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Artists as foreign spies

It is a fact that many signposts were temporarily removed, especially in rural areas, during the Second World War, and that countrymen were advised to report sightings of suspicious foreign looking and foreign sounding individuals in their district. What is not generally known, I suspect, is that an artist plying his or her trade as a landscape painter could have come under the gaze of local busybodies, including members of the Home Guard, who may have reported them to the authorities.

This could explain why many of the watercolour sketches executed during the middle years of the War in various locations in the West Country - but mainly in Somerset- by the acclaimed etcher and watercolourist Nathaniel Sparks(1880 – 1956) bear the familiar stamp of the Censor on the reverse. The actual wording on one sketch is : ‘Passed for publication, 21 Jul 1943, No. 34…Press and Censorship Bureau ‘.At this time Sparks, a rather eccentric character with a peripatetic bent, was wandering around favourite locations centred on Wincanton, possibly at times sleeping rough or with gypsies, and invariably looking dishevelled and tramp-like. His appearance alone may have given rise to suspicion from locals, who could have surmised that his role as an artist was excellent cover for a foreign spy. Suspicion may have been further heightened when it was discovered that many of the sketches featured in the distance the Tower in Stourton Park, a famous local landmark.

As many of the drawings bear different dates and all have different numbers it seems very probable that Sparks was obliged to register regularly with the Censors after he had completed a number of sketches. If it was felt that their publication on calendars, in art magazines or books was likely to compromise national security, it follows that those that weren’t ‘passed for publication’ may have been confiscated until hostilities had ceased, or even destroyed. This seems to us draconian, but seventy years ago the security authorities may have had different ideas.

This is all speculation. Solid facts concerning the life of Sparks are few and far between. What we can guess is that the disorganised artist may originally have provoked suspicion if he had somehow lost his identity card during his travels. It would be interesting to know how many other landscape artists going about their legitimate business in wartime were hauled up before the authorities. [RH]

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One thought on “Artists as foreign spies

  1. Roger Allen

    "It would be interesting to know how many other landscape artists going about their legitimate business in wartime were hauled up before the authorities. "

    Such suspicions had a sound basis: until small portable cameras had been developed landscape sketching and painting were taught to officers as part of their training. Officers on reconnaissance were expected to draw sketches of the territory they examined showing tracks, hills, obstacles etc.

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