'Traitor Painters': Artists and Espionage in the First World War, 1914-18

By Fox, James | British Art Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

'Traitor Painters': Artists and Espionage in the First World War, 1914-18


Fox, James, British Art Journal


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With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 fears concerning the presence of secret agents in Britain erupted into an epidemic of 'spy mania.' For over a decade espionage had been a highly marketable subject, with the writers William Le Queux and Erskine Childers building successful careers on the issue, and spy films reaching ever growing audiences. (1) But fantastical curiosity soon gave way to debilitating war-time paranoia and Le Queux, like others, amplified the public fears into highly profitable hysteria. In a book entitled German Spies in England (which was reprinted six times in just three weeks following its February 1915 publication), Le Queux addressed what he called the 'ever-spreading canker-worm in the nation's heart' and declared that: 'among us here in Great Britain ... are men--hundreds of them--who are daily, nay hourly, plotting our downfall.' Le Queux's alarmist fabulations touched a public nerve that Britain's newspapers--in particular The Daily Mail, The Globe, John Bull and later even The Times--exploited mercilessly. Meanwhile, cases like Carl Hans Lody's--the first secret agent shot in England and the first person to be executed in the Tower of London since the mid-18th-century--only further fuelled the public's frenzy. (2) That Lody was an inept amateur unconsciously misinforming his employers, and that the actual threat posed by spies to the country was negligible, seemed not to matter. But perhaps the unlikeliest element in this farrago of unlikely stories was that, of all social groups, it was artists who were the most seriously affected by spy mania and among the most likely to be suspected of espionage. (3) This essay will show how two mutually reinforcing social pressures, government legislation and public sentiment, were focused upon artists to a unique extent. It will thus illuminate an important aspect of the social history of the home front and explore a hitherto neglected feature of the war's influence on British art.

The initial connection between artists and spies can partly be explained by contemporary understandings of espionage methods. A number of semi-official sources stressed the role secret visual codes played in the communication of information via enemy intelligence networks. Robert Baden-Powell, who had served at length in the British Army, described in detail how spies would pose as artists in order to produce these codes unsuspected. He revealed that many English agents on the continent were using such disguises, confessed that he had done so himself (with considerable success), and even printed a series of plans disguised as innocent artists' sketches as examples (Pls 1, 2). (4) William Le Queux similarly maintained that the spy was 'usually a man who has received thorough instruction in sketching', and reiterated Baden-Powell's explication of the 'visual code' technique:

   Innocent sketches may be made of woodland scenery;, with a
   picturesque windmill and cottage in the foreground, and woods in
   the distance. Yet this, when decoded in Berlin--the old windmill
   representing a lighthouse, the trees a distant town, and so
   forth--will be found to be an elaborate plan of a harbour showing
   the disposition of the mines in its channel! (5)

These secret espionage methods were even discussed by the popular press. On 7 October 1914 The Illustrated War News published a double-page item dominated by two adjacent landscapes of the same scene--one loose and sketchy; the other schematic and topographical--that painstakingly illustrated how a plan could masquerade as an innocent sketch and its producer pose as an innocent artist (Pls 3, 4).

   The illustration on the first of these two pages ... shows an
   apparently innocent drawing of a landscape made by a spy. Were he
   caught with it in his possession, he might pose with comparative
   safety as an artist who had been sketching for his own
   amusement . … 

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