Joseph Gray's Camouflage

By Mary Horlock

A memoir of the artist and camouflage pioneer spanning two world wars

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.

But at least I knew what he looked like. I’d stare for hours at this pencil-drawn self-portrait. Arresting eyes under hooded lids; a wide nose; a proud, rounded jaw. With a crumpled hat pulled low on his head Joe Gray would stare intently out at me. Now that’s what an artist should look like, I thought.

As Maureen’s life shrinks - she has one cupboard to hang her clothes, one chest of drawers, a small, single bed - so mine must expand. On each visit she gives up new items: first there is a file of reviews (‘Mr. Gray has done wonders’[1],‘Mr. Gray is a master[2]’); the next week there are photographs of paintings with titles like: The Ration Party, After Neuve Chapelle, In The Attack. Then comes a huge cardboard roll jammed full of cuttings, sheet curled upon sheet. ‘June 1917- A Day in the Life of a Trench, by our correspondent, Joseph Gray.’

I think again of the pencil self-portrait, dark eyes haunted by what he’s seen.

‘It is a shame,’ Maureen sighs. ‘Nobody knows about him now. He lived such a life, he did such great work.

I nod, now familiar with that lament, and reach over to give her hand a gentle squeeze. With each passing year there’s a sadness growing at her core. I fear sometimes it will take over. She has lived a vivid life, created a large and loving family to feel proud of, but she’s still that little girl on the beach looking for her father. She refers to Joe often, as a war artist, a painter and etcher of note, and reminds us how successful he was once. That once was so long ago but it is what she clings to. She cannot really grasp the rest; why she never saw him after, where he went and what he did.

‘There was, of course, another war.’

She uses her ebony stick to prod at an ominous file newly abandoned at her feet. ‘To serve in two world wars, think on that.’ She barely glances at the file. ‘It’s like nothing we can understand. Can you take this, please, just take it.’

I lean casually to pick it up but am instantly defeated. It spews yellow papers and is as heavy as a brick. It bears the cryptic label: ‘Steel Wool: Camouflage’.

‘Camouflage’ I repeat, as if it is a question.

Joseph Gray was a good artist. My grandmother maintains that with a little more luck he might have been famous. She is angry at the injustice of it all. After risking his life in one War he shouldn’t have had to struggle so hard to get his paintings seen. But just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For the uninitiated, the word camouflage can be traced to 17th century France: ‘camouflet’ was a slang word that literally meant a puff of smoke blown into someone’s face to dupe them.[3]. Another derivation is the French verb ‘camoufler’, which originally meant to make up for the stage.[4] The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of published usage is when, on 25 May 1917, The Daily Mail reported that “The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed ‘camouflage’.”[5] This makes it sound so simple. It is not. Camouflage might initially mean concealment but it is fundamentally about deception. You must fool someone with a surface resemblance, make them think they understand what they see, yet what they see is a lie.

The facts lie in my hands, in this heavy file, which my grandmother has never fully read or understood. I kiss her goodbye and carry off her burden, tacitly accepting it has now become mine. I struggle with it down the stately stairs nobody else can use, past elderly residents slumped deep in their chairs. One pallid, hairless gentleman repeatedly wipes at an invisible smudge on the table in front of him. I think of the stories lost, or so well hidden they will never be told.

Later, in my own home, I confront this file of scraps and secrets. There’s a photograph of Joe in what I estimate as middle-age, standing on a grassy hillside. He is smiling coyly and if I look closely I can see why. It’s not a grassy slope at all but a canopy of fake undergrowth hiding something. What? There are three more photographs showing the frame under construction, and hundreds of bombs stacked beneath. The view from underneath is astonishing: a man balancing on a wire like a trapeze artist at the circus. There’s so much more. I find drawings for ‘dummy trees,’ ‘dummy farmhouses’, ‘movable hedgerows’; more photographs of landscape which isn’t really landscape.

Art and camouflage are not obvious allies - the former makes something unreal recognisable, the latter makes something real unrecognisable – it is certainly a clever inversion. For Joe it made perfect sense. He spent one war representing reality and the next war misrepresenting it, one war risking his life, the next one making a new one. Here, in this file, I find a tattered manuscript, Camouflage and Air Defence. ‘The writer has been closely identified with military circles since 1918. He has been particularly interested by the new problems raised through the increasing power of the aerial offensive.’[6] There are memorandums and reports written on War Office letterhead, addressed to ‘Major Joseph Gray R.E.’, a camouflage officer and adviser on matters of civil defence, an ‘expert in structural concealment’.

Maureen is proud of her father yet she cannot look at these papers, because by then so much else was being hidden. Joe had met and fallen deeply in love with another woman, a woman some fifteen years younger than him. ‘Concealment is an art, and like every other art reaches perfection only through much practice’[7]. So declared the War Office in 1937, at the very time when Joe was leaving his wife and only daughter, making himself disappear from the family he’d once been part of.

I have grown up with Joe’s presence – in his paintings, prints, fragments of stories– but this only seemed to reinforce his absence. Another draft of his book, Camouflage and Air Defence, lies sealed in a box in the Imperial War Museum. Dated 1935 it is marked ‘SECRET’, ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ and ‘Not to be published by order of the War Office’. It was intended it as a theoretical manual and rallying call for new deceptive strategies in a modern, mechanised war. Joe was one of scores of artists recruited to the cause of camouflage in the 1930s, and he went on to invent a new kind of covering material - Steel Wool - that could be used to create artificial landscapes covering vital sites in England. There is a sample of this material in his archive: bristling papery fragments painted in greyish green, more photographs, ‘notes on research’, testimonials that bear witness to his expertise in camouflage. It was presented by the woman who was for a time his most precious secret. Her name was Mary Meade, or rather, as I discover later, Kathleen Mary Meade.

I am Mary Kathleen. It’s another clever inversion.

Maureen had four daughters. My mother, Patricia, is the eldest. She was the only one to meet Joe.

‘Was I named after Mary Meade?’ I feel slightly indignant when I relay my discovery.

‘Not really,’ replies my mother with what feels like deliberate vagueness. ‘But I liked the name and I liked her.’

‘You knew her?’

‘Y-es, and so did your aunt Victoria. Actually, I think Victoria has some of Joe’s letters, given to her by Mary. You should ask her, just don’t mention it to your grandmother.’

Victoria arrives at my door within days looking flustered and almost furtive. She hands me a bundle.

‘Maureen hasn’t read these. But you probably could.’

I am baffled. I have somehow become the repository of family secrets. I’m not sure it’s right. But I read them anyway.

‘Darling Mary…’ ‘My dearest Darling.’ ‘I was sorry if I was difficult but I can’t camouflage what I feel and I won’t try to. I am at the moment in a very vulnerable position. Do you really love me (I dare you to try not loving me and see what happens!).’

It turns out deception was quite Joe’s speciality, but was it an art he had learned or was it one that he instinctively knew? I return to the Imperial War Museum and scour the archives of other camouflage officers in the hope I will find out more. ‘Perhaps having two lives makes it so difficult,’ writes one in his diary,[8] amidst lecture notes on blending in and how to spot bad cover. I also find a poem that I had seen before in Joe’s big file. ‘The ABC of Camouflage’, a jaunty alphabetical guide intended as an instructional tool to make troops ‘camouflage-minded’ during the War, teaching them to think strategically and not trust what they see. It stays in my head so it was obviously effective. How I wish Joe’s life could be made simple, broken down to an ABC. Perhaps it could. So I try it out, plotting two intertwining histories - one personal and particular, the other objective and collective - Joseph Gray and camouflage.

But how to get close to a man who was so good at hiding, a man who made camouflage the fabric of his life?

I begin with the first story I ever heard about Joe, from the year 1959. My mother, Patricia Barclay, was nineteen years old, a coltish teenager with kohled eyes and a pixie cut. She had secured herself a place at Glasgow School of Art and had big ideas and a bulging portfolio, which made her own mother anxious. Maureen feared her eldest daughter would make all the wrong choices. She felt out of her depth but was too proud to admit it.

‘If you want to be an artist,’ she said finally. ‘We should go and ask one for advice. We shall go and see your grandfather, Joe.’

Patricia didn’t hide her shock. She had assumed her grandfather was long dead since nobody had ever told her otherwise.

Without further explanation they took a train to Marlow, and there was Joe, standing on the station platform, stick in hand, as if he’d waited there half his life. Patricia stepped out of her carriage and stared at him. He held her gaze steadily then turned to Maureen. They shared the same eyes, the same nose and cheekbones, it was like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. After the briefest of introductions Joe took his daughter and grand-daughter to his house, and they sat on benches in the garden, drinking tea from perfect china.

‘I want to be an artist,’ Patricia proudly announced.

She hoped he’d be pleased but Joe was mortified. His gentle face set into a frown. He levelled his eyes on Patricia then turned to her mother.

Art?’ he queried. ‘Art? What did art ever do for us as a family?’

It was a question that hung in the air between them, a question for which there was no answer. Maureen stared at her father. What had art done? She couldn’t say. Joe shook his head again and said no more. Patricia didn’t understand. She could not possibly grasp the hurt in her mother’s eyes, the weight of this long silence. But she made up her mind there and then to visit him as often as possible.

After that she came almost every weekend from London. She’d sit with Joe in his studio, perusing the creaking bookshelves and watching him at work. There were many canvases, stacked eight to ten deep, and none were ever finished.

‘Not yet,’ Joe said. ‘They’re not quite ready, they’re not right.’

He worked on different paintings at different times, moving between them according to his own logic, adding little details, blending light and shadow. He would paint and paint and paint. What should art do? It shouldn’t end.

Patricia fell in love with a painting of an almond tree in blossom. She could stare for hours at the dappled sunlight on its scattering petals, the delicate brickwork of the wall behind, and the white cat sitting at the base of the trunk, a small and silent spectator. On her next visit the cat had gone. She told Joe that this was a mistake and suggested he put it back.

After a short debate he did as his grand-daughter asked, and in a matter of a few moments its pale, glistening form was reinstated.

‘Better,’ said Patricia. ‘Much better.’

But the next time she visited the cat had disappeared again.

‘Now why have you done that?’ she asked. ‘I think the cat should go back.’

Joe eventually relented, only to remove it on another day and wait to see what happened. A shadow grew where the cat had sat, as the paint was layered over it. The cat came and went, and this game of hide-and-seek continued over months. It might have gone on forever.

‘But then I met your father and moved to Australia. I never came back, neither did the cat.’ My mother shakes her head at the memory. ‘I inherited the painting, long after Joe had died, and I was sad to see the cat had gone.’

I smile and shake my head.

No, I tell her.

The cat didn’t disappear. It was just very well hidden.

Let me explain.

[1] ‘London Press June 1922, quoted by J.G. to Andrew Paterson in a letter. (22/06/22) from the Paterson Family Archives, courtesy Andrew Paterson Collection

[2] Arts Review , 5 March 1966

[3] Tim Newark & Jonathan Miller, Camouflage, ex cat. Imperial War Museum, 2007, p.56

[4] Tim Newark & Jonathan Miller, Camouflage, ex cat. Imperial War Museum, 2007, p.56

[5] Roy R. Behrens, False Colours, Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, (Iowa, Bobolink Books 2002), p. 171

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Notes on Concealment and Camouflage’, The War Office, 1937 [IWM collections. WO 1732]

[8] Diary of 2nd Lieutenant David Cooper (Sept. 1940-Dec. 1943) IWM Arhive 90/6/1

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