"I AM British and live in Richmond. The reason I enjoy Cervantes
and Shakespeare in equal measure is because this is my story (on
both sides)." The exhibition under discussion marks the 75th
anniversary of the ending of the Spanish Civil War, an event that,
in Hemingway's words in his 1940 book For Whom the Bell
Tolls, was the "dress rehearsal for the inevitable European
War" that followed.
The conflict is not always easy to understand, as a conspiracy
of silence still veils much discussion of it in a divided Spanish
society, since it was General Franco who appointed Juan Carlos to
be king in 1975. Simon Martin, a co-director of Pallant House,
Chichester, where this extraordinarily profound and intensely
moving exhibition was first staged last November, is to be
congratulated for an even-handed survey of artists in this often
It is reckoned that some 6800 religious, secular priests, and
members of communities were killed between 1936 and 1939. Thirteen
bishops, including those of Barcelona and Cuenca, were put to
death, all of them having determined to stay within their dioceses
despite facing danger from Republicans.
Some 4172 parish clergy are known to have been killed, some for
supporting the Nationalist government, others for simply being
priests. The massacre of the religious is yet more telling,
including 165 De La Salle brothers, 226 Franciscans, and 132
Dominicans, for instance.
Britain had signed a non-intervention pact with Spain, and the
exhibition traces the story of how artists, among many others,
defied the ban in an effort to help the afflicted. Some 2500
volunteers travelled to Spain, including writers such as W. H.
Auden, Stephen Spender, and Julian Bell, to fight against Fascism
as mercenaries; nearly a quarter died in the field. The British
Government, to uphold the pact, invoked a 19th-century Act to
prohibit foreign enlistment.
Henry Moore, who had been refused a visa, was among English
artists to inveigh against this, and the exhibition charts the
response of British artists to the unfolding humanitarian crisis
that tore out the heart of the Iberian peninsula.
At a May Day rally in 1938, Roland Penrose, a friend of Picasso,
who founded the ICA after the Second World War, and the artist and
print-maker Julian Trevelyan (1910-88) were among those who wore
Chamberlain masks, devised by the British surrealist sculptor F. E.
McWilliam (1909-92), to call for the Prime Minister's
Later that year, Penrose helped Sir Herbert Read to organise the
British tour for Picasso's outrageous Guernica, an
exhibition sponsored by, among others, Virginia Woolf, Victor
Gollancz, and both E. M. Forster and A. P. Herbert, designed to
show the plight of Republican Spain. Penrose bought Pablo Picasso's
Femme en pleurs of 26 October 1937 (The Tate), a
dominating presence in this show.
Non-intervention always costs lives. Although this exhibition
was conceived three years ago, at the suggestion of Dr Jeffrey
Sherwin, a great collector of British surrealist art, it is wildly
relevant and deeply provocative. It is impossible not to view it
against the background of the recent beheadings in Libya of Coptic
Christians, or in the light of the chilling honesty of the Chaldean
Archbishop of Erbil's address to the General Synod (News, 13
February) and the Russian invasion of Ukrainian sovereign
When a little girl, Maria Santiago Robert, was killed at Getafe
in an air strike on 30 October 1936, the Republicans circulated an
image of her body the next day. Her face is trapped in a wordless
scream, her eyes as if alert to the disaster. The poster, "The
'military' practice of the rebels", was sent to France and Britain
to try to prompt an international response: "If you tolerate this,
your children will be next." Coventry and Dresden would follow.
The London Passenger Transport Board even refused to display
posters for the Winter Relief Fund painted by Felicity Ashbee,
objecting that the stark depictions of contemporary suffering were
too "political". The RC pacifist Sir Frank Brangwyn, in a poster
campaign for the General Relief Fund for Women and Children in
Spain, a non-partisan relief fund supported by the Chief Rabbi as
well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, RC clergy, and leaders of the
Free Churches in England and Scotland, turned to Spanish images of
the Virgin Mary for succour.
The British Government relented, and more than 4000 Basque
children sailed on The Habana to Southampton, arriving on
23 May 1937, ten days after the coronation of King George VI and
Queen Elizabeth. One gallery visitor had brought her mother, a
niña vasca, to see the exhibition in Chichester, and
feelingly wrote that her mother "would like to thank the British
people for their support and care". How many Syrian refugees have
we now brought to safety? Are Iraqi Christians welcomed here in
Besides paintings and drawings, we are treated to a range of
artefacts including a banner made by the Women of Barcelona for the
British Battalion at the Farewell Parade of the International
Brigades in October 1938. It has been draped over the coffins of
all the known battalion survivors since. There is even a souvenir
Spanish fan signed by members of the International Brigade from
Cyprus, Canada, Britain, Hungary, Ireland, and South Africa, true
"Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil
War" is at the Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle upon
Tyne, until 7 June. Phone 0191 232 7734.