FELICITY ASHBEE (1867–1956), They Face Famine in Spain: Send Medical Supplies, 1937, Off-set lithograph on paper, published by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief Courtesy of the People’s History Museum
The Spanish Civil War was fought from July 1936 to April 1939 between Republican factions loyal to the democratically elected Popular Front Government of the Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, a right wing group led by General Francisco Franco whose military rebels had led a coup which ignited the conflict. The question of British political involvement in Spain was the subject of heated debate in parliament and in the media. In August 1936 Britain had signed a non-Intervention Agreement, together with 24 other nations. Due to a Franco-British arms embargo the Spanish Republic could only purchase arms from the Soviet Union, yet large amounts of weapons, supplies and troops were supplied to the Nationalists by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, escalating the situation from a civil war to a conflict with an international dimension. The cause of Republican Spain thus attracted widespread international support, as it provided an opportunity for people and organisations from a wide political spectrum to show solidarity against fascism.
Many British artists became passionately involved in the political and social issues raised by the Civil War. This ranged from designing posters for non-partisan campaigns for medical aid and supplies such as the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, to travelling to Spain and, in the case of artists such as Clive Branson, joining the International Brigades to fight alongside their Spanish comrades. Over 2500 recruits from Britain and Ireland joined 35,000 volunteers from 53 countries, of whom 526 were killed and many more injured.
By 1936 the left-wing Artists' International Association (AIA) had over 600 members and since its formation in 1933, had evolved into a 'United Front against Fascism and War.' The AIA organised many exhibitions and fundraising campaigns including 'Artists Help Spain', 'Portraits for Spain' and an exhibition of drawings by Felicia Browne - the first British person killed in action in the conflict. These events united artists from across the spectrum of artistic styles, ranging from abstract artists to members of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Vanessa Bell (whose son Julian was killed in Spain in July 1937), the British Surrealists and realist painters such as James Boswell.