The Art of Elva Blacker

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

Despite being denied the opportunity to follow her chosen path, painting remained Blacker’s first interest and she studied part-time in the evenings to develop her technique, particularly in the field of portrait miniatures. During the 1930s, her photography and painting ran in tandem and she exhibited in London, in the Paris Salon and at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. She finally became a full-time student at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1936.

The huge expansion of the Armed Services at the start of the Second World War was bound to draw in to military life a whole variety of people who had never imagined that they would ever wear a uniform. This applied equally to women as to men, as the efficacy 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 (WAAF), Women’s Royal Naval Service and Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1939 when war appeared inevitable.

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 seized 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 still and doing little 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 that spanned all the areas in which she was stationed. As a result, she produced an unrivalled record of daily life on RAF stations.

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 a cohesive group. Others record the work undertaken in huts, offices, sheds, and the procedures and routines of underground operations and communications rooms. These do not depict the ‘pomp’ of formal parade ground activity, but the relaxed efficiency of a well-trained co-ordinated team. And others are the more formal portraits, capturing in studied detail the appearance and mannerisms of those in her midst. In 1943 Blacker exhibited some of her single and group portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Despite wartime shortages of materials (including paper rationing), Blacker was able to work in a range of media: in watercolours and inks, which were portable and relatively inexpensive, as well as oil painting on board and canvas. She was most successful and prolific in watercolour. Although many of her drawings were made in ink with a brush and pen, with varied tonal shading, her pencil drawings equally reveal a refined and subtle technique. Conversely, her oil paintings took on an altogether different handling, with bold, more nebulous, gestures and a dark, muted palette. Her early work as a miniaturist trained her in delicate and precise handling, with accurate observation and deft draughtsmanship that denoted an expressive confidence and control unmatched by her looser work in oils.

In December the following year, she worked in No. 6091 Servicing Echelon which provided the ground support for No. 91 Squadron flying Spitfires from RAF Manston. She was posted to Headquarters No. 28 Group in London 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 that 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.

During her travels, she made it known that she was in a particular locality and would accept sittings from those requiring a picture. After the war, her career continued steadily in this vein, as she alternated long trips abroad with periods in the family home in Sutton, Surrey.

On 28th May 1946, Blacker was finally released from the WAAF with the rank of Sergeant. Around this period, she turned again to recording theatrical subjects, which she had first explored in the 1930’s. Through local connections in Sutton, Blacker 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 established herself as a working artist, making her living by painting a wide variety of subjects. She was a leading light of the art circle in Sutton and made use of her contacts for the benefit of the local arts club, persuading Graham Sutherland, a major British avant-garde painter and Official War Artist, to become President of the Sutton Arts Network.

When travel became easier in the mid-1950s, Blacker spent an extended period in the United States of America, producing many animal portraits. She also attended a vegetarian 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 portraits. Around this time, she was given the opportunity to paint Percy Bernard, the fifth Earl of Bandon and Air Staff Officer, South East Asia Command. As one of her most successful oils, it is a key portrait in the RAF Museum collection.

Blacker became well-known locally in Sutton for her kindness, as well as her fast driving and motorcycle touring. The latter however brought on a serious accident in which she injured her face and which led to double vision that ended her career as a miniaturist. She continued to paint in larger scale well into her sixties. 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.