Olive Mudie- Cooke: a candidate for our twenty pound note?

In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke
In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

A recent pledge by the Bank of England to put a British female visual artist on the new twenty pound note may run into sand according to historical scholars who cite the relatively low number of qualifying women as a reason. This follows criticism of the bank after the 2013 selection process which replaced Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill. A petition of more than 35 thousand signatures was received by the bank in protest, prompting a  volte face decision by the banks governor, Mark Carney to put Jane Austen on ten pound notes from 2017.

Recently. Professor Lynda Nead, Pevsner chair of history of art at Birbeck said in an interview with The Guardian that “Visual arts seem to particularly lag behind when it comes to women, compared with other cultural pursuits like writing” and with the rule that no living artist may be nominated, presumably to avoid taking precedence over the very much alive Queen, this, in her opinion, limits the field even further with the resulting disqualification of artists such as Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Barbara Hepworth.

In the past, female authors were able to publish under male pseudonyms which helped to overcome some of the gender prohibitions to gaining an audience in the first place. Historically, female artists in other creative fields such as visual arts have been less able to take advantage of anonymity because it would have been necessary to exhibit publically and in ones own name in order to access patrons and acquire a reputation which would positively enhance sales.

There have been calls for the Bank of England to drop its specification that the person must be dead which would open up the field hugely, giving access to such artists as painter Cecily Brown, the taxidermist Polly Morgan, the mixed media artist Zarina Bhimji or Suffolk’s ‘own’ Maggie Hambling. However  I believe that should the selection committee think a little, they will find a wealth of British women working across art and often in ways that surprisingly chime very much with modern digital media despite their having been long dead.

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a sobering thought for many of us and especially a late baby boomer like me, born to parents who clearly remembered it but the artist who I have nominated for commemoration on the twenty pound note lived and worked during the Great War- the First World War. The terrifyingly brave and gender atypical work that artist Olive Mudie-Cooke produced should be more widely celebrated.

The Great War marked a sea change in the way that women artists were regarded. Although only four of the 51 artists commissioned for the official war art scheme by the British government in 1916 were female (and one dropped out and three had their work rejected), the then brand new Imperial War Museum stepped in with its own commission. The museum engaged nine women artists in recording war work as it applied to women and, although they were not given access to the battlefields and theatre of war as men were, Olive Mudie-Cooke ended up extremely close to the frontline. Although the scheme was initially started for propaganda purposes, it soon grew beyond this, exploring many aspects of the Great War and offering an alternative narrative that provided a useful counterpoint to the sanitised and jingoistic governmental utterances.

After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells left
After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3087)

 Olive Mudie-Cooke was a Londoner, born to a carpet merchant father and was one of only a handful of official war artists. The younger of two daughters born to Henry Cooke and his wife Beatrice, Olive created a series of watercolour images that depicted the Great War in all its banal, terrible and hidden glory. Mudie-Cooke served as an ambulance driver, visiting battlefields whose names are burned into our brain: the Somme, Polekappelle, and worked for the Red Cross as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Driver (VAD), steering ambulances across France and Italy aged just twenty six. She was no slouch in the educational stakes either: fluent in French, Italian and German, she sometimes worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross too although, at that time, female artists tended to come from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds, hence the language education and private income that funded her adventures.

In 1919,  the Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the newly formed Imperial War Museum noticed Mudie-Cooke’s work and acquired a number of her paintings for its own collection, still in its early stages. This purchase included her most famous picture, In an Ambulance: a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient  (seen aboveand in 1920 the British Red Cross commissioned her to return to France. Once there Mudie-Cooke documented the activities of the Voluntary Aid Detachment units who were still providing care and relief and produced work which spoke of the damage war inflicted upon communities, the smashed buildings and shattered lives, the latter made explicit by her haunting depictions of women tending the graves of their dead.
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3089)

Before her official commission, Olive produced much of her work between 1916-18. She first went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1916 and through her chalky drawings and, at times, murky watercolours, we saw the shadow side of war: the injured man desperate for a cigarette and the woman helping him. There’s a halo of light as she cups her hands around the flame and they lean towards each other and  we are drawn into an intimate moment of connection between two strangers that harks back to the Lady with the Lamp of another time, another war.

Similar pools of light falls on the ground between two ambulances drawn up alongside a barracks as injured soldiers await evacuation- they are men stripped of identity as they lie in serried ranks, painted into the canvas border. We aren’t meant to know who they are and the crepuscular tones preserve their facelessness.  Olive is a master of this, the contrasts between light and dark, between what we know and are allowed to know and in ‘A VAD Convoy Unloading an Ambulance Train at Night After the Battle of the Somme’ the murky browns of the watercolour bear the aesthetic hallmarks of an old sepia photograph, found hidden in an attic and brought into the light of the day as opposed to the painting it actually is.

Large tank burn out.
Burnt out tank -Art.IWM ART 5398

Her work comes complete with a psychological zoom lens: an ambulance skids and founders on an icy Italian mountain side and the rescuers are now in need of assistance. She isolates barbed wire on the canvas, coldly silvered and metallic in dimmed light as it encircles a battlefield which contains its own subterranean dangers. There are scenes that haunt: two tanks injured in battle themselves after engaging the enemy on the Western Front in 1917, part of a war action near Poelkapelle which left these armoured behamoths helpless and worse than useless and a blot on a landscape which once contained only silky shifting fields of corn.

Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke
Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5395)

Mudie-Cooke and women like her also helped paved the way for others to follow a similar career path: those women health professionals who work across war zones and regions experiencing humanitarian crisis and women who are soldiers are there in no small part because Mudie-Cooke showed it could be done. Most importantly though, Mudie-Cooke’s art was one of the forerunners to modern war photography and in its style and content, predicted the era of citizen photo journalism as millions of people become recorders of their own narrative, armed with smartphones instead of a sketchpad although artists are still commissioned to record war via the paintbrush as once did Mudie-Cooke.

Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples
Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples

To discern and edit is where true artistry resides though and unlike most, Olive knew what to leave out; many of her most admired works are master classes in composition. Although her work was essentially documental- and there was pressure to succumb to the propaganda machine- she adhered to a professional ethos that still exists among photo journalism despite the craze for gonzo journalism which at its worst, becomes a clumsy ego driven exercise. Olive became a silent storyteller but a not altogether passive one- she alone chose what to portray and her emotional presence pushes up through the layers of water colour and charcoal.

Mudie-Cooke returned to England for a short period before returning to France in 1925 where she took her life. Was she another casualty of war like so many before and after her? If so, in this respect she is also of her time and ours too which has seen wave after wave of psychologically harmed men and women return from conflict. Mudie-Cooke deserves to be honoured.

British military cemetery in Etaples by Olive Mudie-Cooke

Nominate your choice of artist here

Olive Mudie- Cooke collections at The Imperial War Museum


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