Thursday, 7 April 2011

Revealing Aspects of War from a Woman's Perspective

Evelyn Dunbar A Land Girl and the Bail Bull 1945

 I had a memorable time today at the private view of London's Imperial War Museum's new exhibition Women War Artists  here because it's a stunning show and I met up again with two of the contributors.   Linda Kitson was the official war artist in the Falklands Conflict (1982) in which my husband was involved and Rozanne Hawksley and I both grew up amongst the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.  More about both of them later.

Funny, except it isn't, how so many women artists get written out of art history or are simply undervalued.  Naturally I had heard of Laura Knight whom I wrote about here last year.  But others who documented both world wars were unknown to me.  Not only were they highly competent painters and illustrators but  they  had an unflinching and compassionate eye for what was going on in the margins of a nation at war - the hospitals, the factories,  the aftermath of bombing raids and the plight of the elderly, the children, the wounded and the prisoners.  

Norah Neilson-Gray The Scottish Women's Hospital: In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient 1920

Doris Zinkeisen Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945  1945  Each stall in the stable had a table on which the patients were washed by German prisoners before being treated in hospital

Stella Schmolle The Dough Room: Aldershot Command Bakery 1943

Ethel Gabain Sandbag Filling, Islington Borough Council 1941

Anna Airy A Shell Forge at a National projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London 1918

Priscilla Thornycroft Runaway Horse in an Air Raid Alarm 1939 - painted in 1955 it was an image that had stayed in the artist's mind

As you can see, the work in this exhibition is poignant, wry, shocking, resonant, relevant.  
Also featured are contemporary artists like Mona Hatoum whose mother was caught up in the conflict in Palestine and Frauke Eigen who deals with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.  There is just too much powerful commentary and eye-witness for me to include, alas. Curated by Kathleen Palmer, her accompanying book is outstanding in the quality of the illustrations, the documentation and the analysis.

In 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands Linda Kitson  was commissioned to accompany the Task Force that sailed to regain them.  Although she was originally intended to disembark at Ascension Island she became the first woman artist to accompany troops throughout the campaign. Having met her, one can imagine her response to any man ordering her to pack up and retreat to a safer place.  She  produced many drawings like this which may appear provisional but exactly capture the immediacy, the drama and the detail of the moment.

Linda Kitson 2nd Battalion Scots Guards in the Sheep Sheds at Fitzroy, 17 June 1982  

 Linda Kitson Sir Galahad Moored at Fitzroy. She continued to burn until she was towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave. 16 June 1982

Linda Kitson 'The only important thing is to save is this portfolio of drawings please..' 1982

Incidentally, whilst at the Imperial War Museum today I was told this true story.  When Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister during the Falklands War,  was introduced to an Argentinian general many years later, she simply said to him 'Don't do it again!' and walked away.

Finally, it was a treat to see Rozanne Hawksley  whom I had met on board HMS Belfast. The cruiser that had served in the Arctic convoys in World War II is moored in the Thames as an annex of the Imperial War Museum.  Hawksley's installation on the theme of memento mori with references to her grandmother's stitching of blue jean collars  resonated with me because like her I had grown up in the major naval port of Portsmouth and vividly remember the Guildhall Square packed with servicemen on Remembrance Sunday in the postwar era.  

 Rozanne Hawksley For Alice Hunter (her grandmother who sewed them)

 Rozanne Hawksley Memorial Wreath featuring the skull of a seagull, the traditional black Macclesfield silk square that was rolled into a tie round the sailor's collar and the cap tally

 Her iconic Pale Armistice 1991 in the collection of the Imperial War Museum and part of the Women War Artists exhibition.

Although Rozanne confessed to being 80 she is the most lively and engaging company. We somehow found ourselves drinking more wine than was really good for us at lunchtime. I staggered home on the no. 388  with three new books, some postcards and, unaccountably,
a not terribly small toy rabbit.  My old man told me I was worse than one of his sailors on a typical run ashore ..

Acknowledgment: the Imperial War Museum for all the illustrations.


  1. Ha! When I was reading the first review of the exhibition of Women War Artists at London's Imperial War Museum's, my EXACT thought was Laura Knight is the only artist I recognise. Norah Neilson-Gray's painting of The Scottish Women's Hospital is terrific. How come it has rarely seen the light of day before?

  2. It is awful to think how much great art lays forgotten in the storerooms of these collections. thanks for your comment Hels.

  3. Moving and beautiful pictures, Rose, especially the horrific Human Laundry. Horrific but beautiful in its truth, I think.

  4. Blue - I think you put that really well. The Human Laundry picture is oddly formulaic don't you think? The laundresses are what you would have liked them to be and not perhaps what they were really like. It's a fascinating image.

  5. Hello:
    What an absolutely fascinating post both in terms of the text and, of course, the very moving and poignant images. Last year, in Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, we attended an exhibition of the 'Land Army' which featured several works by Evelyn Dunbar. A most worthwhile experience.
    We are delighted to have discovered your most interesting blog and have signed ourselves as Followers.

  6. Thank you H . I am sorry I missed the Land Army show as Evelyn Dunbar has been very under-estimated as an artist.

  7. It does seem formulaic but all the more powerful for that. Ministering devils, no less.

  8. Blue, spot on! Sorry I haven't been a-visiting you - had a sort of sabbatical but trying to be back now!

  9. From earlier wars, Lady Elizabeth Butler

    My family donated one of her paintings to the National Army Museum in Chelsea.

  10. Gosh Meg, I had forgotten about her iconic charge of the Scots Greys 'Scotland for Ever'. Very glad you directed me to reading about her enviable life as it seemed. That must have been a hard decision for your family to donate one of her paintings!

  11. You've got to admire anyone with the self discipline to paint Bergen-Belsen after its liberation.
    I was just reading about the battle for Saipan the other day, where Lee Marvin nearly got his arse shot off, and the Emperor instructed the ethnic Japanese population to throw itself off a cliff.
    It's just stunning what people are willing to do to each other.

  12. You only hope you wouldn't under similar pressure and circumstances. WE wouldn't but then we're us at this moment in time.

  13. we are so of the moment I wonder if images are as memorable-the next is rolling around to evoke horror, pity and other emotions. these have that timeless haunting effect and rediscovering them makes them new. We have to celebrate the story these women saw and their own stories. I-- of course-- am fascinated with those wreaths- artistic, feminine and there must have been many made at the time- though these are 1991, were they made to honour the past or current?

  14. Gaye, I always took Rozanne Hawksley's white wreath to remember all those women who lost their fiancés or the prospect of marriage in the trenches of World War 1. The black wreath is very resonant of World War 11 for me but I guess it is fairly timeless.


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