I am fascinated by her drawing as mark-making. So far I’ve worked in charcoal and graphite with various forms of tape to create line. I like to think of the drawings from Spain in particular as traces of her journey so although I see them as figurative I’m also looking at her use of line as abstraction.

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This involves homing in on a detail or absorbing Felicia’s sketches and then working into my sketchbook with my eyes closed. I’m trying to capture their energy and the feel of them. These early explorations of line may be worked up into the later paintings or may rest in the unconscious and form a less obvious influence in the final compositions.

This resonated with Jenny who as poet is interested in Felicia’s line in the written sense – the lines of paragraph and sentence to be found in the letters to Elizabeth Watson in the archives for example, and the quotations of eye witness in multiple sources. Already certain phrases have registered with Jenny and are captured in her notebook. This feels like a parallel process. Aesthetically speaking, Jenny and I share an appreciation of the small things and sense in Felicia the artist’s eye for detail in both her sketches and her letters.

We’re in the early stages and our format is flexible enough to be altered as the project develops, but it’s a schema which makes good sense both in terms of the narrative and as a creative template to pour our ideas into. We’ll see how this goes in practice.

We’ve also received a flurry of post this week and are especially grateful to Almudena Cros, President of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, for connecting us to Glenda Browne, Felicia’s cousin!

Our deep gratitude to Glenda for sharing documents and contacts, and granting permission to use photographs. This picture shows Glenda in action during a wonderful tribute to Felicia (tossing a posy of wild flowers into the river Soton) on an International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) tour in 2014. The bridge on which Glenda is standing in this image is in the village of Gurrea de Gallego, the closest identification we have for the location of the fatal mission to derail a fascist train in which Felicia lost her life under enemy rifle fire. There’s a real family resemblance which brings the connection home, it’s incredibly moving.

Felicia Browne- Glenda Browne casting flowers on river Soton

I’m also indebted to Stuart Walsh, who is a voluntary worker at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Stuart not only offered help in accessing documents at the WCM Library, he had also viewed my film collaboration of 2014 Without You I Would Not Exist, which tells the story of my father’s rescue from the Barcares camp. Stuart sent me a Picture Post report of the “Forgotten Soldiers” on the conditions of internment in France for Republican soldiers. I want readers to get a feel for the solidarity which surrounds the memory of the Spanish Civil War – such acts of kindness are frequent – and this kind of material is also pretty important contextually. We must remember that these were the sequels of the very war Felicia volunteered in – the prescience of Felicia and her fellow anti-fascist volunteers stands in stark contrast to the British Government of the time.

There is also exciting news of later notes than the letters currently held in the Tate Archive. Felicia’s MI5 file have revealed two further if brief missives to her friend Ed Bone in which she describes her recruitment to the Cenutria 23 group 2.  They had guns and equipment but were awaiting ammunition. Felicia tells of a “grand old boy” in her group who is “extremely intelligent” and speaks French, she also writes with enthusiasm of encountering dozens of “old mates”. You sense that after all the uncertainty of her earlier letters Felicia found what she had been looking for – the promise of involvement, action and a sense of belonging. She had found her opportunity to contribute. Her generosity is also apparent in her considerations for her friend Ed. They are incredibly poignant notes.

I want to close this blog with the beautiful photograph that opened it.

There aren’t many photographs to be found of Felicia. This one which was taken circa 1936 is possibly quite close to the time Felicia left England for Spain. As an artist I also work with objects as material memory and I create installations and assemblage with period finds. This image is full of inspirations and will enable me to begin the work of sourcing as many relevant objects as I can to accompany the paintings.

Its quite a contrast to the mesmerising self portrait featured in  the last post and gives us some fabulous details to work with – I’m especially drawn to her glasses, the collar and texture of her coat and her smile. The home knitted baby clothes are something else – the kind of detail that pulls you in and speaks of the era. An age in which such handmade garments were still commonplace – three years later England would be at war and clothes rationing would be in force by 1941. My curiosity is intensely piqued and I want to know more – who knitted these adorable baby clothes and who is this sweet child? Pictured thus we see Felicia in a different light from that which history usually shines on her. There’s a domestic feel, the hint of her familial or friendship networks, and another question forms. I wonder who took the photograph? Who is Felicia smiling at?

Can anyone help in identifying the child Felicia is carrying?

NB Our thanks again to Glenda for identifying the child as Felicia’s nephew John Michael Alcock (1933-2012).

The Spanish Civil War: Through An Artist’s Eye

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Felicia Browne, Self portrait. Not dated (taken from Christies website)

In this second posting Sonia Boué talks us through the foundations of the project.

Through An Artist’s Eye is the working title for an artistic collaboration about British artist Felicia Browne and her part in the Spanish Civil War.

Tragically Felicia was killed in action at the age of 32. Her story is unique because she was the first and only female British combatant in this war. She is a source of fascination as a woman of her time but also as a talented creative individual. For two of the creatives on board this project she also holds a personal draw – Felicia died in the conflict that bore us. Myself, Sonia Boué  (visual artist) and Jenny Rivarola (Poet) are daughters of Spanish Republican exiles to England and thus our histories are entwined. The war that took her spawned us and is in no small way embedded in our DNA. Hard to describe the kinship such a cradle engenders, but this is also the feeling which permeates this bloody civil war as grave. We are somehow bonded.

Gratitude to those who volunteered in Spain is etched within the psyche because it feels so personal. It is within the fabric of these emotional responses to conflict that we find the human, and that the scale of it telescopes inwards from vast to intimate. So that in my imagination it is as though Felicia volunteered to help my closest family members in their moment of direst need.

More generally, such extreme acts of altruism  as volunteering in a war zone serve to ameliorate the absolute depth of horror reflected in the human mirror that is war. In my research on this war I have also come to touch on the German holocaust and stared the beast that is the human capacity for mass atrocity in the eye. Spain has it’s own such spectres in any case.

For Professor Tom Buchanan, Felicia Browne has also exerted a lasting professional fascination in which painstaking research unearthed a cache of new material in the form of Felicia’s personal letters and drawings. Thanks to Tom’s diligence, these now form an archive at Tate Britain, which has been digitalised and made available to the public in this way. You can also make an appointment to view the archive in person.

Some of you may have visited the groundbreaking exhibition Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War. Groundbreaking because it was the first ever survey of British artist’s responses to the Spanish conflict, and the fruit of three years research by curator and Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, Simon Martin.

It was also to be my first introduction to Felicia, whose striking self portrait I chose as one of my stand out pieces for the review of the show on my artist blog Barcelona in a Bag.

This show proved seminal to my thinking about my own work on the Spanish Civil War, and I began to recognise my place within a tradition of British artists responding to this conflict. Another link to Felicia, whose drawings from Spain act as a form of documentation if not reportage.

In July of 2015 I was approached by Tate Britain to be the third voice in a short film as part of a series commissioned to bring their digital archives to life. Filming took place in my studio and my work interrogated (in the best sense of the word). This gallery on my website shows the landscapes on show in my studio at the time. In this process the notion of intersecting journey’s took seed: Felicia’s decisive road trip from England to Spain in which she found herself propelled into war, and my father’s flight from Spain to England (eventually) as a young Republican reporter.

The marks and traces of his journey into exile were the subjects of my abstract landscapes with the battered vintage suitcases I collect providing a metaphor for the wounding – both psychological and physical – of war. Thus suitcases as bearer’s of wounds, as symbols of the self, their surfaces suggestive of skin, have been powerful inspiration for the surface appearance of my paintings. I work also with the notion of emotional geography and landscape as a reflection of the psyche. Felicia’s death appeared to me, during my day with Rebecca Sinker of the Tate Britain team, as a bloody reality. It was a profound awakening.

I am fascinated also by Felicia’s mark making – her drawings from Spain in particular as the traces of her journey. They will form the lynch-pin of my part in this collaborative project.

It is likely that both my father and Jenny’s travelled across the Pyrenees on foot, while Felicia travelled by car with her friend Edith (Ed) Bone. We must think of footsteps and tyre tracks it seems to me.

August 2016 marks the 80th anniversary of Felicia’s death while engaged in a mission to derail a fascist train near Tardienta in Aragon. Our mission is to create a fitting artistic tribute with a solid research base grounded in academic expertise. My question for today is, what would Felicia wish for in such an endeavour as an artist?

Both Jenny and I feel we must get to know Felicia. It is perhaps useful to carry a sense that she is watching us. It will be important to remain respectful and true.

By true I refer to emotional authenticity. As we know, truth itself is a moveable feast.