'Demonstration in Battersea, 1939'
This is such an arresting painting, I can't resist the temptation to post it here. It's by Clive Branson, a Communist artist who fought in Spain and died in Burma during the Second World War. It is, of course, intensely political ... and with a strong sense of place ... and through its use of colour, and the affection with which those peopling the canvas are depicted, an optimistic image as the clouds of war darkened.
The painting's title is 'Demonstration in Battersea, 1939'. I've blogged before about Clive Branson and his daughter Rosa Branson and their shared enthusiasm for art, though in markedly different styles. The image appeared in the Guardian a short while back - here's the link - in a review of an exhibition devoted British artists and the Spanish Civil War. It's at Chichester and is on until February.
The Guardian's caption: Demonstration in Battersea, 1939 by Clive Branson, dedicated to Comrade E Marney: ‘a parade of hungry volunteers… sometimes shirtless, often ill, but always wearing their brigade badges or caps’. Photograph: Collection of Rosa Branson/© The Estate of Clive Branson
Clive Branson was a communist, poet, artist and soldier - he fought in the Spanish Civil War and died in Burma where he was serving in the British army during the Second World War. I blogged about him recently - and included copies of some of his paintings held by the Tate.
One of the nicest aspects of a blog is the way that one thing leads to another. So that posting helped put me in contact with Clive's daughter, the artist Rosa Branson - and a day or two back I called on her and had the privilege of seeing more of her and her father's art.
Both Clive and his wife Noreen were from wealthy families. They met in London, both uncomfortable with their privileged backgrounds. They married, went to live in Battersea and joined the Communist Party. Rosa tells me that she was named after 'Red Rosa' Luxemburg.
This is a self-portrait by Clive Branson which Rosa has on display at her home (she has given permission for all the pictures you see here to be posted). Rosa's father died when she was ten - one of the last things he said to her was to urge her to be an artist. That has been the biggest spur to her own highly successful and productive career.
Rosa told me of her great pride in her father - in his poetry, art, and more so in the qualities which shined through in his life and politics. She recalled that her mother once said how proud her father would be of her and her success as an artist - and that in turn gave Rosa a great sense of satisfaction.
I am really taken by Clive Branson's political paintings, mainly from the late 1930s - let me show you why:
This last painting, Rosa explained, depicts a wartime barrage balloon which was pierced and deflated over Battersea - and the escaping gas turned the air green.
The painting on the right is again Battersea - Rosa has photographs of these street scenes in more recent years. Can anyone help me identify where they are?
All these paintings have simply been photographed on an iphone - so I'm sorry that they do not do full justice to the originals, but I hope you will get a sense of the style as well as the subject matter.
Rosa also has what she calls her father's archive. His letters have been deposited at the Bishopsgate Institute and the Marx Memorial Library - but she has copies of all his correspondence, as well as the original of a letter, very precious to her, sent by Clive to his daughter during his war service in India.
There are also Clive's school caps - and, as you can see below, the cap he wore while fighting with the International Brigades in Spain, along with his cap badge and another badge from that era:
Rosa's own painting - she still paints for seven hours a day, and has completed more than 600 works - often draws on family history. Below are details relating to her father and his death from two different canvasses:
Rosa has visited her father's war grave in Burma - and his gravestone and the cemetery are shown in the detail above.
On the left is Rosa alongside the full canvas. In recent years she has painted these large story-canvasses particularly at the request of charities and lobby groups, both for display and as a support to fund raising. Her own family (including cousin Richard Branson), as well as friends, neighbours, students and local shopkeepers, often feature in the paintings.
Although Rosa describes herself as an atheist, several of her large paintings feature Christ, saints, angels, haloes, harps and all things celestial - with again those close at hand serving as the models. She recalls her granddaughter creating quite an impact when, while queuing up at the local greengrocers, she pointed at the shopkeeper and exclaimed: 'Look, Jesus!'
You know the moment. You find a book you really like very cheap in an Oxfam bookshop, and for no very good reason, you buy it. You already have a copy - but it's too good to pass by.
That's how this morning, at the Oxfam bookshop in Crouch End, I forked out £2.50 for Clive Branson's British Soldier in India. Branson, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (some of his poems are in the anthologies of civil war verse), served in India and Burma during the Second World War - and died there.
His letters are about India, communism, poverty, nationalism, war, famine - and the vivid colours and assault on all the senses that India brings with it to those from outside.
What tempted me above all, though, to make the purchase was a clipping loose inside the book - a review in the 'Daily Worker' of 21st October 1944 by, of all people, Sean O'Casey. Here it is:
In an introduction to the book - published in 1944, the year of Branson's death in Burma - the CP leader, Harry Pollitt, gives some details of his life history. Born in 1907 in India, where his father was an army officer (it seems his full name was Clive Ali Chimmo Branson though he was usually known as Frank - there must be a story behind that but I haven't yet found it), Branson moved to England as a baby. He attended the Slade School of Art, but once he joined the CP in his mid-twenties he forsook painting for a while: 'He used to say that to be able to paint you must first learn about life.'
British Soldier in india includes a few sketches that Branson made while in Maharashtra - this being a study for a much larger intended work:
I noticed in Pollitt's introduction an account of Branson's art work in the years just before he enlisted in the armed forces:
After the outbreak of the present war, while continuing his political work, he nevertheless spent a number of months painting very intensively, because, as he said, "it may be my last chance". He painted mainly the life in Battersea, where he lived, the workers in the streets, the events of the blitz.
And if you look on the web, you can see some of these very striking paintings. The one below dates from 1937 and is entitled 'Selling the Daily Worker outside the Projectile and Engineering Works' - it's held by the Tate, and I hope they will forgive me for posting the work here:
And here's another even more striking Branson painting which I found on the web - entitled 'Bombed Women and Searchlights', from the Blitz period. It's also at the Tate - one of five Branson paintings they hold (among the other is surely the only still life to feature books by Marx and Stalin):
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