It’s International Women’s Day and it seems to be making a greater impact this year, following on as it does from the #MeToo phenomenon. I thought it might be an appropriate occasion for another post on artistic depictions of women in the military.
About a year ago, I posted on the topic of depictions of women in late 19th century military uniforms. In that post, I examined attitudes towards women at this time seen through the lens of their depiction in military uniforms. In particular, I showcased a cigarette card series and also a postcard series from the early 1900s by Ellanbee called “Girl Soldier”. These images were interesting because, despite being a ‘comic’ series, they (doubtless unintentionally) provided a vaguely realistic and empowering image of women in military uniforms at a time when they were not even allowed to vote.
I’ve been looking at expanding my modest Girl Soldier postcard collection and in the course of my largely fruitless research I recently discovered another series of postcards on a very similar theme called “A Call to Arms!”
At first sight, “A Call to Arms” closely follows the Girl Soldier theme; young women dressed in the smart full-dress uniforms of famous British army regiments of the day. However, we soon see there are significant differences.
Firstly, the series adorns its images with seductive phrases: “Won’t you take me?“, “Say when you’ll have me”, “I’m ready when you want me”, etc. They are very deliberately sexualised and seductive.
Secondly, the uniforms are not accurately depicted as with Ellam’s Girl Soldier series. The “A Call to Arms” uniforms are a mere simulacra, mimicking the uniforms yet compromised by retaining the kind of impractical dress a lady in the era of King George V would be expected to have.That Life Guard doesn’t have genuine jackboots; she as a dress dyed black where the boots should be. It all feels a little like she’s modelling a new fashion collection inspired by military uniforms.
Only the soldiers of the Scottish regiments retain a close affinity to the real articles, thanks to the kilt’s similarity to a knee-length skirt. Yet, there is more than enough detail in all her illustrations to suggest that Winifred Wimbush spent some considerable time researching the real uniforms.
It is interesting to compare the Call to Arms lancer below (of the 17th Lancer Regiment) with the Ellanbee Girl Soldier lancer (of the 12th Lancers).
Immediately noticeable is that the Call to Arms lancer wears a long skirt with a split up the side, whereas the Ellanbee Lancer of the 12th wears genuine riding breeches. The lady of the 17th has high heels; the lady of the 12th has riding boots with spurs. There’s also a difference in stance; contrast the self-confident lancer of the 12th with her far more shy and demure fellow lancer.
What is perhaps surprising, given the slightly saucy presentation, is that the artist for “A Call to Arms” was a woman. Winifred Wimbush (1884-1958) was the daughter of Henry B Wimbush, a landscape painter, illustrator and a renowned postcard artist. A website dedicated to her father, Henry, admitted that “very little is known about Winifred or her painting” but nonetheless provided a decent short biography on her. It says:
Winifred, Henry’s eldest daughter was the only one of his children that followed him into a career as a professional artist.
This picture the ‘Flower Girl’ which appeared as the frontispiece in ‘The Channel Islands’ by Edith Carey published in 1902, was painted by Henry and it is reported that Winifred was the model. She would have been around 16 years of age when the picture was painted and this may have encouraged her interest in fashion along with her talent as an artist.
Winifred painted 9 different sets of postcards that were published by Raphael Tuck.
Several of the sets were loosely ‘propaganda’ cards for the 1st World War and would probably have been published between 1914 -1916.
And these propaganda postcards were entitled “A Call to Arms”.
Series 8772, 3, 4 were published as Oilette’s and generally showed regimental uniforms, often worn by girls and bearing the heading A call to arms. The border showed the red, white and blue of the union flag.
There’s no doubting that Winifred Wimbush was a talented artist. Her drawings are excellent. Her women are realistically proportioned and stylishly, elegantly painted. By contrast, Henry Ellam’s pleasing illustrations do seem a little more cartoonish compared to Wimbush’s artwork.
However, “A Call to Arms” does place women firmly in the submissive role that was expected of ladies in Britain at that time. They are, even in khaki greatcoats, not warriors but akin to passive models or sexually available seductresses. No doubt, as propaganda, they were painted to specifications provided to Wimbush by Tuck’s postcards and for a very specific purpose. Ellam’s confident female soldiers were supposed to be absurd and ridiculous; Wimbush’s coquettish soldiers were intended to provide succour for frightened men far from their loved ones on the front line. Neither series took the concept of women as resourceful and brave soldiers seriously despite, as my recent post on Serbian women soldiers proved, women most definitely being so at the time.
Perhaps, on International Women’s Day, I should end on a more positive, realistic female soldier image, a contemporary one that contradicts and challenges Ellam’s lampooned ‘girls’ and Wimbush’s submissive women from 100 years ago; presenting two 21st century women soldiers of the Life Guards mounted band!