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.
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.
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.
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).