Lesley Blanch was Features Editor of British Vogue 1937-45. During the Second World War, she was on the front line of women journalists covering a wide range of topics. She covered various aspects of Britain at war for the Ministry of Information, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller.
In these unsettled, divided times in which segregation and racism are making an unwelcome comeback, positive historical reminders of tolerance and kindness are to be celebrated and shared.
The exhibition, Giles: Friendship in a time of war, curated by social historian David Cain, tells of the British cartoonist’s all-but-forgotten friendship with two African-American GIs, Butch and Ike, based near his Suffolk home during World War Two.
In the early 1940s, Giles lived with his wife, Joan, in Badger’s Cottage in Tuddenham St. Martin. He befriended several men serving with 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment based at nearby RAF Debach. He often welcomed Butch and Ike at his home for drinks. Giles loved Jazz and their musical evenings frequently spilled over into the local village pub.
When the Fountain Pub was taken over by White GI’s, Giles’ pictures of Butch and Ike were forcibly removed – an act which Giles called ‘a bloody disgrace’. Segregation was common practice in many Southern US states and the US Air Force remained divided, even whilst serving in the UK. So Black GI’s could not mix with White GI’s. They were barred from visiting the same bars, cinemas and villages as their white colleagues, reminiscent of South Carolina, but not the norm in Suffolk.
Over half a century later, the images were discovered in the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent.
Lee Miller and Lesley Blanch visited Giles in August 1944 to photograph and write up the feature published in British Vogue about Giles’ contribution to the war effort. Lesley’ Blanch’s article, below, is followed by a short film of the exhibition, Giles: Friendship in a time of war.
The Name is Giles by Lesley Blanch (British Vogue, August, 1944)
When I said I was going to do a profile of Giles, the cartoonist who was first seen in Reynolds Weekly and now works for the Sunday Express and the Daily Express, the reaction was lively. Some people said, “Oh, do! Do tell us all about him. Is he funny in himself? Does he think up his own gags, look like his own drawings?” and so forth.
Others looked dank and said, “Oh, really? Why?”I have observed a sharp dividing line between the pro-and-anti-Gilesites. People either gloat over each successive cartoon, cutting it out and walking about with it, till the next surpasses it, or else they say they can’t for the life of them see what the chap’s getting at, and there’s a lot of mutter about bad taste, waste of valuable space, etc., etc.
To me, Giles is an outstanding comic draughtsman; and probably the most significant cartoonist of the war. We are told this is a people’s war. Giles, more than anyone else, knows and represents the people – the little man, everywhere. All his proselytising powers (and of course he crusades from his paper pulpit, like all his kind – Gubbins, for example, who is his prototype in print) are lavished on the little man. I won’t say the underdog, for that has a sour sound alien to Giles’ good-tempered, waggish wit.
To me, he is the wag of his age, just as Cruikshank was of his. Now, I am not comparing them. There could not be two more dissimilar artists, either in draughtsmanship or approach. But each, in his own way, epitomises the essential humour of his age. Cruikshank’s best work was as a comic draughtsman, and as an illustrator of books: where many of his plates, such as Fagin in the condemned cell, are unsurpassed for their macabre strength. Giles has not this dark aspect. He is entirely comic.
He is not even a political cartoonist in the same sense as Low. But just as Cruikshank knew, and reflected better than anyone else, the little pinched, snuffling weasel-faced Cockney of the 1850s, so Giles knows and reflects the debunking idiom of today. He senses that indefinable, casual Cockney glee which is wholly national, as fruity and unsophisticated as the little man himself.
It is this national figure which Giles has made his own, as unmistakable as his signature. It is a stumpy little tough: a truncated, troglodytic creature, squat, good-natured, impudent, and long suffering, too. He may grin out from under a tin hat, or a factory worker’s cap. Or he may be a she: a jolly, pram-pushing Mum; or even a saucy brat. But basically it’s always the same creature, expressing the same spirit: that of the people, here and now.
And what about Giles himself? [contd . . .]
Lesley Blanch wrote about everything, but fashion. Her articles can be viewed by appointment at:
The Vogue Archive,
National Art Library, first floor,
Victoria and Albert Museum,
London SW7 2RL
tel: 020 7942 2000
Rights enquiries, contact:
Director of Editorial Administration and Rights,
The Condé Nast Publications Ltd,
London W1S 1JU.
British Vogue was the ultimate fashion-and-society bible which showcased a pot-pourri of the best artistic and literary talents of the contemporary avant-garde: Aldous Huxley, Nancy Cunard, Clive Bell and Virginia Woolf; Noël Coward, Vita Sackville-West and the Sitwells . . . while Cecil Beaton, Hoyningen-Huene and Horst turned fashion photography into an art.
Opinions expressed in the press dominated all classes in a time before TV, radio or the internet. By the end of the 1930s, British Vogue began to cater for a mass readership, showing women how to dress stylishly on a budget and weighing up working girls’ wardrobes.
After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Londoners settled into chaos, living day-to-day in an atmosphere of danger, but they pulled together. Air-raids enforced night-long blackouts, but it was business as usual at theatres and restaurants although they closed early, so after-hours clubs sprang up in the reinforced, shored-up basements of hotels and restaurants.
Lesley Blanch wrote about ballet, theatre, cinema, books . . . the movers-and-shakers of the time. A selection of her articles were published in her posthumous memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago).
Part Two – Scenes from the Home Front
‘Spotlight’: writing from the Vogue Years (1937 – 1945)
Lesley Blanch / British Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.
The Years Between – British Vogue, September 1941, pp. 115–19.
A Babel of Tongues – ‘Spotlight’, British Vogue, November 1939, pp. 119–20.
Living the Sheltered Life – British Vogue, October 1940, pp. 120–3.
To Have or to Hold – British Vogue, April 1941, pp. 123–5.
War on Winter – British Vogue, November 1941, pp. 125–7.
Blitzed Britain – ‘Spotlight’, British Vogue, October 1941, pp. 127–8.
Noël Coward’s New Medium – British Vogue, November 1942, pp. 54, 72.
The True Story of Lili Marlene – British Vogue, April 1944, pp. 142–6.
Some of all the Russias – British Vogue, March 1942, pp. 31–2, 86.
On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)
Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017)
The Eighth in the East is a three year Heritage Lottery Fund project, exploring the social and landscape history of the 8th US Army Air Force and their time in England during World War Two.