Felicia Browne’s acclaimed art and the struggle against fascism complemented each seamlessly. PETER FROST has the story.
As we prepare for the opening of the Rio Olympics journey back with me to the summer of 1936 — 80 years ago. In Berlin Hitler and his Nazi Party are planning an Olympic Games that will demonstrate to the world the superiority of the Aryan master race.
A 22-year-old athlete from Alabama called Jesse Owens would have something to say about that.
Meanwhile in Barcelona, the capital of autonomous Catalonia within the newly established Spanish Republic, a People’s Olympics was being planned as an alternative to, and a protest against, the nazi Berlin games.
These people’s games were scheduled to open on July 19 just before the start of the Berlin games. As well as the normal olympic events the Barcelona games were to feature chess, folk-dancing, music and theatre.
A total of 6,000 participants from 22 nations registered for these anti-fascist games. The large contingents of athletes came from the US and from Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Algeria — then still a French colony.
In addition, there were teams from Germany and Italy made up of political exiles from those countries. Alsace, Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque country also entered teams.
Many of these sportswomen and men were sent by trade unions, workers’ sports clubs and from socialist and communist parties and left-wing groups.
As dawn broke on the morning of July 11 1936 a de Havilland Dragon Rapide eight seater biplane (like the one pictured below) with the civilian British markings G-ACYR took off from Croydon Aerodrome.
At the controls were two supposed civilian pilots — in fact both were close to British military intelligence — and two young women in the passenger cabin made it look like any other innocent, pleasure flight.
In fact, this was a clandestine military operation.
The destination was the Canary Islands, where they would pick up General Francisco Franco and fly him to Spanish Morocco where he was to rendezvous with the army rebels who would help him launch his attack on the democratically elected Republican government of Spain.
As in so many other chapters in the civil war, a supposedly neutral British government did all it could to assist Franco and his fascists.
With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war — just as the People’s Games were to begin — these workers’ Olympics were hastily cancelled. Some athletes never made it to Barcelona as the borders had been closed, others, disappointed, left for home.
Two young women, artist Felicia Browne and photographer Edith Bone, arrived in Barcelona for the Games. It was the end of a motoring holiday for the two communist women.
Felicia in Barcelona with an unknown Spanish child. This picture was taken by her comrade and friend communist photographer Edith Bone.
They arrived just in time to see the Games cancelled and to hear the shocking news of Franco’s treason and his attack against the Republic.
Browne was born in Surrey in 1904. Her artistic ability developed young and from St John’s Wood School of Art she won a place at the Slade at the unusually young age of 16.
In 1928 she travelled to Berlin to study metalwork and to become an apprentice stonemason.
In the German capital she witnessed the rise of the nazis and joined anti-fascist activities including fighting gangs of brownshirted thugs on the streets. She also travelled to the Soviet Union to see for herself the way Russia was developing its communist system.
These experiences made her an intensely political woman. In the early 1930s she returned to Britain and in 1933, determined to do what she could to fight fascism, she joined the Communist Party.
Browne also became an active member of the Artists’ International Association, an organisation of left-leaning artists that embraced all styles of art, both modernist and traditional.
Its aim was to promote the “unity of artists for peace, democracy and cultural development” and it organised a series of large exhibitions beginning in 1935 with one entitled Artists Against Fascism and War.
By 1934 Browne’s artistic reputation was growing — she won a prize for her design of the Trade Union Congress Tolpuddle medal and contributed work to the publication Left Review.
This political activity brought her to the attention of both MI5 and Special Branch, who kept a file on her until her death in Spain in 1936.
In Barcelona, in the summer of 1936, this British communist artist understood exactly what was happening in Spain and its link with the fascism she had seen in Germany. She took the decision to stay and fight alongside the people of Spain.
Enlisting didn’t prove easy. The facts that she was British and a woman frustrated several attempts to join up and fight with the Republican forces.
She was finally able to join a communist militia on August 3 1936, having convinced them with a simple argument: “I am a member of the London communists and I can fight as well as any man,” she told them.
It was just three weeks later on August 25, when she and her comrades attempted to dynamite a fascist munitions train, that Felicia was fatally shot while assisting an injured Italian comrade. She was just 32, the first British volunteer, woman or man, to die in the war.
Felicia was just one of many female volunteers to fight for the Republic. There were Spanish combat battalions with both women and men on the front line and women-only rear guard battalions — but she was the only known British woman to take up arms against the fascists.
Many other British women served in the anti-fascist struggle but mostly as medical, nursing, driving or administration support.
Even after her death Browne continued to help the cause she died for as her final drawings were exhibited in London to raise funds for Spanish relief campaigns.
To commemorate her death a small exhibition of her work is on show outside the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms at Tate Britain until August 14 2016.
Many of her letters and sketchbooks, filled with drawings of her fellow Republican fighters are available on the Tate Gallery archive website.
They provide evidence, if evidence was needed, of one woman who saw the need to halt the advance of fascism on the battlefields of Spain and paid the ultimate price in the battle against it.
It is a battle that has still to be won today.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 30 July 2016.