It is London, 1938. The brochure said it was ‘an imposing and beautiful modern building’, and that much was certainly true. I watched its construction with interest, enquired for the particulars and went to view a show flat. I agreed to rent a flat on the ground floor – a corner apartment, because it had more windows. Certainly, my new home had every new convenience, and I envisioned myself comfortably independent for many years to come. There was central heating – even a heated towel rail in the bathroom. For a while I revelled in the feel of gently warmed towels and scorching hot radiators on cold days. There was a fireplace with an electric fire, clock and wireless. A light came on in my airing cupboard whenever I opened the door and the terribly hard London water was made more palatable with a built-in water softener. For the first few days of my occupancy, I discovered each new innovation and congratulated myself on my efficient, forward thinking choice. Although the building was not modern in the way that the architect Le Corbusier would recognise – no, it still had too much of what people would later call Art Deco in it for that. It was a building of sweeping curves rather than sharp angles, from rounded balconies to sinuous stair banisters. In many ways it reminded me of an ocean liner.
It was December 1938 and as one of the first tenants to move into the building, I imagined more residents would quickly follow. It often seemed to me that there were more staff than occupants, and as the weeks went by, started to feel a little self-conscious at the lavish attentions of doormen, lift attendants and bar staff in the basement club room. I’m not sure what I hoped for really, but perhaps a little more conversation as I sipped my Gin Rickey on a plumply upholstered seat in the bar, and George the bartender wiped the counter for the hundredth time and stifled a yawn.
Sometimes the elderly Misses Forsyth would join me, consuming modest amounts of sweet sherry and dainty finger sandwiches and we would all remark upon the emptiness of the building, and wonder what could be putting people off. Miss Agnes Forsyth wondered if perhaps the south-of-the-Thames location was too much for respectable people to bear. It didn’t matter that the Underground now extended this far, south London was still distinctly seedy. Miss Margaret Forsyth felt that modern mansion flats were possibly viewed as too bohemian. She was quick to point out that it had not deterred her or her sister (they were made of stout stuff), but she had heard that other buildings, like that concrete monstrosity at Lawn Road in Hampstead, were full of artists and writers and other creative types.
‘Goodness only knows what goes on there. Scandal and debauchery, most likely!’ She shuddered at the thought, and Miss Agnes tutted and grumbled under her breath.
‘Chance would be a fine thing,’ I sighed, and noticed George chuckling from behind the bar.
I had told nobody in the building, but the truth was that I myself was one of those creative types. I was lucky – my family had means and I had been able to study art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Returning home to London, I had gained an inheritance. This income allowed me the luxury of certain freedoms, but I was determined that my studies would not be purely decorative, nor a means of polishing me into a perfect wifely specimen for the marriage market. I wanted work – real work and commissions honestly gained and murals were my passion. There was something about large scale painting onto walls and surfaces that gave me more pleasure than the often rigid confines of a canvas or piece of paper. I had some initial success upon returning home to London, securing commissions at a school and a women’s hospital respectively, but the work had dried up of late, and it worried me. The vitality of my ideas kept me awake at night, as did the anxiety that when they poured forth into sketchbooks in the light of the morning, they seemed pitifully small there. Even when I went out and bought larger pads and even bigger canvases I still felt stifled, strangled and frustrated.
As I lay awake night after night, staring at the slatted shadows from the metal framed windows, and as I sketched and painted by day, the outside world rumbled ominously on before it turned, terribly and inexorably on the 3rd September 1939. A continent and its people, still bearing the gruesome scars of the last war were forced to turn their weary faces towards the prospect of another; of blood and death, duty and destruction, endurance and loss. I cried in my living room as the Prime Minister’s clipped and hollow voice delivered the declaration of war. I thought of my father, killed in 1916 while my mother was still pregnant. I wondered how long this would last and how many other children would grow up as I had, with the strange and unknown ghost of a father, and in turn a mother who became a living ghost through his loss.
That evening I cancelled plans to see friends, but pacing aimlessly in the flat, I went down to the clubroom where George mixed a Gimlet in silence and I sat at the bar. He was miles away and I, in turn, asked no questions, made no assumptions – merely noticed for the first time that he couldn’t have been older than eighteen or nineteen. The Misses Forsyth did not appear at all. In fact, of the handful of building residents I alone was the only one to put in an appearance that evening. Late that night, even more restless and disturbed than usual, I slipped on my bathing costume, wrapped myself in a couple of large towels and padded along the hallway to go down to the basement for a late-night swim in the plunge pool. As I passed by the door of Miss Agnes and Miss Margaret, I could have sworn that I heard crying – low, despairing sobbing.
The next morning, still unsettled by what I had heard, I went to knock gently on their door. When Miss Agnes answered wearing her housecoat and slippers, her face looked tired and pinched but she smiled as she greeted me and held the door open. We sat in the living room for a while, drinking tea and listening for more news on the wireless. Miss Agnes had the electric fire on full, it’s glowing heat ensuring that the room was almost unbearably hot.
‘How is Miss Margaret?’ I asked, after it became apparent that she would not be joining us.
Miss Agnes glanced behind at the closed door before she spoke. ‘She took Mr. Chamberlain’s declaration very hard. It brought it all back, you see, the Great War. Margaret had a very difficult time of it because her fiancé was killed. She wanted to marry before he went off to France, but Peter wanted to wait and do it properly with the money he saved from his army wages.’
She sniffed and I sensed the disapproval even in that action. ‘Margaret is very strong but the war made her brittle,’ she reached to pour more tea. ‘Peter should have married her when he had the chance.’
Later, I dressed in my best and took the Tube to Charing Cross and a short walk along the Strand to meet some friends for dinner at Simpsons. I heard a great deal of talk about imminent food rationing, and of the new conscription bill, which had just been passed. I tried to join in with my friends and even went along to a smart jazz club that I was fond of, but try as I might I couldn’t get the image of Miss Agnes’ tired, sad face out of my mind, nor of Miss Margaret’s late-night keening. I made my excuses and caught a late train home.
When I arrived, I changed into my painting overalls, laid a dust sheet in my hall and an assortment of paints and brushes. My fingers twitched as I took up a soft pencil and began to sketch on the blank wall. I had no idea what I intended to draw, but I needed distraction, comfort and control, and I didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to make use of the empty walls of my own flat before. I roughly sketched before taking up a brush and painting a base colour. I worked quickly – much faster than I had ever worked, but it felt good to be adding colour and shape, shadow and form. By the time I was finished, it was past 2 o’clock in the morning, but I had one more task left to perform.
I put one eye to the spyhole of my front door and surveyed the wide passageway in front of me. All was clear. I turned the door lock on its latch as softly as I could and opened it slowly. I poked out my dishevelled head and checked left and right. Again, all was still. Then I began to move my paints and brushes down the hallway, placing them onto my sheet, which I had laid directly opposite the apartment door of the Misses Forsyth.
And I began to sketch on the blank wall there, this time with even more speed and abandon than in my own hallway. Again, I added base colour and blended layer upon layer of thick paint until I was satisfied, before finishing with the final, small details. It was close to 4 o’clock by the time I had finished, and exhausted, I sat back on my heels on the corridor floor and looked up at the trumpeting African elephant I had painted there; stately and large, but also triumphant with its trunk lifted in salute. With a fine brush and a final flourish, I added two words that spouted forth from the elephant’s trunk: ‘Take courage.’
Why an elephant? I honestly couldn’t tell you. But somehow it felt right and proper, dignified but also more than a little bit silly, too. I wanted to cheer my neighbours, distract them, rally them and comfort them. I had no earthly idea how long this new war would last, what would happen and who would see the other side of it and it was terrifying. I couldn’t bake cakes or cook restorative broths and my tea making skills were not up to much, shockingly. I wanted to do something for them, and I wanted to do something for myself too. It had been too long since I had done what made me truly happy, and that strangled, choked feeling of being caged and confined by the edges of paper and canvas had, at least for the time being, disappeared.
I went back to my flat with my paints and my brushes and my splattered dust sheet and fell asleep on top of my bed, still wearing my overalls.
That evening in the club room, it seemed as though everyone had turned up. Granted, not all of the flats were occupied, but I had never seen so many residents together at once. They were sipping drinks and some were eating dinner, and everyone was talking about the elephant. I laughed to myself as I surveyed the scene, catching snippets of chatter. Some called me a vandal, a hooligan, a perpetrator, a culprit. Others called me inspired. Some called me an artist.
The elephant in the room, how fitting, I thought.
Miss Margaret and Miss Agnes were holding court, being as the elephant was stampeding right outside their front door.
‘Did you hear anything?’
‘Not a thing!’
‘You saw nothing?’
‘It must have happened in the dead of night, imagine!’
‘It must be somebody here,’ Miss Agnes said. ‘The building is only accessible to residents and staff, so it must be one of you, it has to be,’ she raised her glass of sweet sherry to the room. ‘I don’t want to know who it is. I think I would rather not, but despite your creeping around like a cat burglar, I say thank you, and I drink to your health,’ She took a hearty drink from her glass, and Miss Margaret, with tears in her eyes did the same.
‘George,’ I said as I approached the bar. ‘I shall have a sweet sherry, if you please.’
As the months went by, as we moved from that cruel lull period (otherwise called the Phoney War) and into the long and horrific Blitz, I continued to paint. I would practice firstly in my flat, sometimes in the hallway, sometimes on the bedroom walls. I painted mostly animals.
An Anderson shelter was erected in the communal garden, and the rest was turned into a vegetable patch as food rationing took hold. The shelter wasn’t large enough to hold everyone in the building, and as rents were lowered and more residents arrived, we often spilled over into the boiler room below my own flat if we couldn’t make it down the street to the Tube station. In early 1941, two bombs landed one street away and obliterated several houses. The sound rung in my ears for several days. In the early hours of the morning I painted a lion in an upper corridor. A few weeks later, when another bomb landed in the middle of the park across the road, spewing lumps of turf in all directions, I painted a rhinoceros in the basement hallway. When George was conscripted, I crept into the club room on a Sunday morning when other respectable people were at church and painted a lion for him to see before he left. When we learned he had been killed, I went to the top floor and painted birds of all different kinds there. I learned to work even faster and with greater efficiency, transporting my paint tins and brushes gathered up inside a sheet. It wasn’t only the fear of being caught that compelled me to work so swiftly, but the constant threat of bombing raids, too.
I was convinced that somebody would work out that it was me who was the midnight vandal. I thought that the building management would come down hard, that they might report the murals to the police, and at the very least that they would send someone to paint them over, but that didn’t happen either. There was simply far too much going on of greater importance, it seemed, for anybody in authority to investigate.
My neighbours had their theories. Some thought that the culprit must be breaking into the building somehow. Others were certain that it was somebody living there, but despite this, nobody ever openly accused anybody else, or reported it. This was special secret that we shared, and even those who were initially outraged came around as time passed. I didn’t fool myself that I was somehow changing the world, but I felt better for passing on a little joy, and perhaps a dash of fortitude in the face of relentless horror.
In the summer of 1941, I was conscripted into the 93rd Searchlights Regiment. As I returned from a shift one morning, tired and hungry, I temporarily forgot all of my usual precautions as I entered my flat. To prevent potentially prying eyes from seeing the menagerie of painted animals dancing down my hall, I had learned to open and close the door behind me with the minimum of movement, only opening it as much as was necessary to squeeze myself through. That morning, dragging my heavy kit bag on the floor, it was all I could do to turn the key in its lock, and as I tripped over my bag, my hands splayed out and my door was flung open wide as I fell and wedged it open with my body. It was then that I realised that an upstairs neighbour, Mr. James, was holding my kit bag and proffering a hand to help me to my feet.
‘Steady the buffs,’ he said, but he wasn’t looking at me.
He was staring down my hall and I watched his eyes dart from painting to painting, watched, mortified, as he realised.
‘I see’, was all he said.
I twisted the cotton strap of my kit bag around my hands, wretched. ‘Do you? Really, do you see? I mean, I can see that you can see, but do you really see?’
I was rambling and Mr. James was smiling.
‘I do see. I really do see,’ he said. ‘Look, get some rest and join me in the club room at 5, there’s something I should like to discuss with you.’
That was it, I was going to be hauled off to the police.
‘Discuss what, exactly?’
‘I work for the government,’ Mr. James replied, and a wave of nausea washed over me as I contemplated all that could mean. ‘Would you ever consider working for the Ministry of Information?’
This story was inspired by the beautiful Art Deco 1930s building I live in, and by a discovery made in my own flat in the 1980s. My landlady inherited the flat from her best friend and recently told me that when her friend redecorated the flat in the 1980s, she uncovered a series of animal murals on many of the walls, previously hidden under layers of wallpaper. I have seen a few blurred photos that were hastily snapped on an old disposable camera, but the murals were then sadly painted over. Nobody knows who painted them, but my landlady and her friend did manage to find out from an elderly resident in the building that they were painted by an artist – a woman living in the flat during the war, although her name remains unknown. I took the story one step further and imagined my artist painting murals all over the building. As we don’t know who she was, it felt wrong to give her a name, and so she remains nameless in the story as in life.
The quote from the building’s sales catalogue is a genuine one – many copies are still in existence, fully detailing all of the facilities, including those mentioned above. The fireplace with its radio and clock has long gone, but our flat still has its original radiators and towel rail. There was a clubroom and cocktail bar in the basement, providing drinks, hot meals and snacks, although this space has since been converted into flats.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, otherwise known as Le Corbusier (referenced at the beginning of the story) was an architect, designer, urban planner and writer. He pioneered the use of reinforced concrete for residential building, along with many of the core principles of modernist architecture – light, open spaces, flat roofs and structural rationalism (the idea that beauty can be found in pure, raw materials, and that they shouldn’t be disguised or covered).
The Lawn Road flats, or Isokon Building in Hampstead, north London were designed by architects Wells Coates and completed in 1934. Hampstead during the 1930s was not home to celebrities and film stars as it is today – in fact, it was a pretty Bohemian place to live, and attracted all kinds of artists, designers, architects and writers. The Isokon alone was home to Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Agatha Christie, with the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson regularly popping into the communal Isobar. Soviet spy Arnold Deutsch also lived there during the 1930s and recruited the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring. Hampstead is still the place to view some of the best examples of modernist architecture in Britain.
During the Second World War, the Ministry of Information dealt with and issued domestic and national propaganda, as well as controlling news and information. Many artists, designers and even architects worked for the department in varying capacities.