'Traitor painters': artists and espionage in the First World War, 1914-18.

Author:Fox, James
Position:Essay
 
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With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 fears concerning the presence of secret agents in Britain erupted into an epidemic of 'spy mania.' For over a decade espionage had been a highly marketable subject, with the writers William Le Queux and Erskine Childers building successful careers on the issue, and spy films reaching ever growing audiences. (1) But fantastical curiosity soon gave way to debilitating war-time paranoia and Le Queux, like others, amplified the public fears into highly profitable hysteria. In a book entitled German Spies in England (which was reprinted six times in just three weeks following its February 1915 publication), Le Queux addressed what he called the 'ever-spreading canker-worm in the nation's heart' and declared that: 'among us here in Great Britain ... are men--hundreds of them--who are daily, nay hourly, plotting our downfall.' Le Queux's alarmist fabulations touched a public nerve that Britain's newspapers--in particular The Daily Mail, The Globe, John Bull and later even The Times--exploited mercilessly. Meanwhile, cases like Carl Hans Lody's--the first secret agent shot in England and the first person to be executed in the Tower of London since the mid-18th-century--only further fuelled the public's frenzy. (2) That Lody was an inept amateur unconsciously misinforming his employers, and that the actual threat posed by spies to the country was negligible, seemed not to matter. But perhaps the unlikeliest element in this farrago of unlikely stories was that, of all social groups, it was artists who were the most seriously affected by spy mania and among the most likely to be suspected of espionage. (3) This essay will show how two mutually reinforcing social pressures, government legislation and public sentiment, were focused upon artists to a unique extent. It will thus illuminate an important aspect of the social history of the home front and explore a hitherto neglected feature of the war's influence on British art.

The initial connection between artists and spies can partly be explained by contemporary understandings of espionage methods. A number of semi-official sources stressed the role secret visual codes played in the communication of information via enemy intelligence networks. Robert Baden-Powell, who had served at length in the British Army, described in detail how spies would pose as artists in order to produce these codes unsuspected. He revealed that many English agents on the continent were using such disguises, confessed that he had done so himself (with considerable success), and even printed a series of plans disguised as innocent artists' sketches as examples (Pls 1, 2). (4) William Le Queux similarly maintained that the spy was 'usually a man who has received thorough instruction in sketching', and reiterated Baden-Powell's explication of the 'visual code' technique:

Innocent sketches may be made of woodland scenery;, with a picturesque windmill and cottage in the foreground, and woods in the distance. Yet this, when decoded in Berlin--the old windmill representing a lighthouse, the trees a distant town, and so forth--will be found to be an elaborate plan of a harbour showing the disposition of the mines in its channel! (5) These secret espionage methods were even discussed by the popular press. On 7 October 1914 The Illustrated War News published a double-page item dominated by two adjacent landscapes of the same scene--one loose and sketchy; the other schematic and topographical--that painstakingly illustrated how a plan could masquerade as an innocent sketch and its producer pose as an innocent artist (Pls 3, 4).

The illustration on the first of these two pages ... shows an apparently innocent drawing of a landscape made by a spy. Were he caught with it in his possession, he might pose with comparative safety as an artist who had been sketching for his own amusement ... in point of fact, however, his sketch would have been made in accordance with a secret pictorial code known to the Government in whose interest he was spying ... the landscape, received by the spy's Government, is read in accordance with the code, and the result is a plan. In this code a windmill, for example, would represent a lighthouse; a plantation of trees, a fort; a single farmhouse or cottage, a group of buildings; a group of houses, a town; a church, Admiralty offices or a Town Hall; double lines (ostensibly roads), railways tracks, and so on. (6) This discursive formulation--in which the artist became a secret agent and his 'artwork' one of his 'many insidious devices'--is perhaps not the most reliable account of espionage techniques, but it was an enduring formulation that convinced the public that artists could not be trusted, and the increasingly vigilant authorities that their activities should be intensively monitored.

Defence of the Realm

The First World War precipitated a comprehensive dismantling of the basic civil liberties that many Britons had long considered their birthright. The first day of the conflict saw the passing of the Aliens Restriction Act, which attempted to regulate the 70-75,000 enemy aliens in the country through surveillance, extradition and even internment; three days later it was followed by the infamous Defence of the Realm Act (known mock-affectionately as DORA), which had a decisive impact on all forms of public life by greatly expanding state power in the name of national security. By 1917 subjects could not whistle for a taxicab in London, keep their lights on at night, publicly discuss military matters, light bonfires or fireworks, fly kites, buy binoculars, or feed animals without permission. Many were even at risk of having their property appropriated by the state. (7) The purpose of this draconian legislation was twofold: first, to prevent people communicating with the enemy; and second, to secure all areas 'necessary to safeguard in the interests of the training or concentration of any of His Majesty's Forces'. (8)

Convinced that artists had the ability to seriously compromise the war-effort by communicating sensitive visual information to the enemy, DORA rigorously impinged upon their activities. Censorship regulated the content of their work. Most famous was the controversy that surrounded a 1918 exhibition of CRW Nevinson's war pictures--two of which were considered potentially inimical to morale because of their frank depiction of the realities of conflict, with one ultimately refused public display. (9) Censorship, however, did not only affect front-line truth-telling celebrities like Nevinson; a large constituency of conservative marine painters--many of whom had operated quietly for many years and thrived from the public interest in the Navy at the beginning of the war--saw their profession become unviable overnight when on 27 September 1915 the Admiralty ordered that 'photographs, profile outlines, drawings or silhouettes of any of H.M. ships ... that might in any way assist enemy agents in the identification of H.M. ships, must ... under Regulation 18 of [DORA] ... not be exposed for sale; and dealings in such articles, whether by sale or otherwise, should no longer take place during the continuance of the war'. (10)

However, the second regulation DORA imposed on artists was even more injurious to their profession, and its consequences were far-reaching:

No person shall without the permission of the competent naval or military authority make any photograph, sketch, plan, model, or other representation of any naval or military work, or of any dock or harbour, or with intent to assist the enemy, of any other place or thing. (11) It restricted not just what artists depicted, but where they depicted it, and consequently forbade effectively any kind of art-making, anywhere in the country. As one artist explained:

No sketching or painting whatever is allowed within four, and in some cases seven, miles of the coast. Sketching should also be avoided near any defensive works, estuaries, or towns which are fortified or entrenched; aerodromes, wireless stations, railways, waterworks, reservoirs, or bridges of any importance. Even though the subject of the sketch may be a group of trees, a cathedral or a paintable cottage, the rule applies strictly. (12) Subsequent to this legislation artists across the country began to be confronted, interrogated and even incarcerated by the authorities for working en plein-air. Arrests were most frequent at the coast. (13) John Lavery, who had actually been commissioned by the Admiralty to depict Naval bases, was arrested for painting the Fleet at the Forth Bridge. At the other end of the country, in Dover, another established artist, Philip Wilson Steer, was performing a similar duty when: 'some blighter comes up and wants to see my permit, which is very upsetting just in the middle of laying a wash!' (14) One artist was charged under DORA for painting the Menai Strait; pleading ignorance and proving 'Britishness', he was released, but the police were applauded for their vigilance. And according to Augustus John, as far away as Galway, Ireland, 'around the harbour ... if one starts sketching one is at once shot by a policeman'. (15) John was doubtless exaggerating the severity of the punishment meted out to conspicuous artists, but, considering the strategic and symbolic importance of protecting the nation from invasion, the authorities' oversensitivity to suspicious presences apparently charting the peculiarities of the coasts and naval ports is unsurprising. (16)

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While, however, the legislation initially only applied to military areas or coastal regions, it quickly expanded so that non-military zones were...

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