On a visit to London last week I called in to the picture dealer Abbott and Holder in Museum Street. This is a long-standing haunt, celebrated for its stock of excellent British drawings, watercolours and paintings from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Conversations with the gallery’s director Philip Athill are always enlightening and on this visit he drew my attention to a forthcoming exhibition of the fashion illustrator Brian Stonehouse (1918-1998). Stonehouse’s elegant work for Vogue through the 1960s compares well with that of many of his better-known peers, but it is the backstory to his life that is truly fascinating.
During the Second World War his regiment in the Royal Artillery was stationed first in Edinburgh from where Stonehouse was dispatched to Glasgow as an interpreter for the many French soldiers awaiting repatriation there. In 1940 he was posted to the Orkney Islands before returning to London for an interview with the Special Operations Executive for a role as a secret agent.
Following intensive training he was parachuted into Vichy France where he masqueraded as a French art student, not entirely successfully before arrest, interrogation, incarceration and near execution by the Gestapo. After having moved through a series of prisons and concentration camps he arrived at Dachau in September 1944, only to be liberated by the Allied forces seven months later in April 1945.
Following demobilisation, Stonehouse relocated to New York where he established himself as a society portrait painter and set up home with Major Harry Haller, an American officer he had met in post-war London. His transition to the staff of American Vogue was a natural one and he combined illustration with portrait painting until the early 1960s, when fashion photography was beginning to gain the upper hand. His life through the later 1960s and 70s seemed leaner and he eventually returned to England in 1979. His final commissions were portraits of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose own social circles were not so dissimilar from those through which Stonehouse had passed during his glamorous years in New York. He died in 1998.
There is perhaps something magical, almost fantastical in Stonehouse’s story. His experiences and career-path belong resolutely to a century that shares little in common with our own. I came across a further example in a recent reading of Jean Findlay’s new biography of University of Edinburgh Alumnus C K Scott Moncrieff (Chasing Lost Time), translator of Proust and, like Stonehouse, British Secret Agent in Mussolini’s Italy.
The example set by such men is a truly inspiring one.