The name Gertrude Leese (1870-1963) may not be instantly familiar, yet in the early 1900s she was a successful and prominent British illustrator and watercolour painter, writes Clare Walters.

During the first decade of the twentieth century she illustrated a number of books for George Bell and Sons, including George Sand’s La Mare au Diable and François le Champi in 1908, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1909. Her name is credited in substantial type on the covers and title pages of these books, and each includes a generous mix of black-and-white line illustrations and coloured plates. She had studied with Max Bohm (1868-1923) at the international art colony in the fishing port of Etaples, and her work was shown at the ‘Salon des Artistes Français’ in Paris in 1902.

During the First World War, Gertrude Leese made sketches that revealed the day-to-day realities of life on the Allied military base at Etaples, France

During the First World War, Leese volunteered in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at Etaples, in an Allied military camp that had many hospitals on site. The Imperial War Museum holds five sketches Leese made while there, which she donated to the museum in 1954. These delicate, dynamic ink-on-paper illustrations give us a glimpse into life on a busy wartime base.

The first sketch of the five depicts a group of soldiers walking along a road in front of a tented encampment. The sky is turbulent and the ground appears wet. One soldier is checking a map, another stands with his hands in his pockets, while a third strides purposefully off in the opposite direction to the others. Other figures, including two kilted Scottish soldiers and two women from the VAD, can also be seen. The scene is full of movement and energy, yet is not at all fraught.

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