Friday, December 19, 2014

Brian Stonehouse

Alan Turing is enjoying a heyday. Britain's Prime Minister publicly apologized for the 
"appalling behaviour" of the courts for castrating him because he was homosexual. 
That led to the suicide for the famous breaker of the Enigma Code (now the subject 
of a Benedict Cumberbatch film). Reading about him had me discover
 Brian Stonehouse….

Michel Chapuis was a charismatic, French art student in Occupied France, July 1941. On board a train full of German soldiers, an old woman leaned over to him and said: "Before the War, my brother had beautiful English shoes like yours."

Luckily, none of the German soldiers overheard this conversation because Michel Chapuis was really Brian Stonehouse, a British spy and talented artist who had parachuted into France the month before as part of the famous Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine espionage and sabotage unit; he was a trained clandestine radio operator.  

At that time, the life expectancy of an SOE radio operator in occupied France was six weeks! Knowing that something as insignificant as a British button on his jacket could give the game away, SOE's Camouflage Section had painstakingly made Mr. Stonehouse's clothes using French fabric, styles and techniques but for some reason, he was still wearing British-made shoes.

In October 1942, the Gestapo was able to triangulate his position Mr. Stonehouse was arrested. He spent the rest of the war in three Vichy prisons and five Nazi concentration camps, including in the notorious Dachau concentration camp. He survived only because he was able to draw the guards' wives and mistresses in exchange for extra food and shelter.

Immediately after the War, he returned to Dachau to make sketches of the crematoria, in order to "bear witness" (these drawings are currently held at the Imperial War Museum in London). He was also able to use his exceptional visual memory in other ways: Officials trying to find out what had happened to four of their female officers discovered Mr. Stonehouse was able to draw from memory four well-dressed women that he had seen being taken to their deaths by the Nazis the year before.

It was while Mr. Stonehouse was acting as a witness at the War Crimes Tribunal that he met the American socialite Harry Haller, then a major in the United States Army.
Haller persuaded Mr. Stonehouse to move to New York to join the large number of Second World War émigré illustrators who were shaping America's fashion trends.

In 1952, Jessica Davies, an editor at Vogue, made Mr. Stonehouse the first new illustrator to be taken on by the magazine since 1939. (In those days, the magazines were split evenly between photographs and illustration. It was the golden age of fashion illustration.)

And whereas fashion illustrations of the period were normally thrown away after they had been published, Mr. Stonehouse kept everything. So, six years ago, members of his family discovered his archive and had them evaluated. They were purchased by Philip Athill, managing director of Abbot and Holder Ltd art dealers.

And he was gay. I have a new, another, hero. Brian Stonehouse died of a heart attack in 1998.

The drawings of Brian Stonehouse have been brought together for the first time at Abbot and Holder Ltd, where they can be purchased. They have also been collected in a new book, "Brian Stonehouse, MBE, 1918-1998", by Frederic A Sharf and Michelle Tolini Finamore (Sharf, $24.95).

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