Helen Hague recalls ‘heroes with grimy faces’ who were also artists
St Paul’s Cathedral stands proud and defiant against a red glowing sky as huge fires rage all around. A wall from a bombed-out building is collapsing as two firefighters stand in its shadow. A uniformed firefighter, eyes half shut, gazes down at the skull cupped in his hand.
These are just three of the images created by firefighter artists who signed up to serve in the Auxiliary Fire Service across the country before and after the Blitz. This group of artists created some of the most memorable and startling art to emerge from the Second World War.
These were not “official” war artists – though some went on to be so. Most were artists and designers turned wartime firefighters, drivers and emergency control staff who combined service on the Home Front with a mission to make work from their experience on the fireground, chronicling life under enemy bombardment.
A sketchbook and oil paints are hardly standard issue fire kit, but Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) artists were encouraged to record the extraordinary events they were living through.
In paintings, drawings and sketches, they evoked the flames, the rubble and the rescues as well as the cramped conditions and snatched naps in makeshift fire stations converted from schools and garages.
In some works, the growing sense of camaraderie in shared adversity is deftly woven in. No single “style” predominates. Work ranges from the near documentary to unsettling symbolism, from bold swathes of colour to a surrealist take on breathing respirators.
There are a lot of flames and incandescent skies – and more than a shy showing of firefighters battling blazes. Some of the most poignant pictures show exhausted firefighters in the desolate aftermath, trying to grab a break – evoking recent images of firefighters outside Grenfell Tower.
Burning skies from these artists do not just come in standard-issue red. Paul Dessau’s depiction of a “spirit fire” – when whisky and brandy crates went up in a London warehouse – shows an intoxicating brew of billowing pastels framing brandy barrel carcasses in the foreground. You can almost smell the heady fumes – and sense how firefighters tackling that blaze must have felt.
The AFS artists were known as the “firemen artist group”. Nearly 80 years ago in 1940 the founding group, the Firemen Artists’ Organising Committee, was all male. It included Paul Dessau, Leonard Rosoman and Norman Hepple – the three artists whose works are cited at the beginning of this story.
Women came to play a significant role and the group gained critical and public acclaim through high profile exhibitions, championed by Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery. Paintings from the national and other galleries were now safe from enemy bombs in Welsh slate quarries. Art made by firefighters could help fill empty galleries.
LIFE ON STATION
Julia Lowenthal, based in Kilburn, West London, captured life on station. In Rest After Blitz, a fireman, still in uniform, crashes out on a trestle bed, helmet and belt on the floor. Firewoman Dressing shows a young woman, naked from the waist up, tying her boots as she sits on a makeshift bed.
At shows at the Royal Academy and other prestigious venues, these firefighter artists were able to share their work with fellow citizens during the war years – though Firewoman Dressing was not displayed during the war.
There were wartime shows in America and Canada too – Churchill called the firefighters “heroes with grimy faces”. Their work made a big impact on both public and government across the Atlantic.
Artist and novelist Mary Pitcairn became acting secretary and “Firemen Artists” exhibition organiser after joining the AFS in Kilburn. Her compelling image Driving by Moonlight shows Bermondsey AFS Firewoman Gillian “Bobbie” Tanner, focused and determined, gripping the steering wheel intently as she drives through London in the blackout, a single beam of light bouncing off the windscreen. It’s September 1940.
Firewoman Tanner had volunteered to deliver desperately needed two-gallon petrol cans to trailer pumps across the city, even as bombs fell and fires raged in the early days of the Blitz. She was awarded the George Medal for her “coolness and courage throughout”. Pitcairn’s portrait captures this.
Months later, on the night of 29/30 December, Leonard Rosoman was on duty off Fleet Street when the Luftwaffe dropped 100,000 incendiary bombs on the City of London. It was the night St Paul’s survived, against the odds. Rosoman was dispatched to fight fires blazing in Shoe Lane with fellow auxiliaries Sidney Holder and writer William Sansom. They were directing water into a burning building. Rosoman was called away to recce a nearby building.
He captured what happened moments later in a shockingly powerful painting – the imminent death of colleague Sidney Holder and an unknown helper, as a wall from the bombed-out building starts to collapse.
Rosoman went on to become an official war artist in 1943, and a member of the Royal Academy. He died aged 98. His painting of the collapsing wall helped make his reputation.
The Fire Brigades Union played a part in nurturing Rosoman’s career, intervening when he received his army call-up papers even though he had joined the AFS when it was a reserved occupation.
This summer Rosoman’s work was again exhibited at the Royal Academy. Work from the “Firemen Artists” – including the talented women whose work was shown in wartime – deserves a major public show. The time is surely ripe.