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  • Chrissy Hamlin

Felicia Browne & The Spanish Civil War

Felicia Mary Browne was an English artist and a member of the communist party. She was the only English woman, to die in the Spanish Civil War.

Over 4,000 British volunteers enlisted and several hundred of them died. Most of these were men with left wing sympathies, motivated by the Europe-wide threat of fascism. British writers like George Orwell, WH Auden and Laurie Lee were just three of the men whose work now better informs our understanding of the war and British participation in it. Felica's story in contrast, is far less well known, but through her sketches and drawings, she documented her own experiences, as an unofficial war artist .

There were mixed-gender Spanish combat battalions on the front line and women-only rear guard battalions – but Felica Browne was the only known British woman to die fighting for the cause. As Angela Jackson points out in British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2002): "Her story has all the ingredients essential to heroic legend, the willing sacrifice of her life to save that of a comrade."

Felicia Browne was born at Weston Green, Thames Ditton, Surrey, on 18 February 1904. Her family were middle class but her father, had progressive political ideas, and encouraged his daughter in her early artistic endeavors. Felicia had an older brother, called Harold, who was named after their father, and who died out in France in 1918 during the 1st World War. She also had two older sisters, Helen, and Edith, and a younger brother called Billy, who also died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, two years later than Felicia, in 1938.

Felica Browne studied at the St John's Wood Art School and the Slade School of Art between 1920–21 and 1927–28 and was awarded the Certificate in Drawing. Arriving at the Slade at the unusually young age of 16, she was a contemporary of William Coldstream, Henry Tonks, Clive Branson, Claude Rogers and Nan Youngman.

In 1928 she went to Berlin, to study metal work and Sculpture. She became an apprentice to a stone mason whilst there, and witnessed the rise of fascism first-hand. She actively participated in anti-fascist activities and was involved in anti-Nazi street-fighting.

Nan Youngman said of her friend: "Felicia was much more aware of the political situation than any of us. In 1928 she went to Berlin to study sculpture, living with unemployed fellow artists. Witnessing the Nazis come to power led her to the Communist party."

In the early 1930’s she returned to England, and became involved with the left-wing Artists International Association (AIA). She also continued to study at Goldsmiths College and the Central School of Arts and Crafts and contributed art to The Left Review.

Browne travelled to Soviet Russia in 1931, to see how people lived and worked under a communist regime. She also went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, sketching the townscapes and the local people there. James Hopkins, the author of Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998) explains: "Felicia Browne possessed a strong dislike of privilege as well as abstemious personal habits and genuine artistic talent. She donated her personal fortune to refugees, and, in a subsequent period of privation, took employment in a restaurant kitchen. Her ability to speak four languages eased her travels through some of the most remote parts of Europe.”

In 1933 Felicia Browne joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, attracting the interest of M15 and Special Branch. Whilst she was a patient at Guy’s Hospital, she distributed leaflets and attempted to convert some of the nurses to communism. As a result, a watch was established on her postal mail, and it became clear that her home, in Bessborough Gardens and then Guilford Street, London, were being used as cover addresses for foreign mail being sent to Communists in Britain.

In 1934 Felicia Browne won a prize for her design of a medal for the Trades Union Congress, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Ironically, some of the future recipients of this medal, also turned out to be Communists.

Felica Browne's involvement in the Spanish Civil War was not directly planned. While many of the other fighters had to travel from Britain in secret after the British government declared it illegal to go to Spain to fight, Browne had, in fact, arrived just before it began. In July 1936 Browne embarked on a driving holiday to France and Spain, accompanied by her friend Dr. Edith Bone, who was a left-wing photographer. Bone went on to become heavily involved with the establishment of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, (PSUC) in Barcelona.

Their objective was to reach Barcelona in time for the People's Olympiad, which had been organized as protest against the 1936 Olympics that were being held in Berlin. However, on 17 July, two days before the People’s Olympiad was due to begin, the fascist military rose up against the Spanish republic, and the Spanish Civil War began. Felicia Browne and Edith Bone were immediately caught up in the violence that engulfed Barcelona.

Browne learned of a mission to blow up a fascist munitions train and boldly volunteered for it. However, the Communist party attempted to dissuade her participation. She defied the orders and went to the party offices, where she demanded to be enlisted to fight on the Saragossa front. According to the Daily Express correspondent Sydney Smith, she declared that "I am a member of the London Communists and I can fight as well as any man."

On 3 August 1936, Felicia Browne successfully enlisted in the PSUC (Catalan Communist) Karl Marx militia to fight in Aragon. Shortly after joining she wrote to her friend Elizabeth Watson in England, describing her desperation to get involved; "Apparently no chance of aviation school on account of my eyesight, God damn it."

James Hopkins, the author of Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998) describes Felicia’s mission and tells how she met her death on 25 August 1936:

"A German comrade on the raid, George Brinkman, has left a fascinating typewritten report, describing their mission. According to Brinkman, the pudgy, bespectacled Browne was forced to clear a final gender hurdle before being allowed to accompany the raiding party. She went to its leader and asked if he would accept a woman comrade as a volunteer. After attempting to intimidate Browne by telling her of the dangers that awaited them, and failing, he accepted her as one of the ten who would attempt the hazardous mission. They left Tardienta by car and travelled to the farthest point of the front, where they disembarked walked about twelve kilometres to the rail line. Browne and two others were told to keep watch and signal if there was trouble. The remaining seven moved close to the tracks. They set the charges with only thirty seconds remaining before the train passed."

“On their way back, the group stumbled upon a macabre scene, a crashed plane with the remains of the pilot in the cockpit. As they hurriedly buried the dead man, a dog suddenly appeared, and with him an oppressive sense of danger. Brinkman moved quickly up a steep incline where he saw thirty-five or forty enemy soldiers nearby. He signaled to the rest to take cover. To re-join them, Brinkman had to run through heavy rifle fire. An Italian volunteer beside him fell with a bullet through his foot. Brinkman made him as comfortable as possible under the desperate circumstances and then ran to the others for help. Browne insisted on returning with first aid for the wounded man. When she reached him, the enemy concentrated its fire on the two of them, killing her with bullet wounds to her chest and back.”

Browne's body could not be recovered, and had to be left there, but her comrades retrieved a sketchbook from her possessions, filled with drawings of her fellow soldiers, these stoic men and women all having been captured in Browne’s lyrical, romantic modernist style. These drawings made their way to Tom Wintringham, a journalist for the Daily Worker, who suggested to Harry Pollitt that they be sold by the Artists' International Association (AIA) to raise money for Spanish relief. The AIA presented Browne as being the epitome of an artist choosing to take direct political action.

In her obituary in the Artists International Association journal it said:

“She had it in her to represent the very best type of the new woman, but the kind of upbringing to which she was automatically subjected to, and the forces with which she had to compete in a society where commercial values are preeminent, seriously and unnecessarily delayed her in harmonizing all the remarkable powers within her”.

“She had most of the best human characteristics, but she conceived her own variety more as a source of opposition than of enjoyment. She was without guile, duplicity or vanity; painfully truthful and honest, immensely kind and generous, completely humane, loving any aspect of livingness, and as capable of enormous humour as she was deeply serious. She was gifted at every craft that she tried, a witty letter-writer, an amusing cartoonist, a vital and interesting companion, and socially much too gracious to belong credibly to the twentieth century."

“But if her fighting was the expression of her deeply conscientious but less happy side, at least she had intellectual faith in the future. And she found happiness at the end, as far as one can judge from her letters, in a real sense of comradeship with her fellow militiamen. Intellectually she was quite clear about what was necessary for the next few years other life.”

Her friend and colleague Nan Youngman, who was much affected by Felicia's death, organized a memorial exhibition for Browne in October 1936. Felicia’s death radically altered Youngman’s political outlook too. She joined AIA, which became a focus for showing her own work in painting, In 1939, Youngman asked a workman in from the street outside an AIA exhibition to attend the `Art for All’ event with her. There was no better memorial for Felicia, who would have approved wholeheartedly of her friend’s radical left wing actions.

Now, Browne’s collection of drawings, prints, book designs, sketchbooks and correspondence, which were purchased by the Tate Gallery in 2010, have been fully digitalized and can be viewed on ithe Tate website.

Online links to other Felicia Browne articles and her art work and letters.

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