Wartime works show different side to secret camouflage artists

Moss- camo factory buildings

Colin Moss, Camouflaged Factory Buildings, c.1939-1941, pencil and watercolour on paper, LSAG&M (Courtesy of the artist’s estate)

 

The wartime paintings of a secret group of artists drafted in to help keep the military mission safe during the Second World War are on show at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum.

Concealment and Deception: The Art of the Camofleurs of Leamington Spa 1939-1945 tells how during the war many artists were brought to the town to work on developing camouflage for strategically important installations. The works in the exhibition are a mixture of their depictions of this work, and paintings and drawings they did on their down time, presumably to keep themselves busy while away from home. Some of the latter depict the local scenery, and others the area under attack.

Evelyn Dunbar’s Convalescing Nurses Making Camouflage shows the women working hard on table and floor to put together khaki-coloured cloth.

Dorothy Annan’s The Parade, Leamington Spa, 1944, shows the area just up from the Pump Room Gardens and is instantly recognisable, though it’s notable the streets are full of walking people and cyclists rather than cars. Stephen Bone’s Clarendon Street from 1940 shows the attractive street covered in snow, and Christopher Ironside (father of renowned agony aunt Virginia) did a watercolour of Lansdowne Circus, the attractive houses sporting taped-up windows to guard against blasts. Janey Ironside drew evacuees in Leamington, a sad looking boy and girl in outsize clothes.

Some works give hints of what has been lost. There is a sketch by Dorothy Annan of a panel for the British Restaurant in Leamington, which was to be one of six by different artists. It is drawn with a strange perspective, showing familiar sights such as the Jephson Gardens and the Parade, but sadly the mural is lost. Mary Adshead’s Grace at the Sausage Hatch depicted a woman serving some unidentifiable food at the British Restaurant in Coventry, as two gaunt and desperate looking men queued.

There are a lot of works by Colin Moss, who had studied under Oskar Kokoshka, including Camouflaged Factory Building, 1939-41, depicting the building painted to try to blend in with the ground from above. But he also did more landscape works, including House Seen From Picket Fence, and a cabbage field. They are in varied styles, influenced by colourful expressionism and his lifelong interest in depicting ordinary life. Danger Deep Water shows a wonky sign around a pool and bare trees, with a bombed out shed behind. The Big Tower shows a tower he painted in camouflage paint – and then painted in this picture.

Rodney Burn did watercolour cartoons often pointing out ironies of war; in one a group gather around a tiny cabbage, saying it’s just the start, a reference to the Dig for Victory idea. Robin Darwin, who went on to lead the Royal College of Art, painted the spraying of an airfield to disguise it as a field, and Edwin La Dell painted The Camouflage Workshop itself, a dark room with men peering at designs on desks.

Yunge-Btaeman Viewing TankJames Yunge-Bateman, The Outside Viewing Tank: Directorate of Camouflage, Naval Section, 1943, oil on canvas © Imperial War Museums

Unbelievably, Leamington also became the base for the naval camouflage unit, with a pool to test things – a slightly surreal painting by James Yunge-Bateman shows The Outside Viewing Tank, with what looks like a giant woman wrist-deep in the water with a tiny boat next to her.

It’s an excellent and fascinating exhibition, showing works by artists who went on to bright careers but who left behind these wonderful artistic reminders of their war time life in Leamington.

*On until October 16.

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