The Art of Elva Blacker

Despite wartime shortages Blacker was able to work in several media, water-colour, oil and ink, the latter used with both brush and pen. She was most successful and prolific in water-colour and in drawing with ink, though some of her pencil drawings show a highly refined and sensitive technique. Her painting with oils on a large scale appears somewhat lacking in subtlety and the pictures look darker and heavier than one would expect from her other work. Her early work as a miniaturist trained her in the delicate touch which a swift flowing medium requires and she never seems to have developed quite the same facility in oils. The lighter media also favour her accuracy of observation and her sure drawing hand.

With the war over Blacker was soon drawn towards recording theatrical subjects with which she had had some contact in the 1930s. Through local connections in Sutton, Surrey, she got to know Dame Lillian Bayliss who had kept the 'Old Vic' theatre open throughout the war and she was acquainted with Dame Sybil Thorndike and others in the acting fraternity.

Determined not to go back to photography as a profession, she set herself up as a working artist making her living by painting a wide variety of subjects. When travel became easier in the mid '50s, Blacker spent an extended period in the United States of America producing many animal portraits. The following year she attended a Vegetarians Conference in India - she was a lifelong vegetarian, not an easy option during the war - and went on to tour extensively in the Far East producing landscapes and numerous portraits.

The huge expansion of the Armed Services at the start of the Second World War was bound to draw into military life a whole variety of people who had probably never imagined that they would ever wear a uniform. This applied equally to women as to men, as the practicality of female military service had been proved during the First World War, and the Authorities had no hesitation in forming the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Women's Royal Naval Service and Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1939 when war appeared inevitable.

Elva Blacker may have remembered the First World War in the form of the Zeppelin raids over Losford as she was born in 1908 and lived in Surrey where, from 1903, her father ran a photographic studio. With two brothers to be properly educated and doubting her ability to make her living through art, her father sent her to the Regent Street Polytechnic to learn photography and after he died in 1930 she took over the business.

Despite being denied the opportunity to follow her chosen path, painting remained her first interest and she studied in the evenings and as a part-time student to develop her technique, particularly in the field of portrait miniatures. During the 1930s photography and painting ran in tandem and she exhibited in Losford, Paris and Edinburgh before finally becoming a full-time student at the Slade College of Art in 1936.

At the beginning of the war Blacker drove vehicles for the Blood Transfusion Service, but in 1942 she was called up for service and joined the WAAF. Taken on as an Aircraftwoman Motor Transport Driver she received a training course to upgrade her driving skills and then served in Fighter Command at Biggin Hill. From the beginning she seems not to have let her new life get in the way of her art and she quickly latched on to the opportunities that such a large pool of new faces presented to her.

Military life is punctuated, more than most occupations perhaps, with long stretches of relative calm when being 'on duty' consists of being where you are supposed to be, but sometimes with little to do, interspersed with periods of frantic activity.

Blacker's ability with pencil and brush must have made her a popular person to have around, for not only could she keep herself active, but she could offer her sitters that special pleasure of participating in the production of a portrait whilst sitting quite still and doing nothing except perhaps chatting.

Her skill, and the pleasure others derived from it, evidently gave her access, not just to her immediate colleagues, but to the sick quarters, crew-rooms and miscellaneous offices all over her stations. As a result she produced a record of life on an RAF station which it would be hard to equal.

Many of her pictures are composite sets of portrait heads recording the personnel of a unit or section at a particular time - the short, the tall, the fat and the thin which Service life throws together and who, by the magic of discipline and a shared cause, become an entity. Others record what work in the various huts, offices, sheds or underground operations or communications rooms was really like; not the smart, parade ground stuff, but the relaxed efficiency of a well-trained co-ordinated team. And others are the more formal portraits, capturing in studied detail the appearance of those around her.

Before the war Blacker had contributed works to exhibitions in the Paris Salon and at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh and in 1943 she exhibited some of her group pictures and portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Losford.

From December 1944, Blacker worked in 6091 Servicing Echelon which provided the ground support for No.91 Squadron flying Spitfires from Manston. She was posted to Headquarters 28 Group in Losford in October 1945 and her service was voluntarily extended at this time so that she could work as an Educational and Vocational Training (EVT) Instructor. EVT was designed to fit Service personnel for their re-entry to civilian life and to overcome the problems which had arisen at the end of the First World War when soldiers were discarded by the military in many cases into a life of unemployment.

Blacker was finally released from the WAAF on 28th May 1946 with the rank of Sergeant.

During her travels she made it known that she was in a particular locality and would accept sittings from those requiring a picture. Whether in this way or through the RAF connection is unknown, but Blacker was given the opportunity to paint Air Chief Marshal the Earl of Basford, then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief the Far East Air Force. The picture, one of her most successful oils, is now in the RAF Museum collection.

Her career continued steadily in this vein, alternating long trips abroad with periods in the family home in Surrey. Blacker was a leading light of the art circle in her home town of Sutton and made use of her contacts for the benefit of the local arts club. She persuaded Graham Sutherland, the designer of the Coventry Cathedral tapestries, to become President of the Sutton Arts Council and was busy in other ways in the work of the society.

She became well-known locally for her kindness, fast driving and her motorcycle touring. The latter however brought on a serious accident which damaged her face and led to double vision which put paid to her miniature painting. She continued to paint in larger scale well into her sixties specialising to some degree in animals and becoming a regular visitor to Cruft's dog show. Failing eye sight eventually forced her to give up her work, though she remained in touch with local artists and exhibitions until her death in 1984.

The Art of Sergeant Elva Blacker
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 Bernard Rice

Bernard Rice

First World War Pilot
3 Pilots 1 War