Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa - Celia Rees

Interior Coventry Cathedral - John Piper

With the 8th Army on the Sangro - Edward Ardizzone
Official War Artists, like John Piper, played a crucial role in recording the impact of the Second World War on the life of the country. Artists painted and drew the Blitz and its aftermath, bombed out buildings, civilians in shelters, the public carrying on regardless. They painted men and women working in factories, on the docks, on the land. They painted and drew soldiers and sailors on active service. They created vivid, powerful, often poignant and intimate pictures of what it was like to live in a country involved in total war. 
In Defence of Albion - Paul Nash
Some artists, however were given a 'bigger' job to do. These were the Camouflage Artists - the Camoufleurs. Artists and designers whose task it was to devise ways to conceal important sites, factories, air fields, power stations, ships, docks and naval installations, from German aircraft and submarines. 

Camouflaged Factory Buildings - Colin Moss

The Camoufleurs were based in my town, Leamington Spa, described at the time as 'a pleasant but mildly dilapidated spa town'. The sudden influx of 'arty types' caused some consternation. Men with long hair and donkey jackets walking round the town in sandals with no socks; women with short hair and wearing trousers. It wasn't what the town was used to. So much so,  that two of their number were briefly detained on suspicion of spying after being seen out in the countryside in an open top Rolls Royce, the driver wearing a fedora. Talk of drinking, wild parties and free love scandalised the natives even further but the Camoufleurs were here to do a serious job. 

The Big Tower Camouflaged, 1943 - Colin Moss
the beginning of the war, their work was focussed on disguising strategic buildings from the air. A camouflage officer would fly over the prospective site, take notes and photographs and return to headquarters in the Regent Hotel. Here, notes and photographs were worked up into perspective drawings or three dimensional models if the site was of particular strategic importance. The models were taken to the 'viewing room', a converted Roller Skating Rink at the bottom of the town. They  were viewed in a special chamber on a giant turntable which allowed the model to be seen from different angles under different lighting. A sun, set on a giant arm, could be moved and fixed at any altitude. There was also a moonlight viewing room to deal with the increasing frequency of night raids. The models and accompanying colour charts were then used as guides to camouflage the site with paint and netting.

Spraying Paint on an Airfield for Camouflage - Robin Darwin
There was also a Naval Camouflage Unit based in the Art Gallery in Avenue Road. Their task was to make vessels near invisible to German war ships and submarines. Designs were tested on specially made models in one of the two large viewing tanks.

The Outside Viewing Tank - James Yunge-Bateman 
Quite apart from their camouflage duties, the artists painted and sketched what they saw about them. They painted murals in the British Restaurant (now sadly lost). They painted the people they encountered, the houses and streets they lived in, the day to day life of the  town. 

Grace at the Sausage Hatch - Mary Adshead

Lansdowne Circus, 1943 - Christopher Ironside

The Parade - Dorothy Annan 
 They recorded how the war was affecting the town. The arrival of evacuees escaping the bombing in nearby Coventry. The aftermath of Leamington's one and only bomb. Digging for Victory - Newbold Common given over to cabbages. 

Evacuee in Leamington Spa - Janey Ironside

Morning after the Blitz - Colin Moss

Cabbage Field with Townscape Beyond - Colin Moss
Their camouflage work is now a footnote in history but the paintings that these artists made of Leamington are a unique record of life in a small Midlands town in the Second World War. One particular painting, held in Leamington Art Gallery, has special, personal resonance for me. My family came from Leamington and this picture of Clarendon Street in 1940 after a heavy snowfall, shows my aunt and uncle's house. The woman standing in the doorway could be my Aunty Olive, the little boy with her my cousin, Rodney.  

Leamington, 1940 - Stephen Bone
I would like to thank Leamington Museum and Art Gallery for their recent excellent exhibition, Concealment and Deception: The Art of The Camoufleurs in Leamington Spa 1939 -45. 

Celia Rees



Sue Purkiss said...

How fascinating, and what lovely pictures! They're very like those of Eric Ravilious, aren't they - which is interesting, because I had thought his style was unique. And the Camofleurs - what a marvellous name!

AnnP said...

Fascinating post - how interesting. And so many names that I now want to follow up.

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Joan Lennon said...

Such fabulous images - I had no idea about this! Thanks, Celia!

Lydia Syson said...

Lovely post, Celia, and definitely an exhibition worth seeking out.

Janie Hampton said...

Thank you for that - out of the horror of war came some wonderful paintings. One of the naval camouflage designers was Peter Scott - he was an Olympic sailor, and as a painter and ornithologist had studied the camouflage of animals and birds.

Celia Rees said...

So glad you liked the post. So many people used their varying talents in the war effort. Exhibitions like this are important reminders. Big thanks to local museums and art galleries.