Joseph Gray, is now best remembered as an evocative war artist. During the First World War, he produced detailed drawings based on direct experiences in the Black Watch on the Western Front, and was subsequently sought after – by regiments and museums – as a painter of military subjects. Then, in the Second World War, he employed his expertise to develop large-scale forms of camouflage, while also creating drypoints of blitz-torn London, an indication of his broader interest in, and talent for, landscape and architectural subjects.
Joseph Gray was born in South Shields, County Durham, on 6 June 1890, the eldest of three children of the master mariner, Captain Joseph Gray, and his wife, Mary Alice (née Johnson). He and his family spent his early years at 3 Romilly Street, Westoe, South Shields, moving a short distance to 1 Lolanthe Terrace by 1901. Though he first trained as a marine engineer, he went on to study at South Shields School of Art, under its Headmaster, John Heys.
He then travelled widely, making many sketches in France, Germany, Holland, Russia and Spain.
In about 1912, Gray settled in Dundee to work as an illustrator for the periodical publisher, D C Thomson, on the Dundee Courier and other publications. Though already partly deaf by the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, he enlisted in the 4th (Dundee) Battalion of the Black Watch. In so doing, he joined a number of other journalists who referred to themselves as ‘Fighter-Writers’. Once he reached the trenches, in August 1914, his talents as a draughtsman were quickly recognised, and he was appointed as an observer to Captain Edgar Boase, with the responsibility of delineating enemy positions and mapping trench lines for strategic use. He fought in the battles of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915), Festubert (May 1915) and Loos (September-October 1915), and sent many reports back to the Dundee Courier.
In March 1916, Gray was invalided off the Western Front, as the result of being wounded by sniper fire and suffering bouts of trench fever. By the time that he returned to Dundee, he was contributing to the weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic, and would become its regular ‘war artist’, providing articles and drawings that were based on first-hand sketches. Later the same year, he married Agnes Mary Dye (known as Nancy), the daughter of a bank clerk. They settled at ‘Seacot’, 14 Kerrington Crescent, Barnhill, Broughty Ferry, to the east of Dundee. They would have one daughter, Alice Maureen, born in June 1919.
Gray continued to contribute to the Dundee Advertiser, which, between December 1917 and January 1918, published the 31 instalments of his ‘The History of the 4th Black Watch’, based on his own recollections and the testimonies of other eyewitnesses. His personal experiences also led him to receive a number of commissions to paint military subjects. Having sold seven drawings to the Imperial War Museum in 1918, he then received a commission from the museum to produce the large oil painting, A Ration Party of the 4th Black Watch at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 1915. He went on to produce paintings for several regiments, including his own. Then, in April 1922, his painting, The 4th Black Watch Bivouac on the Night of the Neuve Chapelle, was presented to the city of Dundee. He granted the council the publication rights to the image, and copies were sold, the profits of which were donated to the Black Watch Memorial Home in Broughty Ferry.
From 1919, Gray exhibited in Edinburgh (at the Royal Scottish Academy and the dealer, Aitken Dott), London (at the Fine Art Society) and on the Continent (at international exhibitions in Florence and Stockholm). During the 1920s, he turned increasingly from military subjects to landscapes and architectural scenes, and travelled to the Low Countries and Spain in order to find new inspiration. The works that resulted were not only paintings but also etchings, and especially drypoints. Produced during a printmaking boom, these were widely exhibited and reproduced, and enthusiastically received, selling well on both sides of the Atlantic and entering such major public collections as the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Late in the decade, Gray and his family moved across Broughty Ferry to ‘Westbrook’, Brook Street, which had space for both a studio and a printing room. However, by then, his print sales were beginning to fall, as the result of the international economic Depression.
In 1931, Gray moved with his family to London, in an attempt to reinvent himself as a portrait painter. He rented a studio at 33 Tite Street, Chelsea, once occupied by John Singer Sargent, and began to undertake portrait commissions, as well as painting scenes of the River Thames. In 1933, the businessman and philanthropist, Charles Nall-Cain, newly ennobled as the first Baron Brocket, commissioned a full-length portrait. However, he died before any payment was made, so that Gray was left virtually ruined and had to give up his studio.
During the 1930s, Gray became increasingly certain that there would be another war, and so considered how his experience and skills could be put to use. He developed an interest in camouflage, and specifically the ways in which Britain’s cities might protect themselves from the threat of German air attack. This resulted in the treatise, ‘Camouflage and Air Defence’, which he completed in 1936, and submitted to the War Office. It was well received, and he was quickly recruited as a Major in the Royal Engineers and Signals Board. In that position, he travelled across Britain, visiting sites of national importance and working out how to hide them. Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he devised a form of steel wool camouflage, which was used to conceal factories and military bases from air attack.
Gray had a reputation among his wartime colleagues for taking nightly rambles through the bombed London streets, even during air raids. These walks inspired his portfolio of six drypoints, ‘Battle of Britain’ (1940). Continuing to help raise money for regimental charities, he contributed to the Fine Art Draw of May 1940, in which a hundred original signed etchings and coloured prints by celebrated artists were raffled to benefit the Camerons’ Comforts Fund, organised by Gray’s friend, the photographer, Andrew Paterson.
In 1938, Gray had met Mary Meade, the editor of the magazine, The Needlewoman, who was 15 years his junior. They began an affair, and he entered into her circle, which included the artists, Charles McCall and James Proudfoot, the novelist, Harold Freeman, and Freeman’s wife, the costume designer, Elisabeth Bödecker – also Mary’s brother, James, who would become a Nobel prize-winning economist. Without admitting his affair to his daughter, Maureen, Gray drew her into this circle, getting her a job at the office of The Needlewoman. Eventually, Gray divorced his first wife, Nancy, and, in 1943, married Mary in Chelsea. The best man was Captain John Churchill, a colleague of Gray’s in the Royal Engineers and nephew of the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
At the end of the war, Joseph and Mary Gray settled at a house in West Street, Marlow, Buckinghamshire. There he focussed on landscape paintings in oil, finding inspiration on his walks and in sketching trips to Dorset and Bath (both family homes to the Meades), Suffolk, Norfolk, and Kent. However, he found it increasingly difficult to part with any of them. As a result it was only after his death – in Marlow, on 1 May 1963 – that Mary was able to organise an exhibition of his work. This was held at the Grosvenor Galleries, London, in 1966, and was opened by the artist, Sir William Coldstream, who had worked with Gray during the war.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Imperial War Museums and the V&A; and The Highlanders Museum at Fort George.
Further reading: Mary Horlock, Joseph Gray’s Camouflage: A Memoir of Art, Love and Deception, London: Unbound, 2018