From 15 March until 21 September, the Museum will be showing a rare group of wartime drawings by Wren Gladys E. Reed as part of the War Artists at Sea displays in the Queen’s House. These evocative sketches will be shown for the first time since they were acquired in 1947, and it is hoped that their display will shed some light on this mysterious artist, about whom much remains to be discovered.
We know that Reed joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1943. From February to July that year, she was in the Woolwich class and trained at the coding school HMS Cabbala, a shore base near Warrington for Wireless Telegraph Operators. Once trained, between 1943 and 1944, she served in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area, and was stationed at the shore base HMS Eaglet, Liverpool, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches. This shore base coordinated the British side of the Atlantic Convoy system, and monitored German U-boat activity with the aim of suppressing it. During her time there, she sketched her fellow Wrens at work.
In May 1947, Reed corresponded with the Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum, with a view to presenting her wartime drawings. By that time Reed lived at Eastern Villas Road in Southsea. She wrote in her neat hand that 'while serving in the WRNS during the war as a W/T [Wireless Telegraph] operator, [she] attempted to keep, in [her] off-watch time, a sketch record of some of the various interesting kinds of work being done by Wrens'. Reed had kept about 30 drawings of her time in service, mostly drawn in 5B pencil on cheap paper. She apologetically wrote to the National Maritime Museum director, Frank Carr: ‘I am afraid you will be more than a little shocked at the untidy state they are in. They were sketched under all sorts of conditions, have been carried wherever I have been stationed, and passed through many people's hands, so that since 1944 [they] have become very grubby. I console myself with the thought that they may still reflect a little of that busy, happy atmosphere that did exist in the WRNS – especially in the “open air” categories'.
Enthused by the 'delightful drawings', Carr replied: 'we feel that these form a most useful; and, if I may say so, a most graceful record of the WRNS work in the war, so much more telling than photographs. [...] We are trying to build a really good record for future generations, and I am sure that your sketches would interest and give pleasure to many in the years ahead'. Fourteen of the drawings were eventually left to the National Maritime Museum. Reed initially intended to donate them, but was given a 10 guineas honorarium as, Carr wrote, ‘a tangible expression of our appreciation for your gift'. The drawings were certainly worth more, but in post-war Britain, where supplies were short and every pound, shilling and pence counted, this was not an insignificant token of gratitude. Compared to the work of official war artists, Reed's are vividly spontaneous, on the spot pencil sketches. While her letters reveal modesty – she described her drawings as mere records rather than works of art – Reed was clearly a trained artist. The quality of her work was recognized, and some of her drawings were reproduced in the naval magazine The Dittybox in 1944. There is a poignant simplicity to her pencil drawings, yet everything is there, from the delicate strands of the fashionable hairdos, to the buttons of the shirts, and the minutely rendered details of the screws, nuts and bolts of machinery.
Reed drew her fellow Wrens on night watch, receiving wireless messages, servicing torpedo tubes, or performing maintenance on depth charges. She was not a just an observer, but a participant to the scenes she drew. Unlike official wartime depictions of women at work, meant to bolster morale and attract recruits, her sketches offer a personal snapshot of life in the Wrens. They show how female contributions to the war effort disrupted traditional gender roles, and convey a sense of shared experience and the bonds that existed between Wrens. The Wrens formed a close-knit community: they did not only work together, they often lodged in dormitories, taking transport together to their postings, socializing together during their time off-duty, and looking after each other, like a family away from home.
While more remains to be discovered about this artist, an appeal for information in The Guardian in January 2014 brought some new leads. The most exciting of these came from a Mr Alec Leggatt, who kindly allowed me to quote his touching email in full: ‘I am pretty sure I knew Gladys Reed (I don't remember the E) in 1938-9. She then lived in Waverley Rd, Southsea - a stone's throw from Eastern Villas Rd. She was a girlfriend of my late brother Richard, an architect, when they were both studying at the Portsmouth Art School. I was 10 or 11 then and my brother was 18 or 19 and Gladys would have been about the same. In 1939 my brother joined the Army, became an officer and fought in North Africa and Italy, collecting the MC [Military Cross] en route. After the war he married another girl and no more was heard of Gladys. My brother was a hero in my young eyes and everything connected with him, including girlfriends, was absolutely wondrous to me. Gladys was very good to me and she was my first contact with someone with a touch of individuality - even a bit bohemian. She talked about art and music and we once hitch-hiked to [Ashton-under-Lyne near Stockport] were she introduced me to my first girlfriend Elsie - a very harmless relationship I can assure you. If by chance you should hear if Gladys is still with us I would love to meet her again.’ Aside from the excitement I felt at knowing what a special person Gladys Reed was, this was a welcome confirmation of her art school training. Unfortunately, the Portsmouth School of Art and Design do not hold student records from that period, though the staff there is doing every effort to find a trace of her. The Portsmouth connection is an important one however, for, having looked at the several birth certificates bearing her name, we may now assume that our artist and a Gladys E. Reed born in 1917 in Portsmouth might be one and the same. Establishing this for sure is difficult: the Museum cannot access her service records, held by the Ministry of Defence, because these are accessible only to next of kin or on presentation of a death certificate. To date, we have failed to unearth any information on Reed's later life and career, or find records of her work being exhibited. Like most Wrens, she was likely to have been unmarried and childless at the time she enrolled for duty, but we do not know whether she married after the war (thus possibly changing her name), or had children. She might even still be alive. We are in touch with the Association of Wrens, and hoping some of their members might remember her. It is likely that Reed would have given similar drawings to those in the Museum’s collection to the friends she served with, and these might still be in family collections. I would be grateful for any new leads about her.
All images © National Maritime Museum. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.