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Felicia Browne was born at Thames Ditton on 18th February 1904. She studied at the St John's Wood School of Art and the Slade Art School. In 1928 she went to Berlin to study metalwork at Charlottenburg Technische Stadtschule, then became an apprentice to a stone mason from 1929-1931. While in Germany she took part in ant-fascist activities.
Browne won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College to study metal-work. She also found work teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She was also a member of the Artists International Association.
In 1931 Browne visited the Soviet Union. On her return she increased her anti-fascist activities. In 1933 she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. The following year she won a prize for her design of a Trade Union Congress medal commemorating the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
In 1936 Browne travelled to Spain with her friend, Edith Bone, a photographer. When the army revolted in July 1936, Browne joined the Republican militia in defence of the Popular Front government. Browne argued that "I am a member of the London Communists and can fight as well as any man." The fact that a British woman was fighting in the militia was reported in August in the Daily Express.
On 25th August 1936, Browne was killed in Aragón during an attempt to blow up a rebel munition train. according to Georges Brinkman: "... although under heavy fire, she was trying to help a wounded member of the group". Browne was the first British volunteer to be killed in the Spanish Civil War. As Angela Jackson pointed out in British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2002): "Her story has all the ingredients essential to heroic legend, the willing sacrifice of her life to save that of a comrade."
In her obituary in the Artists International Association journal it said: "She had most of the best human characteristics, but she conceived her own variety more as a source of opposition than of enjoyment. She was without guile, duplicity or vanity; painfully truthful and honest, immensely kind and generous, completely humane, loving any aspect of livingness, and as capable of enormous humour as she was deeply serious. She was gifted at every craft that she tried, a witty letter-writer, an amusing cartoonist, a vital and interesting companion, and socially much too gracious to belong credibly to the twentieth century."
Her friend and colleague Nan Youngman organized her memorial exhibition in October 1936.
(1) Felicia Browne obituary, Artists' International Association (1936)
The newspapers can be relied upon to make capital out of the fact that she was a woman, and she was the last person to wish to lay any undue stress upon the significance of this fact. But it has significance. She had it in her to represent the very best type of the new woman, but the kind of upbringing to which she was automatically subjected and and the forces with which she had to compete in a society where commercial values are preeminent, seriously and unnecessarily delayed her in harmonising all the remarkable powers within her.
She had most of the best human characteristics, but she conceived her own variety more as a source of opposition than of enjoyment. She was without guile, duplicity or vanity; painfully truthful and honest, immensely kind and generous, completely humane, loving any aspect of livingness, and as capable of enormous humour as she was deeply serious. She was gifted at every craft that she tried, a witty letter-writer, an amusing cartoonist, a vital and interesting companion, and socially much too gracious to belong credibly to the twentieth century. She was enormously well read, with a literary visual capacity which would have made her an excellent illustrator, particularly of Dante and Kafka, by whose strange and elaborate cosmogonies she became fascinated in the last year. She loved and appreciated good music and poetry, and whenever she got it, good food and drink - though materially she was remarkably careless and hopelessly generous.
But if her fighting was the expression of her deeply conscientious but less happy side, at least she had intellectual faith in the future. And she found happiness at the end, as far as one can judge from her letters, in a real sense of comradeship with her fellow militiamen. Intellectually she was quite clear about what was necessary for the next few years other life. In a letter to a friend written just before she went to Spain she said, 'You say I am escaping and evading things by not painting or making sculpture. If there is no painting or sculpture to be made, I cannot make it. I can only make out of what is valid and urgent to me. If painting or sculpture were more valid or urgent to me than the earthquake which is happening in the revolution, or if these two were reconciled so that the demands of the one didn't conflict (in time, even, or concentration) with the demands of the other, I should paint or make sculpture.
Drawing by Felicia Brown of a Republican militia (1936)
(2) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)
The first British volunteer to die in Spain was the artist and sculptress Felicia Browne. She studied at the Slade School from 1924 to 1926, where her contemporaries included William Coldstream, Nan Youngman, Claude Rogers, Clive Branson (who was to serve in the British Battalion in Spain), and Henry Tonks.
Youngman said, "Felicia was much more aware of the political situation than any of us. In 1928 she went to Berlin to study sculpture, living with unemployed fellow artists. Witnessing the Nazis come to power led her to the Communist party, which she joined in 1933.
Browne possessed a strong dislike of privilege as well as abstemious personal habits and genuine artistic talent. She donated her personal fortune to refugees, and, in a subsequent period of privation, took employment in a restaurant kitchen. Her ability to speak four languages eased her travels through some of the most remote parts of Europe. She made her living by sketching portraits of people in the villages in which she stayed, traveling as far as the Tatra mountains in Czechoslovakia. Almost always her artistic subjects were peasants and workers "whom she really felt with and for." In 1934, two years before her arrival in Spain, she received a prize from the Trades Union Congress for her design of a medal commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tolpuddle martyrs, six Dorset laborers who were transported to Australia for giving illegal oaths to fellow members of their union.
In August 1936, while still in Barcelona, Browne learned of a mission to blow up a fascist munitions train and boldly volunteered for it. However, the party attempted to dissuade her participation. According to a Daily Express reporter, she defied the orders and went to party offices, where she "demanded to be enlisted to fight on the Saragossa front." Browne reportedly said, "I am a member of the London Communists, and can fight as well as any man."'
A German comrade on the raid, George Brinkman, has left a fascinating typewritten report, describing their mission and the circumstances of the artist's death. According to Brinkman, the pudgy, bespectacled Browne was forced to clear a final gender hurdle before being allowed to accompany the raiding party. She went to its leader and asked if he would accept a woman comrade as a volunteer. After attempting to intimidate Browne by telling her of the dangers that awaited them, and failing, he accepted her as one of the ten who would attempt the hazardous mission. They left Tardienta by car and traveled to the farthest point of the front, where they disembarked and walked about twelve kilometers to the rail line. Browne and two others were told to keep watch and signal if there was trouble. The remaining seven moved close to the tracks. They set the charges with only thirty seconds remaining before the train passed.,'
On their way back, the group stumbled upon a macabre scene, a crashed plane with the remains of the pilot in the cockpit. As they hurriedly buried the dead man, a dog suddenly appeared, and with him an oppressive sense of danger. Brinkman moved quickly up a steep incline where he saw thirty-five or forty enemy soldiers nearby. He signaled to the rest to take cover. To rejoin them, Brinkman had to run through heavy rifle fire. An Italian volunteer beside him fell with a bullet through his foot. Brinkman made him as comfortable as possible under the desperate circumstances and then ran to the others for help. Browne insisted on returning with first aid for the wounded man. When she reached him, the enemy concentrated its fire on the two of them, killing her with bullet wounds to her chest and back.