George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II
Kathleen Broome Williams
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019
Hardcover. xvi+279 pages. ISBN 978- 1682474266. $29.95
Reviewed by Brian Foss
Carleton University, Ottawa
War is a serious business. No one knew this better than front-line war artists. Many approached their subject with grim solemnity. Some of them—Wyndham Lewis and Paul Nash, for example, during the First World War—were driven by rage against the shocking evidence of humanity’s most base, destructive instincts. “I am no longer an artist interested and curious,” Nash famously wrote in 1917 from the Ypres Salient. “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”(1) Others, including Eric Kennington during the Second World War, worked themselves into fits of hero worship that drenched their portraits of servicemen in what sometimes verges on almost caricatural representations of selfless military heroism. Many other artists, overwhelmed by the anti-humanist immensity and the apocalyptic nature of mechanized twentieth-century combat, attempted to more or less ignore war’s ugly realities, sometimes by retreating to the quotidian trivia of military life away from the front lines: servicemen eating, sleeping, bathing, exercising, and so on.
Yet other artists reveled in their exciting wartime exposure to novel surroundings and experiences. Anthony Gross, for example, was a full-time official war artist for almost all of the Second World War (1940-45), and as such traveled extensively through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. “There is one thing I really enjoy in all this,” he wrote, “and that is being told to go somewhere, to do something I have never done before, then the arriving there, finding myself face to face with the subject and at last having to work out how to do it, starting from scratch.”(2) But of the many artists who approached war in this way, few can have been as thoroughly engaging as George Plante, the subject of Kathleen Broome Williams’s equally engaging book, Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II.
Plante was born in in Edinburgh in 1914, seven weeks after the First World War exploded onto the international scene. He died in 1995, in South Carolina, where he had been living since 1980 and where he had recently become an American citizen. He trained at the Edinburgh College of Art, continued his studies in Berlin, and worked as a commercial artist in London during the 1930s. In 1937 he married Evelyn Smith, another student from the Edinburgh College of Art. Following an unsuccessful attempt to enlist in the Royal Air Force in the spring of 1940, he was admitted to a radio operator training course back in Edinburgh, and joined the SS Sourabaya, an Antarctic whaling ship that found new life during the war as a Merchant Navy tanker. Plante spent more than two years with the Merchant Navy, crisscrossing the Atlantic between Britain and North America. When off duty at sea he made drawings, watercolours and gouaches, several of which Broome Williams reproduces in colour, of shipboard facilities, personnel and events. The Sourabaya, with Plante on board, was sunk in an October 1942 torpedo attack. Later that year or early in 1943 he joined the SS Southern Princess, another Merchant Navy tanker, only to see it, too, sunk in a U-boat attack in the spring of 1943: an event that almost ended his life.
To Plante’s surprise, the loss of the Southern Princess signaled the end of his career with the Merchant Navy. Instead of receiving a new posting, he was ordered to report to the Foreign Office’s Political Intelligence Department (PID), apparently on the strength of his reputation in commercial art, the field in which he had been employed in the years leading up to the war. The PID was purportedly responsible for producing private reports on foreign affairs, but it was in fact a cover for Britain’s Political Warfare Executive (PWE). Created in 1941, the PWE was charged with coordinating both white propaganda (overt, acknowledged efforts that supported Britain) and grey or black propaganda (which actively undermined the Fascist war effort in southern and eastern Europe). The PWE’s work took the form of radio broadcasts, leaflets, and miscellaneous printed materials. Plante’s involvement was with the illustration and layout of mountains of documents that featured his anti-Fascist cartoons and other drawings, along with accompanying texts. (Britain’s Ministry of Information, in comparison, was responsible for propaganda aimed at the populations of Britain, allied countries, and neutral countries.) In this new capacity Plante was posted first to Cairo, and later (from November 1944) to the southern Italian Adriatic port of Bari, which had been captured by the Allies in September 1943 following Mussolini’s deposition as prime minister in July of that year. “Now that I have brought about the downfall of Mussolini,” wrote Plante to his wife to explain why he would not be returning to England anytime soon, “you can’t expect me to stop at this stage!” .
Following the end of the war, Plante opted not to return to Everetts Advertising—the British firm he had joined in the second half of the 1930s—and instead to capitalize on his commercial art skills and what he had learned about mass persuasion while working for the PWE. Discouraged by Britain’s dire economic straits, fascinated by New York City ever since his first wartime visit there with the Sourabaya, and eager to immerse himself in the innovative advertising techniques that catered to the consumer paradise exemplified by post-war America, Plante joined the London office of the highly successful New York advertising agency Young & Rubicam. There he became one of the fifty members (all by invitation only) of the newly created Advertising Creative Circle, the goal of which was to elevate the status of British advertising “by encouraging high standards of creative skill, and … providing opportunities for the interchange of ideas amongst advertising creative people” . In the early 1960s, on the lookout for new challenges, he accepted the position of world-wide creative director for Unilever International. His marriage to Evelyn Smith had ended in the early 1950s, and in 1980 he and his American second wife, Jane Shenfield, retired to South Carolina, where painting occupied much of the time that Plante had devoted to commercial art and advertising over the previous four decades.
Kathleen Broome Williams—Jane Shenfield’s daughter and thus Plante’s stepdaughter—notes that as Young & Rubicam’s creative director Plante “stay[ed] at the leading edge of [advertising] developments that took him from print, to black-and-white television, to color television, and to film. He was always creative, innovative, and eager to try something new” . Indeed, Plante’s creativity and innovativeness are the leitmotifs of this book, and account for why the reader will find him such an interesting and attractive personality. Whenever he had shore leave in New York he used the opportunity to make contacts in the world of American commercial art and advertising. This included a remarkable range of activities, even by the standards of the energetic and self-promoting Plante. He took advantage of shore leaves to drop off a painting at the offices of the New Yorker magazine, as well as to show his sketches to the art director of Young & Rubicam, thereby earning his first commission from the agency that would become his postwar employer. On another occasion in New York he so impressed Jan Juta (of the Exhibition Section of the British Library of Information, which operated through the British consulate in New York) that Juta arranged for him to give radio talks on the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic. Plante even managed to have twenty of his wartime artworks included in a 1942 exhibition of contemporary British drawings and watercolours, at the American-British Art Centre on West 56th Street.
But Plante’s ardent socializing was not done solely to build foundations for the thriving postwar career that he envisioned for himself in illustration and advertising. A great deal of it also sprang from his intensely social nature and his hunger for new experiences. For example, while on a brief layover in New York in October in 1941 he visited a cousin who happened to be the next-door neighbor of the actress Lillian Gish (one gets rather used to this sort of coincidence when dealing with Plante), and with whom
he met all kinds of celebrities and dined in all the places in vogue: Sherman Billingsly’s Stork Club, the 21 Club, the Copacabana, Sardi’s, and more. Through his cousins he became close friends with Russell Patterson, the illustrator / designer for the Ziegfeld Follies, and through Patterson he met all kinds of people in show business, the music business, and the fringes of the art world. He was thrown right into the heady social life of prewar New York [66-67].
All of this, remember, was while he was on leave, between trans-Atlantic convoy trips with the Merchant Navy. During that same stopover in New York he visited Radio City Music Hall, which confirmed for him the accuracy of jokes that “the Americans do everything bigger and better” . This frantically busy layover concluded with Plante socializing with some firemen at Jack Dempsey’s bar on Broadway, when he suddenly recalled that the Sourabaya was about to sail. The firemen came to his rescue, “taking me back at great speed with sirens wailing and lights flashing. It was a great thrill and impressed my shipmates immensely who had been convinced that this time I really wasn’t going to make it” . That refence to “this time” says it all; Plante was no stranger to theatrical entrances and exits. The overwhelming impression of him on shore leave is that of the principal figures in On the Town, the Broadway musical and 1949 film about three sailors on leave in New York City, where they’re determined to see and experience the entire city in a mere 24 hours.
Nor does the frenetic and coincidence-laden reality of Plante’s wartime life end there. While he was waiting to learn his next naval posting, following the 1943 sinking of the Southern Princess, he was instead called to London to report to the Political Intelligence Department. There, according to Broome Williams, he was asked by Ian Fleming if he would be “willing to undertake a confidential mission about which they could say nothing except that it meant leaving for Cairo at once” . (Admittedly, Broome Williams elsewhere, and rather more prosaically, describes Plante’s departure for Egypt as having been preceded by the artist being “sent off to spy school deep in the English countryside” .) This all came as a surprise to Plante (but probably not to the reader), although much of the potential glamour of the event is blunted by the fact that at the time Fleming was assistant to the head of Naval Intelligence, and not the literary figure he is today. (He didn’t write his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, until 1952.) But by this point in Broome Williams’s narrative the fact that George Plante was plucked “out of the blue”  to be sent to do propaganda work in Cairo, in the process becoming chummy with a later lion of the spy novel genre, scarcely raises eyebrows.
In Egypt, exactly as he’d done in New York City, Plante combined work with an impressively ardent free-time agenda that included everything from sightseeing in the El Mosky bazaar in Cairo, to partying with members of the city’s large Jewish population that had fled to Egypt from 1920s and 1930s anti-Semitic violence in Europe, to meeting belly dancers—who, he complained to his probably skeptical wife, bathed too infrequently for his taste. Lively cocktail parties at Shepheard’s Hotel (events that gave Plante opportunities to chat with visiting glitterati such as Noël Coward) were a staple of his time in Cairo. All of this socializing took place despite the heavy demands of his work, all of which he took seriously. Broome Williams notes that that in September 1943 alone, he and his handful of colleagues designed and produced a total of 115 leaflets with a print run of nearly 60 million copies. But even that pace wasn’t frantic enough to prevent him from taking a short leave in October, traveling down the Nile to visit the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak complex near Luxor.
Reflecting on the impact of Plante’s wartime experiences, Broome Williams concludes that her stepfather
had returned from war a changed man, partly because of the suffering and carnage he had witnessed but more because he had been introduced to another side of life—one that was affluent, urbane, and cosmopolitan. In Manhattan he had come face-to-face with the real life he had seen previously only in glossy images in American magazines” .
In fact, however, Broome Williams’s book spends little time dealing with anything resembling “suffering and carnage”. Even her gripping narrative of how Plante reached British shores after surviving the destruction of the Southern Princess ends with a comical episode in which customs officials at his port of arrival made the mistake of asking Plante if he had anything to declare. At the time Plante was wearing nothing but a loaned raincoat, his own clothes having been coated in tanker oil while he had bobbed about in the North Atlantic, waiting to be rescued. “I opened my raincoat wide,” he recounted, “and invited them to search me, and if they found anything I told them they could keep it” . To be fair, though, Broome Williams’s narrative depends heavily on Plante’s own unpublished document titled “A Very Personal View of World War II”: a text that she describes as putting “such a humorous face on that deadly conflict that I have had to keep rereading such accounts as Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea to remind myself of the harsher reality” . Indeed, Plante’s approach to the Second World War seems to have been very much like that of official War Office artist Edward Ardizzone, whose visual and verbal descriptions were based on empathy, humour and local colour, not on death and destruction. It seems significant that in this book’s sole reference to Plante’s thoughts about Britain’s official war artists, he gives Ardizzone the highest praise .
Kathleen Broome Williams is an accomplished naval historian, and it shows. Her familiarity with naval history and practice, including the movements of the Sourabaya, and the geographically shifting menace of U-boats in the Atlantic, permeates her biography of Plante, providing welcome context without displacing Plante as the focal point of her discussions. In particular, her description of the March 1943 attack on HX229 convoy as it sailed from New York to Europe is gripping in its inclusion of accounts by eyewitness. This was the biggest convoy battle of the Second World War, with thirteen ships sunk—and Plante was in the middle of it. The Southern Princess, with Plante aboard, was one of the thirteen destroyed ships. “My approach to this topic is as a historian”  writes Broome Williams, who also makes highly effective use of Plante’s lively recollections, both oral and written, including his many wartime letters home to his wife.
However, it is precisely Broome Williams’s reliance upon her naval history expertise that presents the only significant flaw in this otherwise fine book. As she notes, “I have neither been trained in, nor am I qualified to discuss, the artistic merit of Plante’s work” . On the one hand she is on relatively sure ground when dealing with the illustrations and designs (six of which she reproduces) that Plante made for the Political Welfare Executive, first in Cairo and then in Bari. This makes sense. Like all visually effective propaganda, Plante’s imagery had to be quickly readable, its symbolism immediately translatable into a simple, punchy narrative. In their visual straightforwardness, Plante’s illustrations emphasize content over aesthetic complexity.
But Broome Williams’s reluctance to deal with Plante’s war paintings as aesthetic statements causes her to run into problems when it comes to dealing with the images the artist made while serving in the Merchant Navy. In this regard her book’s title—Painting War : George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II—seems a singularly odd choice. Whereas Broome Williams has little difficulty in setting Plante’s visual propaganda within the context of his parallel fascination with influencing consumer behavior through advertising, she is at a loss to connect his wartime paintings with the art that we’re told he enjoyed viewing in Scotland, England and New York before and during the war. Discussion of paintings is limited to generic statements for which little or no support is provided. On page 122, for example, the author remarks: “As [Plante’s] paintings of the Battle of the Atlantic had already shown, he had a sure touch when depicting the high drama of war.” Yet of the nine gouache paintings reproduced in the book (happily, all in colour), only two deal with what could be termed “the high drama of war”: one shows a destroyer dropping a depth charge, and the other the burning and sinking of the Southern Princess. Nor does the author explain what visual qualities are evidence of “a sure touch when depicting the high drama of war”. No figure numbers or other citations link individual illustrations with specific passages in the text. No information is provided about how Plante’s treatment of his subjects did or did not accord with how other war artists treated similar subjects. To be fair, this is not an unusual state of affairs in much history writing that uses art as illustration of events rather than as personal experiences translated into aesthetic form—but it seems out of place in a book whose title suggests that Plante’s wartime paintings constitute the thematic cornerstone of the research. Towards the end of the book, Broome Williams quotes Plante to the effect that
Nature does a pretty good job, and I don’t want to try to compete with nature. So I make my paintings an abstraction from nature. I use colors that will evoke an emotion, an emotional response in the person looking at the picture, and that is sometimes better by not doing what is done in nature [221-222].
It would be helpful for Plante’s war paintings to have been discussed within that framework.
Similarly, the author’s comments on the relationship of Plante to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC)—the Ministry of Information body that was responsible for commissioning and purchasing art that documented British involvement in the war—is lacking in precision. The WAAC acquired only one artwork by Plante: A Rescue Ship in the Atlantic, March 1943, purchased from the artist. (It seems significant that when this painting is reproduced in the book, the caption gives not its actual title, but rather a narrative summary of the event depicted: “Gouache painting of burning, sinking tanker Southern Princess, Battle of the Atlantic, March 1943”.) Overall, Broome Williams’s text tends to suggest a closer relationship between artist and committee than was actually the case. For example, although she is correct in noting Plante’s brief lobbying of the WAAC to pay attention to Merchant Navy subjects, she is on shakier ground when she asserts that Plante received “official encouragement” as well as “recognition and support” from the committee. Certainly Plante was warmly commended to the WAAC in the spring of 1942 by Jan Juta, and the committee did indeed recommend to the Marconi Company (the largest employer of radio officers, all of whom were civilians rather than official military personnel) that Plante be given opportunities to make art when possible. (“While dodging U-boats and battling the elements he never stopped painting,” claims Broome Williams in her “Foreword”, with a pardonable degree of exaggeration [x].) But all in all the WAAC had minimal and quite cursory dealings with Plante. Even Broom Williams’s implication that the committee ultimately donated multiple Plante paintings to the Imperial War Museum ignores the fact that the committee acquired only one of his paintings in the first place.
Yet there is also much to admire in Broome Williams’s otherwise thoroughly documented study. George Plante is an artist who has not received significant attention from previous writers. He emerges from this book as an ambitious, accomplished and delightful figure.
(1) Paul Nash to Margaret Nash, 16 November 1917. Reprinted in Nash, Outline : An Autobiography and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1949) : 210-211.
(2) Anthony Gross, letter
to Kenneth Clark, April 1940. Quoted in Alan Ross, Colours of War : War
Art 1939-45 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983) : 150.
(2) Anthony Gross, letter to Kenneth Clark, April 1940. Quoted in Alan Ross, Colours of War : War Art 1939-45 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983) : 150.
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