Curating Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum’s WWII camouflage exhibition

leaflet-and-guideMy main focus as the Research Curator at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum was to research for and co-curate the gallery’s 2016 summer exhibition, ‘CONCEALMENT & DECEPTION: THE ART OF THE CAMOUFLEURS OF LEAMINGTON SPA 1939 – 1945’. This involved research trips to private collections, interviewing some of the artists’ family relatives (including writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside), and organising and writing for the accompanying exhibition catalogue. This project was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Art Fund (a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant).

‘A camoufleur is a person who designed and implemented military camouflage in one of the world wars of the twentieth century.’ (Wikipedia)

Concealment and Deception told the story of the camouflage establishment based in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, during World War 2 (1939 – 1945). The Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment was founded at the start of the war with Nazi Germany to develop camouflage for strategically important installations like factories, power stations and airfields. Later, in 1941, the CDCE was expanded to include a Naval Camouflage Section and renamed the Camouflage Directorate. The exhibition presented the work of the camouflage staff – often known as ‘camoufleurs’ – against the backdrop of life on the ‘Home Front’.

catalogue

Shots of the exhibition catalogue

Life in wartime Leamington Spa was dominated by the Home Front. This mobilisation of the civilian population to support the war effort included the rationing of food and clothes and precautions against air raids like the evening ‘blackout’. Everyone in Leamington Spa was affected, including pre-war residents and the influx of newcomers brought by the war, such as evacuees (some from nearby Coventry), workers directed to war work, soldiers of the Czech Free Army and the First Belgian Independent Brigade, and a unit of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens). The newcomers also included the often rather bohemian artists, designers and scientists employed as camoufleurs. This new temporary population, many of them young and with uncertain futures, brought an exotic vibrancy to the social life of what had previously been a sleepy midlands spa town.

At its peak the camouflage establishment employed over 230 staff, including several who went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation. They were based in a number of buildings which had been requisitioned for the war effort. The most important were the Regent Hotel on the Parade, which became the headquarters for the CDCE and the successor Camouflage Directorate; the Roller Skating Rink by the river Leam, which became the workshop for the civil camouflage team; and the municipal Art Gallery on Avenue Road, which was taken over by the Naval Camouflage Section.

Most of the work of the civil camouflage team concerned static features like factory buildings, power station cooling towers, airfield buildings, runways and roads. Camouflage officers often photographed or sketched the sites from the air and then used these images to develop schemes to either conceal the sites or create nearby decoys to divert attacking aircraft. Simple schemes might only require plans on paper, but more elaborate designs for important sites often included the production of three-dimensional scale models. These were tested in a ‘viewing room’ in the Skating Rink, where different lighting and atmospheric conditions could be artificially recreated. If the intention was concealment, the objective was to cause the sites to merge in with their surroundings and not produce tell-tale shadows from buildings. By contrast, a decoy site might involve creating dummy aerodromes, factories and buildings, with elaborate lighting schemes to entice night-time bombing raids. Naval camouflage offered greater challenges: vessels were usually moving against a constantly changing background and left a tell-tale wake and smoke from their funnels. The approach of the naval camoufleurs was to produce scale model of the subject based on plans published in the reference book Jane’s Fighting Ships. The model would then be painted in a design intended to either make the ship less visible or, if that was impractical, confuse a prospective attacker (often a submarine) as to its type, speed and direction. The camouflage had to be designed for the typical weather conditions in which the ship would be operating, for example those found in the North Atlantic, Arctic or Pacific. The camouflaged model was then tested in a large water tank in the Art Gallery, where the likely lighting, atmospheric and marine conditions were artificially recreated. Once approved, the design would be applied to the vessel when it was nest dockside for repairs.

A number of the artists also produced paintings, watercolours and drawings recording their colleagues at work, or showing the sites and ships they had camouflaged. Other pictures showed life in the wartime town, including the damage caused by Luftwaffe bombing raids. Some artists also became involved in the production of murals in Leamington Spa, notably for the British Restaurant at the back of the Town Hall, for the Regent Hotel, and for a local school. Many joined the local branch of the Artists International Association, an organisation of artists opposed to fascism which briefly flourished in Leamington Spa as a result of the concentration of camoufleurs. The friendships formed during the war influenced the later careers of many of the staff who had worked together in Leamington Spa.

The exhibition included an important group of paintings, watercolours and drawings loaned by the Imperial War Museum, complemented by others from Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, the Herbert Art Gallery (Coventry), the Henry Moore Institute Leeds, and from private collections. Artists featured include Mary Adshead, Dorothy Annan, Stephen Bone, Louis Duffy, Evelyn Dunbar, Eric Hall, Cedric Kennedy, Edwin La Dell, Colin Moss and James Yunge-Bateman.  Their work was displayed alongside clothing, equipment and documents relating to the Home Front in Leamington Spa.

The project drew on over two decades of research carried out locally and nationally to piece together the story of Leamington Spa’s extraordinary but little known contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. The title of the exhibition and the published catalogue echoes that of the government body set up during the war to oversee camouflage: the ‘Committee on Concealment and Deception’.

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We received good local press coverage, including the features below:

observer-review

observer-feature

The exhibition also received coverage in some of the hometowns of the camouflage artists, like the article below, which featured camoufleur Colin Moss:

anglian-times-review

Colin Moss’ grandson visited the exhibition with his family, and started a Facebook page about his artist grandfather.

The writer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside also mentioned the exhibition in several of her magazine columns. She is the daughter of Christopher Ironside, one of the camouflage artists, who went on to become the designer of the UK’s first decimal coins. Below she mentions the exhibition at the beginning of her column in The Spectator:

Virginia ironside also included her experience of coming to see the exhibition and explore her old hometown Leamington Spa in her article for The Oldie:

ironside-review

Local artists were inspired by the exhibition, producing camouflage-themed yarn bombing on the columns outside the Pump Rooms, which contains Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum:

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Reviews for The British Art Journal, autumn 2016

I’m very pleased to have two reviews published in the latest issue of The British Art Journal (autumn 2016). One of them is a review of Franny Moyle’s biography of JMW Turner, which was published by Penguin in the summer of 2016. My other article discusses the first publication produced about collaborations between contemporary artists known as The Arborealists, who focus on trees in their work. This book was published by Bristol publishers Sansom & Co.

 

 

 

 

 

Article in Art Space, local Leamington Spa magazine

For the summer 2016 issue of ‘Art Space’, a local magazine in Leamington Spa, I wrote a short history about the art gallery and museum and its collection of paintings. It covers key bequests, individual artworks (including the oldest painting in the collection), collecting strategies, and current exhibitions.

Art Space 1Art space 2

 

 

 

17th-century Netherlandish paintings at Leamington Spa

My role as the Research Curator at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum involves researching into aspects of the permanent collection and interpreting it for different visitors. Recently, the gallery has had an unusual acquisition of twelve 17th-century Netherlandish paintings, which are all on permanent display. I have been studying them in order to create a handout for visitors and give a talk as part of the gallery’s weekly ‘Friday Focus’ events. My 8 page handout is below:

wall handout - final copy

Continue reading

Writing for The Friends of The Wilson Newsletter

Front cover of the Autumn NewsletterThe Wilson Newsletter is a publication produced for (and largely by) The Friends of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum. When the editor invited me to write a ‘What’s On’ article for the Autumn 2015 issue, I was pleased to have the opportunity to be involved. It enable me to write about and reflect upon a temporary exhibition in The Friends Gallery, entitled ‘Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space’, which I had assisted the curator of fine art with in terms of research and display. A copy of the text is below.

My article in the Autumn issue of the Newsletter

Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space

The Friends Gallery has an area for dynamic temporary displays, the latest being Interior Life: Portraits and Private Space, which opened in July and runs until 8 November. This is an intimate and intriguing exhibition, celebrating a selection of portraits from The Wilson’s collection. It presents oil paintings from the 17th to the 20th century, and includes two works from the founding collection, donated by the Baron de Ferrieres in 1898.

The paintings have shared themes of privacy and contemplation, hinting at the emotional lives of the people portrayed. Thus, the interior spaces that exist in these works are not just the physical spaces that the figures inhabit, but are also the spaces that belong to their minds. This focus on interiority is reflected in the solitary activities depicted, such as reading in Hendrick Cornelisz. van Vliet’s painting A Woman Reading, about 1630-1650. It is also enhanced through the sensitive use of personal or even spiritual places, such as the cosy domestic sitting room in The Artist’s Wife, Evelyn, Seated Reading, about 1935, by Gerald Gardiner, or the interior of the church in Malvern Abbey, Worcestershire, 1892, by Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson.

Parallels can be made between some of these ideas and those of contemporary artist, Bill Viola (b. 1951). In Viola’s film pieces, private moments, devotion and the passing of time are common themes. Viola’s work can be seen on display in the third floor gallery of The Wilson from 3 October 2015 – 7 February 2016 as part of ARTIST ROOMS On Tour.

My 3rd review for Crafts magazine: Kate MccGwire at the RWA

Crafts Magazine, September/October 2015International artists Peter Randall-Page and Kate MccGwire have a wonderful joint exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA). I was very pleased to write a review of it for the Craft Council’s ‘Crafts’ magazine, issue September/October 2015.

This is now the third time that I have written about Kate MccGwire’s work (please see my interview with Kate on IdeasTap, and my blog post about writing for the Young Arnolfini zine); it is also my third review for ‘Crafts’ magazine.

My review in Crafts magazine

My review in Crafts magazine

Noble Fibres exhibition at Heart Space Studios

Nobles Fibres exhibition at Heart Space Studios

Janet Haigh’s ‘The Daphne Tree’, left, and Kirsten Hill-Nixon’s hand felted lion pictures, right, in the Noble Fibres exhibition

I organised and curated this textiles exhibition at Heart Space Studios, Bristol. The show opened as part of the Westbury Park Arts Festival in June.

This exhibition presents humorous, contemplative and academic interpretations of ‘Noble Fibres’ in a variety of textile materials by local artists and Heart Space tutors. Each artist’s definition has in common the assumption that Noble Fibres are natural, pure and even raw materials; this encompasses wool, felt and leather. Wool subtly references Shaun the Sheep, who is out and about in Bristol this summer, including on Coldharbour Road.

One of Kirsten Hill-Nixon's hand felted lion pictures

One of Kirsten Hill-Nixon’s hand felted lion pictures

Metals and cottons can also count as Noble Fibres, as they are not just limited to animal-based substances. However, a prominent motif running through this exhibition is the use and behaviour of animals. This is dealt with in a range of ways, from exploring their function as sources for harvesting the Fibres to their threatening interactions with Noble materials (think of the coat-eating clothes moth!).

Intriguingly, Nobel Fibres have also been taken to mean regal nobility and luxury, which several artists have explored through the use of historically royal colours and symbols, including the symbolic potential of animals.

The textile pieces collectively accentuate the process of making and the notion of ‘noble’ as an honest state of mind and approach to working. Due to this, several of the artworks are experimentations or samples rather than finished products.

Stephanie Wooster's moodpboard for knitting samples

Stephanie Wooster’s mood board for knitting samples

Sustainable craft also forms part of this code of good practice, which is pertinent considering this is Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. The emphasis on honesty is integral to the ethos of Heart Space Studios, which supports making meaningful things ‘with hand, heart and eye’.

Nobles fibres exhibition at Heart Space Studios

Long view of the exhibition at Heart Space Studios, Bristol

Ilsa Fatt's fabric woven necklace, inspired by the Snow Queen, a regal fairytale character

Ilsa Fatt’s fabric woven necklace, inspired by the Snow Queen, a regal fairytale character

Knitted bosoms by Avril Best, in celebration of ‘Knitted Knockers UK’, a group of volunteers who make artificial 100% cotton breasts free of charge for women who have had mastectomies.

Knitted bosoms by Avril Best, in celebration of ‘Knitted Knockers UK’, a group of volunteers who make artificial 100% cotton breasts free of charge for women who have had mastectomies

Arboretum: The art of trees, the Arborealists and other artists

This review is published in Trebuchet Magazine

Shakespeare often used murky forests and prickly undergrowth in his plays as spaces where carnival and otherworldly events could be performed. These woods are liminal places, on the edge of civilisation, creative centres of critique. Similar to many of the Bard’s characters that take a trip to these woods, the viewer of this RWA exhibition is thrown into a magical world of organic transformation and thought-provoking negotiation. A bold sculpture comprised of several steel and bone white sycamores clearly sets the woodland scene. Its confidence and orderly appearance invites us in. Yet it is also quietly subversive by defying the conventional space of the art gallery and taking the inside outside. Its almost as if we can hear the crunch of leaves underfoot as we walk towards this sculpture, so powerful is its provocation of being a ‘real’ forest. This reminds us that trees, like all organic life, resist containment and frames. Fittingly, many of the paintings also included in this show are left raw and unframed, exposed to the elements – and artistic scrutiny.

Fiona Hingston’s  ‘Findings’

Fiona Hingston’s ‘Findings’

There is a curious mixture of styles, from the highly naturalistic, to the hyper-realistic, to those flirting with abstraction and those that are fully immersed within it. This conveys a clear sense of experimentation and exploration into which styles are suitable for contemporary portrayals of a long-examined subject. Fiona Hingston’s piece called ‘Findings’ display found natural objects from the floors of Biddlecomb Wood in the style of a Modernist grid. This rings strange with the natural materials and subject matter, making us question how we make sense of our surroundings.  Continue reading

Through Our Hands: The third issue

Front cover of the third Through Our Hands magazineMy article about the delightful and quirky Bristol Wool Fair is published in the third issue of ‘Through Our Hands’ textile magazine.

The Bristol Wool Fair

5 – 7th September 2014, Clifton and Durdham Downs, Bristol

The marquees were an impressive size even from a distance. If you looked carefully, you also might have been able to make out some sheep milling about and being prepared for shearing demonstrations. Getting nearer to the event, the smell of wool and the bleating of sheep were strikingly evident. This was certainly peculiar for the middle of Bristol. And yet, the Bristol Wool Fair was a great success.

The Wool Fair was held over three days on Clifton and Durdham Downs, an expansive stretch of open green space in the heart of the city. It is often used for hosting touring fairgrounds and circuses, but has never before entertained such a big or ambitious art event. It is possible that this was the first arts and crafts fair that the Downs had seen.  Continue reading

Through Our Hands: The 2nd magazine

Through Our Hands magazine issue 2Through Our Hands, an online platform for contemporary quilts, art and craft, has just published the second issue of their magazine with beautiful illustrations of artists’ work. The editorial team includes Annabel Rainbow, Laura Kemshall and Linda Kemshall.

My blog post about the arrival of their first magazine back in May will tell you more about the project’s background and contains a link to the first issue.

I have been invited to contribute a regular column and my latest article is about quilts in Tate Britain’s Folk Art exhibition on pages 51-56.

The link to the magazine is here.