A London exhibition of dashingly chic women from the early Fifties, as depicted in American Vogue by one of the magazine’s star illustrators, hints at the subterranean crackle of petticoat and the slide of silky satin. But these fluently executed fashion illustrations also conceal the awful story of man’s unspeakable inhumanity to his fellow man.
Brian Stonehouse was a young, good-looking artist who found work as a freelance illustrator for pre-war English magazines. Having been partly brought up in France, and therefore speaking fluent French, he was spotted as potential agent material by SOE, Special Operations Executive, soon after World War II broke out.
Trained as a wireless operator and given a nom de guerre and a new identity as a French art student, Stonehouse was parachuted into Occupied France. He was captured very early on but put his pencil to good use, drawing portraits of the wives and daughters of his captors in order to survive three appalling French prisons and five of the worst Nazi concentration camps — all in the company of four close British officer friends.
Stonehouse was repeatedly tortured by the Gestapo and finally branded NN — Nacht und Nebel, which translates as ‘Night and Fog’. This was a decree issued personally by Hitler that ordered men such as Stonehouse would be worked to death before their presence was eradicated so that their families would never know what had become of them.
Having denied he was a spy, Stonehouse admitted he was a Captain in the British Army so that his family would know of his fate. He was nevertheless told he was to be executed.
Stonehouse survived, ending up in Dachau, a camp he ultimately helped to liberate. After victory was declared, he arrived back on British soil at RAF Lyneham, Witlshire, with his friend, fellow officer and prisoner Bob Sheppard. They stepped from the plane styled in blue silk dotted with white, which they had found in a workshop at Dachau. The colourful cloth was worn as scarves to celebrate their freedom.
Brian Stonehouse’s military service was not over, however; he returned to the British Army of Occupation to help identify his former persecutors. During this time, he had a private meeting with General Eisenhower who asked him why it was he hadn’t been shot?
In l946, Stonehouse was finally demobbed and awarded an MBE for his courage. He moved to America where he earned his living as a society portrait painter in Washington and then New York. Spotted by Jessica Daves, then editor of American Vogue, he was hired on a permanent basis and produced some of the most elegant fashion illustrations of the late Fifties and early Sixties.
Diana Vreeland’s appointment as editor of Vogue in l962 effectively brought the era of the fashion illustration to a close, and in time Stonehouse returned to the UK where he resumed his previous calling as a portrait painter, notably painting the Queen Mother.
Brian Stonehouse died in l998 but his bravery in the face of indescribable adversity, and his deep-rooted belief that life was beautiful, as witnessed by his fashion illustrations, make him an unheralded and unlikely hero, an extraordinary figure in an extraordinary time. As such, the exhibition of his beautiful illustrations at the London picture dealers Abbott and Holder is highly recommended.