Beyond the Battlefield : women artists of the two World Wars – Catherine Speck

This beautiful book describes the lives & careers of some of the many women war artists who produced work during World War One & Two. Catherine Speck is Professor of Art History at the University of Adelaide & she has brought together the work of 62 artists from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada & the US. All were professionally trained but rarely officially employed or sanctioned.  Official schemes employing war artists were dominated by men working in the field & on the front line. The paintings, drawings & photographs produced by women artists concentrate on the Home Front but also include scenes in factories, the women’s services & hospitals. There are some famous names here – Margaret Preston, Laura Knight, Lee Miller, Stella Bowen. More often, I’d never heard of the artist but the work reproduced in this book is always interesting & often very moving.

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book & I’ve had to return it to the library because it was reserved so here are just a few pictures showing the wide range of work & subject matter in Beyond the Battlefield.

This is Sybil Craig’s picture of women working in a cordite factory in Maribyrnong, Melbourne in 1945.

Olive Mudie-Cooke was a British artist who was in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) during WWI & served in France & Italy. I love this watercolour on brown paper of an ambulance. After the war, she was commissioned to produce this work of her time as a nurse.

Ethel Gabain was commissioned during WWII to document the aftermath of bombing raids in London. This is called Bombed Out Bermondsey, 1941.

This is a famous picture by Dame Laura Knight, Corporal J D M Pearson, GC, WAAF, 1940. Daphne Pearson was the first woman to receive the George Cross for gallantry. She rescued a pilot from his burning aircraft when it crashed on landing at an airfield in Kent. when the plane’s bombs exploded, she sheltered the pilot with her body & used her steel helmet to protect his head.

I’ve put myself back in the reservation queue for this book as I’ve only had a chance to skim the surface of the fascinating stories of the women artists that Catherine Speck has researched & recovered from obscurity.

6 thoughts on “Beyond the Battlefield : women artists of the two World Wars – Catherine Speck

  1. I like the watercolor of the ambulance, too. I'm almost finished reading Elsie and Mairi Go to War, which I think I may have seen on your blog. It amazes me how much women did during both wars. I don't think I would have the stomach or constitution for that.


  2. What a lovely book – I saw a Stella Benson (and others) exhibition some years ago (I think at the Aust. War Memorial, but maybe I'm misremembering) and wanted to know more about her and her colleagues for ages, so this sounds perfect. (Also Adelaidean.)


  3. It was good to see several Australian artists in the book. Have you read Stella Bowen's (was it Bowen you meant?) autobiography Drawn From Life? It was very good & the edition I read had a beautiful, stern self-portrait on the cover. Drusilla Modjeska's book Stravinsky's Lunch is also very good on Bowen & Grace Cossington-Smith, another of my favourites.


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