Artist Gladys E. Reed, who served in the Wrens during the Second World War, would be turning 100 this week. Here, Art Curator Melanie Vandenbrouck discusses her wartime drawings.  

In 2014, the Museum rediscovered an extraordinary group of wartime drawings, by the artist while she served in the Wrens in 1943-44. 

We knew close to nothing about Gladys then, aside from the few clues she revealed in correspondence with the Museum when she offered her drawings in 1947. She had trained in wireless coding on HMS Cabbala from January to July 1943, and then served as a Wireless Telegraph Operator on the shore base HMS Eaglet in Liverpool.

Drawing of a Wren wireless telegraphist receiving a message
Wren wireless telegraphist receiving a message by Gladys E Reed

It was very clear, too, that she was a trained artist, her fluid sketches showing consummate draughtsmanship and great sensitivity to her subject and sitters.

Drawing of Wren radio mechanic soldering connections on a service set
Wren radio mechanic soldering connections on a service set by Gladys E Reed

After an appeal for information was published in the Guardian, a member of the public came forward, to say he had known Gladys before the war, when she lived in Southsea and was studying art at Southampton with his brother.

His letter and visit to the Museum revealed a little bit of her remarkable personality and helped us narrow down her year of birth. This allowed us to match her with a Gladys Reed born in Portsmouth on 19 June 1917.

A second breakthrough came when another member of the public found newspaper records of Gladys passing her drawing examination at Portsmouth Municipal School of Art in 1936, and taking up a position of teacher in dress design at Ashton-under-Lyne in 1939. After that, we know that she took up her training in 1943, served in the Liverpool and Birkenhead area in 1944, and had returned to live in Southsea by 1947.  

Gladys’ pencil sketches were displayed alongside pastel portraits by the official war artist William Dring in the Queen’s House in 2014, as part of the War Artists at Sea exhibition, and we were delighted to show these to a group of Wrens who had served in the Second World War.

Art hanging on a wall at the War Artists at Sea exhibition 2014
War Artists at Sea 2014

Two artworks hanging in the exhibition War Artists at Sea
War Artists at Sea exhibition 2014

While none of them had trained with Gladys or were in Liverpool at the same time as her, they all saw her drawings as faithful records of the dress and hairstyles they then wore, the activities they partook in at the time, and the general atmosphere that prevailed in the close-knit community of the Wrens.  

We’ve found out little else since, and the mysterious Gladys continues to elude us. We do not know if she married after the war and changed her name. Neither do we know whether she is still with us. If she is, she is celebrating her 100th birthday this week!

See Gladys' work and discover more about war-time art in the Art and War at Sea book.