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.
We are very excited to be trying out ideas in a small scale process exhibition at the Magdalen Rd Studios. This is part of our promise to the Arts Council. The aim is to receive feedback on our progress both from our peers and the public, and to develop our audiences.
In the two days it has taken to install the work we’ve already had some wonderful conversations with studio artists. It has also been a delight to work with our curator Sarah Mossop, whose input has inspired us to dig deeper on the detail of the presentation of the work.
There is a new piece on show, which relates to the border of memory. In the final show we work with the border as a geographical reality. In this piece (the assemblage piece shown below) I work with childhood association and attempt to intermingle Felicia’s infancy wth my own.
This will be a brief visual blog. Our creative work has begun, and I’ve been busy in the studio on a series of six painted sketches, which have taken me by surprise. I’ve been wholly mesmerised by Felicia Browne’s visual journaling (as I call it) and thought to respond to her sketches by abstracting her line rather than working figuratively – as I am an abstract artist myself. However, Felicia has had a profound influence on me, and in my conversation with her work, mine has become altered. Our styles have combined to create a series of images, which plot her political trajectory, which we know is what led her to Spain, during that fateful July of 1936.
I don’t know yet if this development will continue in the seven larger works which will form my contribution to the our final exhibition. These six smaller paintings are process works to be shown for peer evaluation at my studios.
Each image borrows from Felicia’s sketchbooks, and from her letters – but there is also a personal take. My collaborator, Jenny Rivarola and myself, both had fathers in the Republican army, Jenny’s father was a “soldado de chupete” (the so called soldiers with a dummies – due to their young age) and my father was a journalist with a tank regiment.
I will be adding a seventh painting to “describe” the border between France and Spain – the snaking pressure point for the Retirada of 1939, but also the entry point for Felicia and her travelling companion Edith Bone, in 1936.
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.”
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.”
Yesterday we journeyed to the sleepy and rather beautiful suburban village of Thames Ditton. This was the birthplace of our subject and inspiration Felicia Browne, whose beginnings lay in stark contrast with her tragic and violent death on the Aragon front in 1936, aged just 32. The blue plaque’s just kept coming at us as we wound our way around the village in our mission to learn more about Felicia’s origins, and make pathways for the dissemination of our eventual responses to her story. In short, we’ve been looking for symbolic venues for our tribute. We are beginning to think very much in terms of bringing the history home.
An important element of our work in this project is to consider the intersecting of two cultures whose histories became entwined through the Spanish conflict. As we cast a careful eye over our surroundings and basked in the warmest of welcomes at each turn, we imagined also Thames Ditton through a Spanish exile’s eyes while bearing in mind Felicia’s experience both as artist, and briefly as a combatant in Spain. How sleepy and quaint Thames Ditton would have seemed in comparison to the chaos and excitement of Barcelona in 1936.
Striking also was the blue plaque on the house Felicia was born in. A previous history of combat is celebrated in the name of General Sir John Lambert 1772-1847, “Distinguished Commander of the 10th Brigade at the Battle of Waterloo (1815)” who lived there too. I can’t help feeling that this smart blue disc of recognition should be joined by another, in acknowledgement of Felicia’s unique place in history.
We’ll be writing shortly about exciting developments regarding venue/s and a programme of events for the project. Meanwhile some tantalising shots of the house we fell in love with, The Elms, Felicia’s family home up until 1908.
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.
This is what happened when I spent some time with Felicia Browne’s sketchbooks as part of my preliminary research. As you can see I don’t draw in a conventional sense – I explore materials looking for new ways to interpret what I see. Here I use charcoal, tape and graphite to play with line.
Well this a strange vision isn’t it. I’m wearing a pair of antique glasses and have my hair pushed back to be a little more like the artist whose history I’m working with. Part of my job is to embody her a little. To get as close to her as I can. My vision is strange too – the glasses allow me to see in some degree of focus but it’s a bit like looking through a bottle end! The effect is other worldly and disorientating.
I’m thinking about how I might source objects for the assemblage element of this project. This week these beautifully preserved glasses circa 1930 showed up in the post. Eagerly awaited as “being like” the glasses the subject of our project, British artist Felicia Browne, wore, but quickly found that they have larger frames and are darker than those in the photographs we have of her in the public domain. I was working with a description of Felicia at art college by a fellow student in which horn-rimmed glasses are mentioned.
So while the frames are darker than those we see Felicia wearing in the 1930s they may possibly be more like the pair she wore at art college. It’s important to do this kind of preliminary research ahead of our more active stages in which we’ll paint and assemble the work.
You can read more about the project on some of our earlier posts in Through An Artist’s Eye.
As we gather together the strands of our project, related objects have started to migrate towards us. Homing pigeons of memory, containers of narrative, these are some of the objects that could help us to tell the story. This preliminary research will prove vital in sourcing the right objects for the work.
For more check some of our previous posts on Through An Artist’s Eye.
(The baby socks are on loan from Sarah Korting to whom we send many thanks!)