Art in Historical Fiction Interview Series featuring Alicia Foster

Stephanie Renee dos Santos

warpaintWelcome to week nine of our series, our final post. It’s my pleasure to introduce Alicia Foster, author of Warpaint. In 1942, during WW II, Great Britain struggles to outwit Hitler and his forces. Female painters have been employed by the Ministry of Information to assist in visually fighting the war. A secret group of artists work clandestinely on a project named “Blacks”, with Vivienne Thayer amongst the covert mission, to create demoralizing propaganda aimed at the enemy. On the Home Front, three women painters   ̶  Laura Knight, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne  ̶  are tasked by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to record wartime life in England, to paint enlivening images that uplift the public spirit, and rally the populace to persevere. As war agendas play out, so do the stakes and what’s required of the artists. Creative and courageous, each in their own way, these women strive to rise to the cause as worlds collide. Secrets, subterfuge, betrayal, lies, manipulation, and the heart of art and artist are called upon to outmanoeuvre the opposition in its many concealed forms. This is a fascinating and original story, loosely based on real-life women artists of the day, whose works can be viewed today in various locations throughout England. The novel is riddled with revealing British cultural details, and told through well-drawn characters that etch their way into your heart; women possessing cunning, strength, and the will-to-succeed, despite grave risks and heart-breaking potential loss.

Unroll the paper and, the canvas, open the paintbox, and let these women artists show you how it’s done…

Stephanie Renée dos Santos: Where did your inspiration and idea for your novel Warpaint stem from? 

Alicia Foster: I was a child in the UK in the 1970s, and it seemed to me that WW II was all around us still. It pervaded the culture, from TV series to documentaries and especially films such as Casablanca, In Which We Serve and the movies made by Powell and Pressburger in the 1940s (which are mentioned in Warpaint). My imagination was particularly fired by the women in these films, and I would watch and wonder about what life was really like for them. It seemed to me that women were often shown as either impossibly heroic and good, or on the side of evil. They were also often only there as wives and lovers, rather than protagonists in their own right. I wanted to write something in which the heroines were more nuanced, perhaps morally ambiguous, and had more at stake than their relationships, they would have work which mattered to them and to the war effort, and which was endangered, made difficult by the war.

SRDS: What compelled you to include and focus on art and artists in your historical novel?

Grace Golden Leicester Square

Grace Golden, Leicester Square, 1941. Watercolour. Museum of London.

AF: I trained as an art historian, I did my PhD at Manchester University and after that I was asked by Tate galleries to write a book about all of the women in the Tate collections. There were a number of women who had worked as war artists, and while I was researching one of them, Grace Golden, in the Museum of London, I came across her wartime diary. She had met and married someone very quickly in the early 1940s (as many people did) but then something disastrous had happened between the couple and she and her husband separated. The diary did not say what that thing was, and the period in which it happened is missing from the diary. Either Grace Golden could not bear to write about it or she destroyed that part of her diary after the event. My imagination started to fill in the gaps, and I realised that in order to tell this story I would have to write in a different way than the art historical work I had been doing. I began to dramatise a version of her story, and those of some of the other women artists I had come across doing the Tate research. I started to imagine and to write scenes, and the novel grew from there.

SRDS: What drew you to your specific visual art medium, art work, and characters?

AF: The artists in Warpaint are all painters and most of the paintings that appear in the novel are real. Although there were of course women sculptors in the 1940s, the artists in Warpaint all worked for the British government, making either official war art or Black propaganda. Two-dimensional work was much more useful for propaganda purposes as it was so easy to transport and reproduce, hence the focus on painting in the novel.  I have included brief biographies of the real women artists that my characters are based on at the back of

Laura Knight, Corporal JDM Pearson, 1940. Oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London

Laura Knight, Corporal JDM Pearson, 1940. Oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London

Warpaint for those readers who want to know more. Their works can be seen in public collections in the UK: the Tate, the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of London among others. I’ve been really delighted that Warpaint has inspired some readers to do some detective work and seek out and enjoy the paintings. In terms of the choice of artists that I made, I was anxious not to create the impression that because they were women artists their lives and their work were all somehow similar, so I deliberately chose to write about four women of different backgrounds and life experiences, each making very different work and facing different dilemmas in their art and lives. One of them creates Black propaganda, work that is mendacious, sometimes obscene, and designed explicitly to unsettle and undermine the enemy, while another paints wholesome images of ladies knitting army socks for the war effort! Also a key character in my novel, Laura Knight, is in her sixties at the time Warpaint is set. It was very important to me to write an older woman character who is defined by her work, who is a serious artist with work still to do. There seem to be not many of them about in fiction.

SRDS: How did you go about incorporating art and artists into the book? 

AF: That’s a really interesting question. In terms of the artists themselves, as it is their story, incorporating them was not a problem, I followed them in my imagination and that suggested the structure of the novel and its important moments. But when it came to the paintings, making them part of the story rather than little art historical snippets was more of a difficult balancing act and a fascinating challenge. In some ways I had to un-think and un-learn aspects of my art historical training, to make the works feel alive and as if they were just being made, rather than precious objects with provenance, history, and a place in art history, to think of them on the easel with the paint still wet rather than in the gold frame on the gallery wall.

SRDS: Is there any message you were trying to convey by including art and artists in the novel?

Evelyn Dunbar Land Girls Pruning

Evelyn Dunbar, A 1944 Pastoral, Land Army Girls Pruning at East Malling, 1944. Oil on canvas. Manchester City Art Gallery.

AF: There is no one message in Warpaint, but I do think that in general women artists have been undervalued in art history, and still are, to some extent, today. So at some level there was a desire to engage readers to think about women artists and their work. I was also keen to write a novel in which the relationship between artist and work is complex, sometimes very problematic and compromised, to draw attention to the gap that exists between art and experience, there is a relationship between the two but it is not straightforward, and I really wanted to depict that complexity.

SRDS: What story lines do you see as unexplored in this niche of art in fiction?

AF: There are lots of stories still to tell! One of the most difficult things about writing a novel I’ve found is editing out all of the things that you thought should be in it but turned out to be not right for that particular book in the end. It’s a painful process and you are left with scenes, ideas, themes that you could not use but might in the future. In general terms, women artists have not had such attention as men in historical fiction, they have often figured as models and muses, rather than as creators, and there is surely a lot more work to be done there.

SRDS: What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?

AF:I remember reading Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time when I was a girl. A portrait of Richard III features heavily in that novel and I am still fascinated by that story and that portrait today. Historical fiction can bring us to art, I think, it can take us to see work we did not know about, it can also make us rethink a moment in the past and its art that we thought we did know, to see them perhaps more clearly, certainly with fresh eyes.


Alicia Foster photo

About the author: Alicia Foster trained as an art historian before becoming a novelist. Warpaint is her first novel (Penguin, Figtree, 2013), and third published book. Previous publications include Gwen John,  a monograph drawing on her doctoral research (Tate/Princeton, 1999), and Tate Women Artists, the first complete survey of women represented in the Tate collections (Tate, 2004). Her next novel is set in the early 1920s in Yorkshire and will tell the story of a violent collision between the forces of modernity and reaction. Foster grew up in Yorkshire, but these days she lives by the sea in Kent. She has spent a number of years as a lecturer teaching Fine Art students about art history and the practice of writing.

Tweet Alicia at: @aliciabwfoster

This interview concludes our two-month series. Thank you for joining us and exploring the ever-growing niche of art in historical fiction. 

Interview posting schedule: May 31st Susan Vreeland, June 7th Mary F. Burns, June 14th Michael Dean, June 21st Donna Morin Russo, June 28th Alana White, July 5th Maryanne O’Hara, July 12th Stephanie Cowell, July 19th Cathy Marie Buchanan, July 26th Alicia Foster

mini  Steph Professional  photoAbout the contributor: Stephanie Renée dos Santos is a fiction and freelance writer and leads writing & yoga workshops. She writes features for the Historical Novel Society. Currently, she is working on her first art-related historical novel, CUT FROM THE EARTH. A story of Portuguese tile and its surprising makers –The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 — and the wisdom of nature to guide and heal.

For the continuing art-related author interview series visit: & Join Facebook group “Love of Art in Fiction

Posted by Stephanie Renee dos Santos

Sorry, comments are closed on this post.