Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War

An exhibition of paintings and poetry responding to the life and work of British artist Felicia Browne.

Through An Artist’s Eye is my most recent project in a growing body of work relating to the Spanish Civil War. It is a creative collaboration paying tribute to British artist Felicia Browne, who died in action in the early moments of the War in August 1936. Her letters and sketches – on which we draw – are held in an archive at Tate Britain, and in the private collections of the Sproule family.

Felicia is a unique figure in this conflict, being the only British female volunteer in Spain to take a combatant role. An eyewitness report by German volunteer, George Brinkmann, tells us that she was killed while on a mission to derail a fascist munitions train near Tardienta in Aragon. Her group was ambushed and outnumbered by fascists, and Felicia came under fire as she selflessly came to the aid of a wounded comrade.

My first encounter with Felicia was through an arresting self-portrait on display at Pallant House Gallery as part of the Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War exhibition in December 2014. I was also struck by her exceptionally accomplished drawings capturing street scenes and Spanish militias in the early days of the Civil War. I was intrigued but occupied with work for my EXILIO collaboration with Jonathan Moss, exhibited at Wolfson College in January 2015. In September and October 2016, my response to this extraordinary life story finds full flower with an exciting programme of events, the catalyst being the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain.

Here is the backstory:

Earlier this year, I invited Jenny Rivarola (a poet who, like me, is also the daughter of a Spanish Republican exile) to join me in developing a project dedicated to Felicia’s memory. Subsequently, I secured Arts Council funding for us to work in partnership with Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History; Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, OUDCE. We have also been fortunate to develop a partnership with the Instituto Cervantes, who in supporting us signal a growing shift in some quarters towards dismantling decades of suppression relating to the history of the Civil War in Spain. In contributing to the recovery of historic memory, our project gains a wider cultural significance, and we hope to reach audiences in Spain as well as the UK.

Professor Buchanan rediscovered Felicia’s drawings and letters in the early 1990s, examples of which are now held at Tate Britain. Felicia’s archive has recently been digitalised – and a short film made as part of Tate Britain’s Animating the Archives series, featuring Professor Buchanan and myself, and is entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist.

The true inspiration for the project came to me while filming with the Tate Britain team in my Oxford studio, during an intense conversation with Rebecca Sinker (Curator of Digital Learning at Tate Britain). You can see the moment the idea seeds itself (at 4.35 mins) as I look away from the camera at the pile of vintage suitcases in my studio. At once I became acutely aware of the intersecting geographies of Felicia’s journey to Spain with that of my father to England, and I was visited by the image of my father’s footsteps across the Pyrenees at the end of the war in 1939, mirroring, or indeed overlapping with the tyre tracks of Felicia’s car journey at the very onset of the war in 1936. They had crossed in opposite directions to vastly differing destinies – one to her untimely death aged 32, and the other to his eventual safety in England aged 18.

I have cause to think of the Civil War as my cradle (a notion articulated through my 2014 film Without You I Would Not Exist), and filming with Tate Britain in my studio made me viscerally conscious that this same bloody conflict had been Felicia’s grave – rendering her life story ever more proximate to my own. So much so that they came to feel entwined (as though – however improbable – she had given her life for the eventual freedom and safety of my father and my grandparents). Astonishment at Felicia’s actions, gratitude and curiosity intermingled, and I wrestled with the challenge her short life implied. As an artist engaged in a form of war commentary myself – albeit historical – I questioned the boundaries of my engagement. Felicia made me ask myself, am I doing enough? I don’t yet have an answer. All I really know is that Jenny and I – as daughters of Republican exiles – have felt compelled to honour this remarkable British volunteer. Further, that in the case of Felicia Browne (as evinced through her letters), we find a witty, erudite and engaging personality, and that (with regard to her drawings) there is an exciting body of work to bring to public attention. She is without doubt a compelling character on so many levels.

We have a free booklet for audiences and will also be screening our project film at all our events. With talks by Professor Buchanan and poetry readings by Jenny Rivarola.

We will be seeking new venues to exhibit our work in 2017, and are available for talks, film screenings and conferences.

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Sonia Boué is a visual artist whose painting practice encompasses, assemblage, video and performance. Her work is research based and deals with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice. Her Msc Applied Social Studies Oxon, continues to provide a useful framework for Sonia’s practice, which is concerned with the artist’s role as a catalyst for social justice. She is a Member of Common Room. She tweets at @SoniaBoue.

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One thought on “Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War

  1. Pingback: Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War | The other side

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