Spain Fights On

by charlestonattic

The Spanish Civil War was seen by many as a call to arms against fascism. As Julian Bell saw it, “non-resistance means suffering the full power of fascism. And fascism means, not only violence, but slavery”. Thus he wrote in his letter to E. M. Forster detailing his conversion from pacifist to passionate volunteer. He had been teaching English in China when he resolved to join the fight in Spain. This decision resulted in his tragic death in July 1937, after only weeks of volunteering as an ambulance driver, devastating his mother Vanessa Bell back at Charleston.

This context gives a poignant background to a recent find in the attic. We have unearthed various poster designs in aid of the Spanish Civil War asking for donations to the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. The National Joint Committee was established by six British Members of Parliament after their visits to Spain in November 1936 and was set up to provide “purely humanitarian and non sectarian” aid. The poster designs we have found emphasise the suffering of 50,000 Spanish children and depict families stranded at harbours, crying babies and small frightened children clinging to their mothers’ skirts. The figures are dark and downcast. And the recurring image of the ship seen below suggests the help the British public can send across the channel to these innocent civilians.


CHA/P/2258 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for poster, Spanish Civil War. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Earlier in the year of Julian’s death, in May 1937, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell visited Paris. Whilst they were there they saw Pablo Picasso who was working on his painting Guernica in his hotel rooms, based on the bombing of the eponymous Basque town the previous month. Quentin Bell had recently asked Picasso to attend an event at the Albert Hall in aid of raising funds for the children of Bilbao and Guernica would also be shown in 1938 at an exhibition arranged by the National Joint Committee to raise funds at the New Burlington Galleries. The poster designs we have found in the attic are part of this wider artistic and cultural cause inspiring humanitarian involvement in Spain at the time. However, as staunch pacifists, Julian and Quentin Bell’s parents Clive and Vanessa Bell and other Charlestonians such as Duncan Grant, who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, were not so invested in the fighting itself. At the time they visited Picasso in his studio, Julian Bell had recently told his mother of his intention to fight in Spain. This must have coloured her response to the painting’s distorted figures and dismembered limbs clinging to broken weapons in the darkness. Picasso’s tortured figures express the tragedy and horror of the war that her son was intent on joining.

Meanwhile, back at Charleston, David Garnett tried to persuade Julian Bell to stay and fight fascism from home, helping to prepare for war against Hitler. Although Julian Bell was unchanging in his conviction he did make a compromise, deciding to travel to Spain as an ambulance driver instead of as his new-found ideal – expressed in his 1937 talk to the Cambridge Apostles – as a solider.

When he arrived in Spain he longed for action and on the 6 July 1937 was thrown into the thick of battle taking the wounded from the front at Brunete. During this time he wrote his last letter to his mother in which he revealed how Charleston was not far from his mind. He wrote of how he kept his ambulance, of the other men, and then about “the other odd element […] the Charleston one of improvising materials – a bit of carpet to mend a stretcher, e.g. – in which I find myself at home”. These words, “at home”, are especially moving here as he was never to return home again. On the 18 July his ambulance was hit and he was mortally wounded with a piece of shrapnel to the chest. He was one of the 35,000 men who lost their lives in the battle of Brunete.


CHA/P/2291 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for poster, Spanish Civil War. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

One design that we have found, in which the brutality of the war is personified in the traditional Spanish symbol of the Bull, depicts the horrors of war that Julian Bell would have finally seen on his last few days in the thick of the action on the Brunete front. This design differs to the others we have found in the attic, taking this symbol of Spanish nationality and transforming it into a threat to its own people. It brings the fighting itself into the frame. Here women and children recoil helplessly from the scene of a man being thrown by the bull.

It seems that this design was discarded in favour of a version where the women and children are mourning at a distance from the fighting. We have found various and more detailed studies in different media for this design. One sketch is executed in red pencil with a smaller painted study to show colours for the design as a whole on the same page. Here Duncan Grant is working with the harbour-side theme showing a family vulnerable beneath a fighter plane. There is also a smaller study of the design used in the further two studies, the central seated maternal figure reminiscent of Madonna and child.


CHA/P/2354 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for poster, Spanish Civil War. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

There are two further designs made in cooler blues and browns. In this change there is a move towards a more melancholy mood. Perhaps this reflected the mood at Charleston where Vanessa Bell was inconsolable with grief at Julian Bell’s death. At the time Clive Bell remarked “I doubt whether the hole in Vanessa’s life will be filled up ever”. Vanessa Bell’s children were central to her life, Francis Spalding noting how Julian’s birth “revolutionised her life, bringing out strong instincts which until then had laid dormant”. Indeed, in the maternal figure on the poster design below we can see Vanessa Bell as a young woman holding her first baby who was now lost to the war. The posters make a plea for the children of Spain and long for a different ending.


CHA/P/2303 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for poster, Spanish Civil War. Photograph © The Charleston Trust