Volunteer Voices: Brian Stonehouse

If ever there was an unlikely career path to becoming a fashion illustrator, it was that of Brian Stonehouse. Long before he joined American Vogue in 1952, the first illustrator to be appointed since the end of the war in 1939, he had lived an incredible life of espionage and incarceration by the Nazis. It was the stuff of movies.

Stonehouse was born in Torquay but brought up in France until the age of 14, where he became fluent in French. At art school in Ipswich he developed a love of fashion illustration but yearned for adventure. Following a period as a cartoonist he signed up for Military Service and found work as an interpreter for French soldiers, but far more exciting work beckoned. In 1941 he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) where he trained as an agent, specialising as a wireless operator. His new identity was as a French artist, complete with a specially-made French wardrobe, and he was given a cleverly designed paint box to conceal his radio. Fully equipped, he was parachuted into Vichy, France in July 1942.

Disastrously, one careless transmission was picked up by the Gestapo, and he was incarcerated and interrogated. Although he maintained his cover as an art student through many interrogations, he eventually decided to reveal that he was a British officer so as to avoid execution. His artistic talent enabled him to survive internment in five separate concentration camps and after the war he helped interrogate many former Nazis, sparing the life of a German officer who had ordered him to be shot and earning himself an MBE.

After the war he moved to Washington and made his name as a society portrait painter, depicting many stars of stage and screen. His eye for fashion caught the attention of Vogue editor Jessica Daves who offered him a job in New York. Fashionable people took to the tall, handsome young war hero immediately and soon Brian was the toast of New York Café Society. Although he never equalled the fame of fellow Vogue illustrators Carl Erickson, known as ‘Eric’, and René Bouché, he shared the same broad-brush style so typical of the ‘50s and worked extensively for retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, as well as cosmetics brand Elizabeth Arden. His success enabled him to run his own studio and choose his models, many of whom remained lifelong friends. Although his images often appear unfinished, they are carefully worked so as to attract the eye to the details, such as a necklace or a pair of gloves, with brilliant splashes of colour employed to highlight a dress or hat, whilst bold black strokes delineate his figures.

Brian’s association with Vogue ended in 1962 when new editor Diana Vreeland moved to make greater use of photography, but he continued to be successful in commercial design and, in a return to portrait painting, earned a commission to paint Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1982.

Below is a digital version of the book Brian Stonehouse: Artist, Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator. Published on Sep 25, 2015, written by Frederic A. Sharf, with Michelle Finamore, Curator of Fashion Arts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf collection of Brian Stonehouse works is held.

Our thanks to the author of this weeks Volunteer Voices, Lucy Ellis.

We’re excited to announce the return of our workshop programme! Learn more about fashion design, master fashion drawing or discover a new craft!

We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum when we reopen on Wednesday 5 August.

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