The Herbert's Hidden Histories
Celebrating the female role in war

By Steve Carpenter Thursday 14 February 2013 Updated: 14/02 11:36

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Buy photos » A painting by Dame Laura Knight from the Second World War on show at the Herbert Art Gallery. (s)

In our latest look at some of the interesting artefacts held in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum’s collection, Dr Nicola Gauld tells the story of Dame Laura Knight’s 1942 painting called Barrage Balloon Workers of Coventry.

The devastating impact of war upon Coventry has been well-documented over the years but perhaps less familiar is the role that the city’s women played during this conflict.

Similarly, the work of female war artists has been discussed to a lesser extent than that of their male counterparts.

Not only is Dame Laura Knight’s drawing Barrage Balloon Workers of Coventry a wonderful example of the collections held by the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, but it brilliantly illustrates the contribution of women to the war effort and, more specifically, to the defence of Coventry.

By the outbreak of war in 1939, Dame Knight was already an established artist, most famous for painting ballet dancers and circus acts.

Used to working in a male-dominated field, Knight was employed by the Ministry of Information and given many commissions by the War Artists Advisory Committee.

During the Second World War official war artists were employed by the government for information or propaganda purposes and to record various aspects of conflict both at home and on the frontline.

It was understood that ‘a war so epic in its scope by land, sea and air, and so detailed and complex in its mechanism, requires interpreting by artists’.

Paintings and drawings completed by British artists during the war were subsequently distributed to galleries in London and across the UK.

Knight’s paintings and drawings drew attention to the war effort of women on the home front and, most notably here in Barrage Balloon Workers of Coventry, to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who worked at the city’s airfield to raise barrage balloons.

These balloons appeared on fields and open spaces in those cities that found themselves increasingly under attack from the Germans and were designed to force enemy bomber planes to fly above 5,000 feet, thereby reducing the accuracy of the bombs.

The balloons were floated up into the sky on strong weighted cables, making it possible for the workers on the ground to control the height that the balloon eventually reached.

The employment of women to operate the balloons began in early 1941; it was found that 14 women could replace a ten-man team.

In Knight’s drawing we see one of the Air Force workers reaching up to attach weights to the balloon, with Coventry’s skyline hinted at in the distance.

This drawing was a preparatory sketch for a large oil painting, A Balloon Site, Coventry, which is in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Although small and understated, Barrage Balloon Workers of Coventry has tremendous impact and Knight clearly wanted to celebrate the crucial role women were playing in fighting the enemy.

Dr Nicola Gauld is co-curator of Caught in the Crossfire: Artistic responses to conflict, peace and reconciliation, open at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum on January 25th 2013.'s-Hidden-Histories-radio-used-by-second-world-war-hero-60440.html

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