Joseph Gray’s Camouflage is a book about love and war, and the deceptions they inspire.
Joseph Gray was my great grandfather. He was an artist and a soldier, but I’ve come to wonder if his greatest accomplishment was what and how he hid. Joe fought, drew and painted the First World War - his illustrations appearing in the popular press and his canvases bought by museums - but during the Second World War he found a new creative outlet, the art of camouflage. I was aware of his career as a painter, but it was his secret work in camouflage that had always intrigued me - the idea that he went from representing reality to hiding and disguising it.
Then I learned that Joe’s growing interest in camouflage concealed another, deeper subterfuge. Not only did my great grandfather use his art to find fresh purpose in wartime, but it allowed him to lead a double life. He disappeared from the family he’d already created when he fell in love with another woman, whom he’d eventually marry. He wrote at the time: ‘I cannot camouflage what I feel’, and yet he did, constantly.
This is a multi-layered story about art and camouflage, love and war, but it’s not just Joe’s story. Joseph Gray’s Camouflage investigates the developing art of camouflage between the two world wars and casts a wider light on the unlikely and often very unmilitary people who made it happen. Joe was one of a wider band of artists who found themselves surprisingly useful to this part of the War effort. My archive research and interviews reveal many new sides to this fascinating subject.
These are stories too good to go untold, but so far they have. After the War Joe all but disappeared: his book on camouflage was never published, and he refused to sell or exhibit his art in public. He preferred to stay hidden. But sometimes you need a bit of distance to see things clearly, and I’d like now to bring my great grandfather’s strange and unusual life back into focus.
The Ration Party painting shown in the video is copyright Imperial War Musuem.
This story starts with a picture: a vast turquoise sky, an endless yellow beach, a mother and her child playing in the sand.
My grandmother lifts a trembling hand and points towards the smallest figure.
‘That is me.’
She now has a room measuring nine feet by five. There isn’t much wall space, so the picture hangs in the corridor outside, beside the sign: ‘No. 18: Maureen Barclay’.
Maureen Barclay is a widow and there are many here. Some don’t know where they are, nor do they remember the lives they have lived. Maureen is different, she remembers plenty. But with this blessing comes a curse: the older she becomes, the more she worries what she might forget. She has moved into this place by her own choice, but as she downsizes, reducing her life to the bare essentials, the more she is stripping back memories, the memories embedded in clothes, objects, papers and pictures.
There simply isn’t room for them here.
So she must pass them on to the people she trusts. She has given me many things over the years - her love and time above all else - but now she surrenders a most treasured possession. It is a pencil-drawn self-portrait of her father and my great grandfather, Joseph Gray. This is the man who first painted that small child on the beach.
Joseph Gray is an artist most people have never heard of, but for most of my early life he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. His paintings filled all the rooms of my grandparents’ house and overflowed into my own family home. Monochrome landscapes and blitzed churches lined the staircase, thickly painted still-lifes were crammed into corners, restless seas churned over each mantelpiece. Whilst the homes of my friends contained candy-coloured Impressionist prints or tasteful, decorative mirrors, we had this curious mix of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never even met.
'A Ration Party of the 4th Black Watch at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 1915'
Collection: Imperial War Museum
Thank you, all of you, for pledging so far. I am already 80% funded, which is is amazing. Please do keep sharing the link with anyone who might be interested. To anyone who knows me, please think of this as a fantastic opportunity: if I am fully funded, I may finally stop talking…
These people are helping to fund Joseph Gray's Camouflage.