Love and Death in Leamington Spa

Another blog from Fergus Durrant….

The sudden arrival of the camouflage unit did not go unnoticed by local inhabitants. This colourful band of individuals would cause quite a stir in and around the town at different times.

Artists questioned by rural policemen after acting suspiciously, well what else would a German spy do but drive around in an open top Bentley and fedora hat? Artists causing alarm by exhibiting abstract paintings to the public. Even talk of long hair and sandals.

Here is an extract from Felicity Fishers memoir on the subject of relationships.

“They were a kaleidoscopic collection of all different shapes and sizes and ages.  Many of them had spouses, either with them or left behind at home somewhere in England.   The curious thing that occurred, during the four years I worked there, was the extraordinary rearrangements of these married couples: i.e. A + B became A – B but + D, and E + F became E – F but + G etcetera”.


Above –  a cartoon drawn by Thomas Rathmell, of note Wilfred Shingleton he won the 1946 Oscar for the art direction of Great Expectations. But standing in the window we see Victorine Foot, she is described as  “Tall, beautifully made up, pale creamy-coloured skin, dark brown eyes of a speaking brightness and a thick mane of reddish-brown hair; she was strikingly lovely.”  Felicity Fisher.

After moving into a flat in Binswood Avenue, Victorine was sent to the naval camouflage unit based in the old museum and art gallery space this is the imperial war museums link to a great 50min interview by her about her time in Leam.

Above Image: The naval water tank in the old art gallery.

Soon to arrived in Leam the artist Eric Shilsky and his wife Bettina.

Fisher says that Bettina “had been a model and dancer and had an air of romantic strangeness about her” but that Shilsky  “was a superb artist and sculptor.   He was also a charming companion and raconteur and had known many artists in Paris……. Eric had the most arresting good looks, and a head of pale hair standing out like a halo round his head.”

Life in Leam was not great for Bettina, she “became increasingly sad and frail.   I remember massaging her feet because they were cold: they were the thinnest and frailest feet I had ever seen.   Eric hated having to leave her alone on the nights he was fire-watching at the Rink (the enormous studio used by the factory Camouflagers).” Felicity Fisher

It was while Eric was away one night that she took her own life, ‘the whole department was shaken by this tragedy.’ it taking many months for Shilsky to recover.

But although grief stricken, Eric was to marry Victorine in 1946 and many  relationships flourished both personally and professionally during these years.

The funniest of these encounters I will leave with Felicity Fisher:

“Geoffrey Watson had taken me in a boat on the river at Warwick and removed his outer garments to reveal a pair of leopard-skin briefs and a tolerably fine torso for a man of fifty-odd years, and who proposed that I should come and live with him in his very superior flat.”

Felicity declined the offer.

For those paying attention the cartons from the Glasson blog were by Rodney J Burn.

Next  local connections…..

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