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The artists who fought Blitz - then painted it

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2013

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Little has been written about a group of brave, unique and little-known artists who were engaged both as artists and active combatants on the Home Front during the Second World War.

Exeter-based author Anthony Kelly is making up for that with a book about the Firemen Artist Group.

Fireman Artists 1940-45: Heroes with Grimy Faces reveals how the group was made up of painters and designers who joined the wartime Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) as volunteers. They were Britain's front line as firemen during and after the Blitz, and they recorded the extraordinary events to which they were witness in their spare time.

The first fully illustrated history to introduce the work and life of the artists, Anthony's book recalls how they organised their own exhibitions of paintings of events like firestorms in London's dockland, raids on Coventry and Bath, and crashed aircraft in the Devon countryside.

These subjects created the iconic image of the heroic fireman. Their work also portrayed the first women to serve in the fire service, some of whom were also artists.

Anthony came up with the title of the book from a quote by Winston Churchill, who called the AFS "heroes with grimy faces". The content is based on original research and new information from archives and includes more than 180 stunning illustrations and many paintings not seen since wartime.

Anthony, a researcher and former university lecturer who has written other works on literature and art, including war art, said: "The book had its origins in my admiration for the achievements of the British people during the Second World War, especially on the Home Front during the Blitz.

"However, after nearly four years studying Dutch art as a postgraduate at University College London, I only discovered Britain's 'war art' by chance on a visit to the Imperial War Museum," he says.

"When I later heard mention of the independent group who called themselves the Firemen Artists, I found their story both intriguing and inspiring. There was something romantic about recent graduates from the finest art schools, along with some illustrators and graphic designers, volunteering to serve as frontline firefighters, and painting their extraordinary experiences.

"They seemed to be a special kind of artist, and I wanted to learn more about them."

Although they were widely acclaimed at the time, Anthony was surprised to find that there was no in-depth, published study of these men and women and their work.

"I wanted to show how much they contributed to art and visual culture in wartime: paintings, drawings, book illustrations, advertisements, even cartoons... wartime humour, that very British phenomenon!"

They went on to sell paintings in prestigious locations such as the Royal Academy and the Washington National Gallery of Art, always with a portion donated to the Firemen's Charity.

Picking his personal favourite, Anthony said: "It is a painting closer to home, rather than the dramatic 'firestorm' images.

"I think A Crashed Aeroplane, Devon, by C J Pearce stands out for its authentic 'local colour' and skilful composition, in the great artistic tradition showing figures at work in a landscape.

"Here every detail shows the firemen's skill in dealing with unexpected emergencies, but leaves the viewer to imagine what they will find at the site of the plane crash over the hill."

This painting was shown in the Guildhall last year at an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the Exeter Blitz. "Of all the pictures on display, this was the one which led visitors to say, 'I'd like to have that one on my wall', recalled Anthony.

"All I know about the painter is that he was a fireman artist based in Devon."

Another painting Anthony is particularly fond of is Rescuing Horses by Reginald Mills, which he discovered in the store room of the London Fire Brigade Museum

He said: "The animals are magnificent shire or dray horses that were still a common sight in wartime London, and more valued than ever because of petrol rationing.

"Today the image could be related to the popular war horse theme.

"Few have heard of these remarkable and admirable men and women who combined art with frontline action in defence of the nation in its darkest hour.

"I hope that the book will go some way to make more people aware of their achievements.

"Ideally, the next step would be an exhibition of paintings that have been largely neglected since the end of the Second World War."

Firemen Artists 1940-45, by Anthony Kelly, is published by Halsgrove, priced £24.99.

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