The Camouflage Artist: Two World Wars, Two Loves, and One Great Deception

In the first war, Joseph Gray used his art to reveal his fellow soldiers. In the next war, he used it to hide them.

Mary Horlock | Excerpt adapted from Joseph Gray’s Camouflage: A Memoir of Art, Love and Deception | Unbound | September 2018 | 22 minutes (5,778 words)

This story starts with a picture: a vast turquoise sky, an endless yellow beach, a mother and her child playing in the sand.

My grandmother lifts a trembling hand and points towards the smallest figure.

“That is me.”

She now has a room measuring nine feet by five. There isn’t much wall space, so the picture hangs in the corridor outside, beside the sign: “No.18: Maureen Barclay.”

Maureen Barclay is a widow and there are many here. Some don’t know where they are, nor do they remember the lives they have lived. Maureen is different, she remembers plenty. But with this blessing comes a curse: the older she becomes, the more she worries what she might soon forget. She has moved into a nursing home quite by her own choice, but as she downsizes, reducing her life to the essentials, the more she is stripping back memories, the memories embedded in clothes, objects, papers and pictures.

There simply isn’t room for them here.

The only solution is to pass them on to the people she trusts. She has given me many things over the years — her love and time above all else — but now she surrenders a most treasured possession. It is a pencil-drawn self-portrait of her father and my great-grandfather, Joseph Gray. This is the man who first painted that small child playing on the beach.

Joseph Gray is an artist most people have never heard of, but for much of my early life he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. His paintings filled all the rooms of my grandparents’ flat and much of my own family home. Smoke-filled streets and blitzed churches lined our staircase, thickly painted still lifes crowded in corners, restless seas churned over each mantelpiece. While the houses of my friends contained candy-colored Impressionist prints or tastefully anonymous landscapes, we had this curious mix of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never even met.

But at least I knew what he looked like. I would stare for hours at this pencil-drawn self-portrait: darkly piercing eyes under hooded lids, a wide curving nose, a proud, rounded jaw. With a crumpled hat pulled low on his head Joseph Gray stood straight and returned my gaze. Now that’s what an artist should look like, I thought.

Camouflage is never just a matter of concealment; it is fundamentally about deception. You must fool someone with a surface resemblance, make them think they understand what they see, yet what they see is a lie.

The first time I met Joe was through this drawing, and the first time I saw London was through his paintings of the Thames. I was told he’d been a war artist and because of the prints on our staircase — images of St Paul’s cathedral ablaze, a city in ruins — I assumed this meant the Second World War. I was wrong. Joe had fought in the trenches of the First World War, and once invalided out had become an official war artist to The Graphic newspaper. He was later commissioned to paint battle scenes and portraits of fallen heroes, which made their way into museums up and down the country.

Now as Maureen’s life shrinks — she has one cupboard to hang her clothes, one chest of drawers — so mine must expand. On each visit she surrenders new memories. First she hands me a file of old art reviews from the 1920s (“Mr. Gray has done wonders,” “Mr. Gray may be ranked with the great battle painters.”); the next week there are photographs of actual paintings. Then comes a huge cardboard roll jammed full of newspaper articles: sheet curled upon sheet (“June 1916 — A Day in the Life of a Trench, by our correspondent, Joseph Gray”).

I think again of the pencil self-portrait, dark eyes haunted by what he’s seen.

“It is a shame,” Maureen tells me. “Nobody knows about him now, nobody remembers him. He lived such a life, he did such extraordinary work.”

I nod slowly, familiar with that lament, and reach over to give her hand a gentle squeeze. Despite the passing of the years there is something unresolved at her core, a sadness buried deep within. Maureen has lived a vivid life, created a large and loving family who adore her, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of the little girl on the beach, still looking for her father.

She refers to Joe often, as a war artist, a painter and etcher of note, and reminds us how successful he was once. That once was so long ago, but it is what she clings to. She cannot really grasp the rest; why she never saw him after, where he went and what he did.

“There was, of course, another war.”

She uses her long ebony stick to prod at an ominous file abandoned at her feet.

“To serve in two world wars. It’s hard to understand. Can you take this, please. I’m sure you’ll find a use for it.”

I lean casually to pick up the file but am instantly defeated. It spews yellow papers and is as heavy as a brick. It bears the cryptic label: “Steel Wool: Camouflage.”

“Camouflage,” I repeat, as if it is a question.

*

 Joseph Gray was a good artist. My grandmother maintains that with a little more luck he might have been great. She is frustrated by the injustice of it all, by his failure to find a proper context. She has a point. After risking his life in one war Joe shouldn’t have had to struggle through the next decade, fighting to get his paintings seen.

But just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For the uninitiated, the word “camouflage” can be traced to seventeenth-century France: “camouflet” was a slang word that meant a puff of smoke blown into someone’s face to dupe them. Another derivation is the French verb “camoufler,” which originally meant to make up for the stage. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first example of published usage is when, on 25 May 25, 1917, the Daily Mail reported, “The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed ‘camouflage.'” This makes it sound so simple, but camouflage is never just a matter of concealment; it is fundamentally about deception. You must fool someone with a surface resemblance, make them think they understand what they see, yet what they see is a lie.

All the facts sit in this heavy file, crammed full of reports and memorandums, photographs and drawings. I’m not sure how much of it Maureen has actually read, but I kiss her goodbye and take it away, struggling down the stairs that only the care home staff ever use. I pass a few elderly residents slumbering in their comfy chairs. One pale hairless gentleman repeatedly wipes at an invisible smudge on the table in front of him. I think of the stories lost, or so well hidden they will never be told.

Later, in my own home, I confront the file of scraps and secrets. There’s a photograph of Joe in what I’d guess as middle-age, standing on a grassy hillside. He is smiling coyly and if I look closely I can see why. It’s not a grassy slope at all but a canopy of fake undergrowth hiding something. What? There are three more photographs showing the vast framework under construction, and hundreds of bombs stacked below. The view from underneath is astonishing: a man balancing on a wire like a trapeze artist at the circus. There’s so much more. I find drawings for “dummy trees,” “dummy farmhouses,” “movable hedges”; more photographs of landscape which isn’t really landscape.

Art and camouflage are not obvious allies — the former makes something unreal recognizable, the latter makes something real unrecognizable — but for my great-grandfather one paved the way to the other. Joseph Gray spent one war representing reality, but the next misrepresenting it.

Here, in this file, I find pages of a tattered manuscript entitled Camouflage and Air Defence. There are memorandums and reports written on War Office letterhead, addressed to “Major Joseph Gray R.E.,” a camouflage officer and adviser on matters of civil defense, an “expert in structural concealment.”

Maureen is proud of her father’s work but by the time Joe wrote this book so much else was being hidden. Joe had met and fallen deeply in love with another woman, a woman some fifteen years younger than him. “Concealment is an art, and like every other art reaches perfection only through much practice.” So declared the War Office in 1937, at the very time when Joe was leaving his wife and only daughter, making himself disappear from the family he’d once been part of.

*

A complete draft of his book, Camouflage and Air Defence, is lying sealed in a box in the Imperial War Museum. Dated 1935 it is marked “SECRET,” “CONFIDENTIAL” and “Not to be published by order of the War Office.” It was intended as a guide to concealment and deception in a modern, mechanized war and proposes a range of strategies to protect from air attack. Joe was one of the first British artists to be recruited to the cause of camouflage in the 1930s, and it became an abiding obsession. He went on to invent a new kind of covering material — steel wool — that could be used to create artificial landscapes covering vital sites and protecting them from the Luftwaffe. There is a sample of this material in his archive — bristling papery fragments painted in greyish green — and more photographs and “notes on research.” It was presented by the woman who was for a time his most precious secret. Her name was Mary Meade, or rather, as I discover much later, Kathleen Mary Meade.

I am Mary Kathleen, which seems a strange coincidence.

Maureen had four daughters. My mother, Patricia, is the eldest. She was the only grandchild to meet Joe.

“Was I named after Mary Meade?” I ask, when I realize the connection.

There’s a long pause down the telephone.

“Well, not really,” replies my mother. “But I liked the name and I liked her.

It takes a moment for me to understand.

“You knew her?”

“Oh, y-es, and so did your aunt Victoria. They became close after Joe died. In fact, Victoria has some of the letters that Joe wrote to Mary during the war.”

My dearest Darling … I was sorry if I was difficult but I can’t camouflage what I feel and I won’t try to.

My aunt Victoria arrives at my door within days looking furtive and flustered. She hands me a bundle.

“They are love letters,” she says quickly. “Mary kept all of them, but I haven’t mentioned them to your grandmother and I’m not going to. I know she’d find it painful. I mean, she wouldn’t want to read them… but I don’t see why you can’t.”

How swiftly I have become the repository of family secrets. I’m not sure if it’s right, but I read the letters anyway.

“Darling Mary … I love you devotedly and entirely and until I met you I did not know what love was. I will never leave you unless you want me to go.”

“My dearest Darling … I was sorry if I was difficult but I can’t camouflage what I feel and I won’t try to. I am at the moment in a very vulnerable position. Do you really love me (I dare you to try not loving me and see what happens!)”

It seems deception was quite Joe’s specialty, but was it an art he learned or was it one he was born to? I read and re-read his letters then return to the Imperial War Museum and scour the archives of other camouflage officers, trying to fix him in a wider context. There are lecture notes on blending in and how to spot bad cover, private papers and photographs.

I am fascinated and of course I want to find out more, but I realize it won’t be easy to get close to a man who was this good at hiding, a man who had made camouflage the very fabric of his life.

*

I begin with the first story I ever heard about Joe, from 1959. My mother, Patricia Barclay, was nineteen years old, a coltish teenager with kohled eyes and a pixie cut. Having secured herself a place at Glasgow School of Art, she had big ideas and a huge portfolio, which made her own mother anxious. Maureen feared her eldest daughter was making the wrong choice, and perhaps that history might be repeating. She felt out of her depth but was too proud to admit it.

“If you want to be an artist then we should go and ask one for advice,” she said. “We shall go and see your grandfather.”

Patricia didn’t hide her shock. She had assumed her grandfather was long dead, since nobody had ever told her otherwise.

Without further explanation they took a train from Paddington down to Marlow, the small town where Joe and Mary had made their home, and Joe was standing on the station platform, stick in hand. As Patricia stepped out of the carriage and met his gaze she felt certain they had met before, and then she realized it was only the shock of resemblance. Maureen and Joe shared the same eyes, the same nose and cheekbones, it was like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. After the briefest of introductions Joe took his daughter and granddaughter to his house to meet Mary, and they sat on benches in the rambling garden, drinking tea from mismatched china.

“I want to be an artist,” Patricia announced with some finality.

She hoped he’d be pleased, but Joe appeared to be quite mortified. His gentle face set into a frown. He leveled his eyes on Patricia then turned to her mother.

Art?” he queried after a long pause. “Art? What has art ever done for us as a family?”

It was a question that hung in the air between them, a question for which there was no answer. Maureen stared at her father uncertainly. What had art done? She couldn’t say. Joe shook his head again and left it there. Patricia gulped her tea and wondered. She couldn’t possibly grasp the hurt in her mother’s eyes, or the true weight of the silence. What had art done? But she made up her mind there and then to visit her grandfather as often as possible.


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After that she invited herself to Marlow every other weekend. She’d sit with Joe in his studio, perusing the creaking bookshelves and watching him at work. There were many canvases, stacked eight to ten deep, and none were ever finished.

“Not yet,” Joe said. “They’re not quite ready, they’re not right.”

He worked on different paintings at different times, moving between them according to his own logic, adding little details, blending light and shadow. He would paint and paint and paint. What should art do? It shouldn’t end.

Patricia loved to watch her grandfather at work, and became particularly attached to a painting of an almond tree in blossom. She could stare for hours at the glistening surface: the dappled sunlight on scattering petals, the delicate brickwork on the wall behind, and the white cat sitting at the base of the trunk. She watched the painting move through various stages, and then on one visit the cat had vanished. She told Joe that this was a mistake. She suggested he put it back.

After a short debate he did as his granddaughter asked, and in a matter of a few moments its pale, glistening form was reinstated.

“Better,” said Patricia. “Much better.”

But the next time she visited the cat had gone again.

“Now why have you done that?” she asked. “I think the cat should go back.”

Joe eventually relented, only to remove it on another day and wait to see what happened. A shadow grew where the cat had sat, as the paint was layered over it. The cat came and went, and this game of hide-and-seek continued over months. It might have gone on forever.

“But then I met your father and moved to Australia. I never came back, and neither did the cat.” My mother sighs at the memory. “I inherited the painting, long after Joe had died, and I was sad to see the cat had gone.”

I smile and shake my head.

No, I tell her.

The cat didn’t disappear. It was just very well hidden.

*

1915

They were huddled in a group. Their faces were smeared with dirt, their tunics stiff with mud, their heads swathed in rags. But still they worried they had been seen.

Joseph Gray was twenty-five years old and on the brink of his first battle, a long way from home. He crouched low beside a man of the Second Black Watch. With a shaky hand he was lighting cigarette after cigarette, taking a puff or two on each, then throwing them away. To his left another was emptying his pack.

He thrust something out.

“What is it?” Joe asked.

“Shirts and socks.” The man was digging into his pack. “I don’t want them. Here’s a loaf, too!”

It was obvious what he was saying, what he was really thinking, but Joe tried to laugh it off — he promised them an he’d be needing them tomorrow, although they never met again.

My great grandfather had been working as a popular illustrator in Dundee before the War broke out. Then everything changed.

When I first told my mother that I was going to write Joe’s story, she said: “Don’t make him out to be some kind of hero.” I thought that very strange. She knew nothing about Joe’s time in France. She remembered him only as the old man who’d cut himself off from his only daughter, the old man who would endlessly fuss over his paintings, never able to say: “Yes, it is done.”

How to make sense of it? He wasn’t sure, but as long as he was breathing he could draw, and that is how it started.

The Fourth landed in France on 26 February 1915; eight days later they were in the trenches. Neuve Chapelle was a small village about twenty miles north of Ypres. If British troops could break through German lines and capture it, then they could push on to the higher ground of Aubers Ridge.

Or at least, that was the plan.

It started with the ominous drone of British planes. They flew back and forth over the German trenches like giants birds of prey, checking the enemy’s positions. Neuve Chapelle was the first large-scale offensive by the British and the first time aerial photography had been used. This meant the trench lines were known in advance. This should have made it easier.

But then a single gun boomed and any sense of a plan disappeared. Joe held his breath as the first bombardment began. He pretended to himself that he knew what to expect, but it was beyond anything he had imagined. From that first warning signal he felt himself blown apart. Shells and bullets whistled past, whipping up the earth and filling his nostrils, his mouth, making him choke. For a second he dared to peer over the edge of the parapet, but he saw clouds of dust and smoke, continuous flashes of fire like a furious burning sunset. It was beautiful in all the ways it shouldn’t be.

“Fourth Black Watch, move to the left in single file!”

Joe was blinking grit, following the man in front, barely able to see beyond him, barely able to see anything until he was clambering over it: burst sandbags, earth, the already dead and wounded. Bullets thudded into the ground on both sides and he believed he would die. Through the smoke, blinking, he saw a stretcher-bearer drop like a stone, taking the man he carried down with him. Men were falling all around and the communication trench was filling up with bodies. Blood and mud. It turned out blood was more slippery, but still he was alive and still he followed orders. Those who were able inched their way towards Port Arthur, a ruin of a trench only forty yards from the German line. It twisted and turned like a Chinese puzzle, at times so narrow they had to squeeze their way along. Joe was on his hands and knees, moving inch by painful inch.

The battle was going on around him but without him. He accepted he would die, pushed himself flat on his stomach, and waited.

My mother’s words come back to me: “Don’t make him out to be some kind of hero.”

Joe never claimed to be. When he wrote about what happened at Neuve Chapelle he was clear about the facts: he was little use to anyone. They had been in France no time at all and he hadn’t yet fired his gun. Staying alive was his only achievement.

How to make sense of it? He wasn’t sure, but as long as he was breathing he could draw, and that is how it started. That night he was on sentry duty. “As I stood at my post and looked over towards the captured positions, the scene, after darkness fell, was most dramatic. Ahead two farmhouses were burning furiously. From the blazing buildings crimson and golden tongues of flame arose that illuminated the rising billows of smoke. Our artillery still fired incessantly, filling the air with an infernal din. The heavy shells hurtled wailing over our heads, their bursting flashes cleaving the darkness…”

He began sketching to give himself back control. He drew the men of different regiments, the destroyed earth they hid in, the shells exploding overhead. He recorded colors and shapes and shadows. And as he worked he tried to imagine himself back in Dundee, in a future he didn’t dare believe that he had.

But if drawing gave him comfort it was soon to become his job. Captain Boase had been with the men from the drill hall in Dundee and knew Joe’s skill as a draftsman. He put him to work as his observer, his scout, his extra pair of eyes.

My great grandfather wasn’t the first artist to find himself so employed. Commanding officers discovered, much to their surprise, that artists could be quite useful in wartime: “Every artist is a trained observer,” after all. “His profession has taught him to use his eyes more keenly than the ordinary man, and consequently the artist-soldier is particularly valuable for all reconnaissance and observation work. His ability to draw rapidly and accurately is helpful for many military purposes.”

It was no sinecure. The observer had to be good at map-reading and judging of distance, have a keen sense of light and shade, and draw quickly and accurately under pressure. He had to be attuned to every detail of the landscape, but he also had to blend with it. There was no point gathering crucial evidence if it died with him in No Man’s Land. Joe had to see without being seen.

*

Many soldiers, once they’d been through this war, would find it near impossible to talk about. Joe would make it back to Dundee, marry a beautiful woman and have a child, but in the one surviving photograph he’s still in his Black Watch uniform, his eyes tired and troubled. He would remain buried in the trenches for another five years, “slithering in mud” and “soaked to the skin.”

Men fresh out of the firing zone would come to his studio, dazed, blinking in the sunlight of civilian life. He’d relive “hot moments” with them and then make them pose as models, and as they talked he’d sketch. Day by day, Joe reimagined action scenes and battle charges, he drew medical officers and stretcher-bearers carrying out their duties. And as he collected stories, so he gathered objects, paying well for billy cans, bayonets and belt buckles as props to furnish each picture.

Because Joseph Gray was still observing, and he had to be authentic.

He would be made official war artist to The Graphic, a popular rival to the Illustrated London News. Everyone wanted realistic front-line images and Joe offered that. The newly founded Imperial War Museum would purchase seven pen and ink sketches and commission his first battle painting.

“It will be called The Ration Party.” Joe had a real event in mind. “On the night of 11th March the artist was one of a party that left the trenches to bring up rations. The night was wet and stormy and the flat ground was flooded. The only light was provided by bursting star shells. The picture shows the return of the ration party to the front lines. A starshell has dropped near to the men — Their position, now exposed, is swept by machine gun fire and they make a wild dash towards cover.”

Joe insisted he’d use the men “who were actually present when the incident took place.”

A Ration Party is an eerie painting, its subjects half sunk in mud, half lost in shadow. The soldiers are caught in a kind of limbo, between light and dark, between life and death, and Joe is right there with them. I know it’s him because he identified himself on his own list, but he is the most obscure figure in the corner, a face hooded and hidden in the shadows, almost invisible.

By going back over each moment of each battle, he was making sense of it, to make his subjective war objective, but the line between the dead and the living was less and less distinct.

Years later he wrote: “In the last war, all of my best friends died alongside of me. As they went, one by one, all in their early twenties — all men of subtlety and imagination — I remember the conviction that I formed that it was ridiculous and absurd to assume that because their bodies were shattered and finished that they were finished too. Of course they went on.”

They went on in his paintings. It was all he could do.

*

1935

From the moment he began writing Camouflage and Air Defence Joe knew something was missing.

Camouflage in the First World War meant hand-garnished nets and painted canvas at best, but neither could work in the long term or on a large scale. Nets had to be generously and carefully garnished with local vegetation, which swiftly wilted in bad weather. Painted canvas was shiny and dangerously flammable. New methods were needed to protect from the growing threat of the Luftwaffe, but despite the lip-service paid to camouflage very little had changed from the last war. Disruptive paint patterns and garnished nets were still the order of the day, which was precisely what Joe didn’t want.

He sought something better, something standardized. It had to be tougher but still easy to handle, straightforward to maintain and manufacture. A modern, mechanized army needed a modern machine-made camouflage.

And if he couldn’t find it, he’d invent it.

‘How to get away from representation?’ Joe scribbled angrily over one typescript. ‘How?’

He began experimenting with different natural materials — straw mats, wood fibres, chipboard, sandpaper — anything with a good texture. He laid out samples on the floor of his room at the Sutherland Hotel, shining lights down from different angles to consider their effects.

Aerial photographs had taught him that it was all about texture — a soft mid-tone with some depth, a good bit of “contained shadow.” A nearby public square became his laboratory. Although commissioned by the Royal Engineers, Joe had no facilities for his experiments. It was far from glamorous; it was verging on the ridiculous.

Straw mats might have worked had it not been for their fragility — they couldn’t withstand a wintry night outdoors. Straw and sandpaper combinations were ruled out for the same reason, though a thicker coir fiber fared better. It was relatively waterproof and sturdy, but it had a tendency to absorb water, and then became too heavy for its purpose. There was no point creating a good lightweight cover that sagged after a downfall. It was all so frustrating. Joe knew exactly what he wanted his material to do; he just couldn’t think how to make it.

Although now officially a camoufleur, Joe still thought like an artist. This was part of the problem, especially since he was an artist whose specialty had been precise observation. In the spare moments between his camouflage inspections he sketched different kinds of vegetation from the train or car — he looked at wheat, woodland, hedges and moss — trying to think up ways to lift them off the page and into three dimensions. Ever the realist, slavishly trying to recreate reality was going to be his hurdle.

“How to get away from representation?” Joe scribbled angrily over one typescript. “How?

But he didn’t have to get away from representation; he just had to think of it differently. The answer came to him late at night when he was leafing through one of his art books. “One conveys the idea of the true by means of the false.” It was a quote lifted from Degas, an artist whose paintings had the look of spontaneity but were actually the opposite. Joe typed it out: “One conveys the idea of the true by means of the false.” He noted how the Impressionists responded to natural light and built up texture, daubing and dashing their paint. It was easy to recognize the features in an Impressionist landscape and yet it looked almost abstract up close.

“It is not possible except at close range to note individual blades of grass or individual leaves of trees. In painting a field or trees the brush is swept broadly across the canvas — no attempt is made to express detail in a literal photographic manner.”

Joe picked up his oil paints for the first time in over a year and layered some thickly on his palette. “Heavy ridged paint applied with a coarse, stiff brush, the fibres of which ‘plough’ the oil paint, so it is furrowed. Each small ridge of paint casts its own shadow, while its upper surfaces reflect the light in varying degrees . . .” Pulling away from the surface, with the paint still glistening and fresh, something was becoming clear. “Natural effects are freely translated into paint without literal description of natural facts.” That was it. With the loosening of each brushstroke there began a rich play of light and shadow.

But it wasn’t his painting that gave him the answer — it was his etching. Etchers scrape lines in their plates to create not just images but actual effects. Deeper lines quickly fill with ink, creating richer, velvety textures. Etchers can “use a medley of lines to express vibration of tonal values,” and through a dense cross-hatching of lines they create “intensely realistic effects” in their prints. They can thus summon “all kinds of natural textures — trees, grass, moorland etc. and even broken water” by simply the curve and crossing of lines.

Now this was something. Joe bought some steel wire and used the thinnest kind in a criss-cross pattern, folded and “knitted,” then added clustered rosettes on top. It wasn’t quite dense enough, but here was a seed. “I considered a number of schemes comprising springs and metal strips,” which is how he summarised the hours of frustration, the nights of lost sleep, and the cuts to all his fingers.

In the end he didn’t find the answer — it found him. When browsing the stock of a local hardware store looking for thinner wire, Joe came across the strangest twinkling bundle, tucked away unobtrusively near the cloths and dusters.

“I picked up a pad of domestic steel wool, examined it, and realised it was made of metal fibres inexpensively produced . . .” Steel wool, traditionally used for the scouring of pots and pans, was the closest thing yet to his new camouflage cover. Of course it was too dense and the wrong color, but Joe sensed how it could be altered. Having hurried home to the flat he shared with his wife and daughter, his years-long affair with Mary Meade still a well-concealed secret, he set to work dissecting the skeins, a task far more complex than unwinding a normal ball of wool. It completely absorbed him until Maureen arrived.

As he held up a tangled abstract bundle to show Maureen, he tugged at it hard. She only frowned, trying to imagine how this could be important.

“I can knit them together and make a sort of mat,” he explained. And that is what he did for several nights. The finished product was then painted with a deep forest green. You could see and fire a gun through it, and it was fireproof.

It was swiftly proposed that the Royal Engineers start running tests on this new material, first on some oil tanks near Bristol. Joe jumped at the opportunity and had more samples made. There was neither the time nor the money to cover the tanks entirely so he devised rectangular frames upon which the steel wool was fixed. The plan was to spread the material across the round top of the tanks, fixed with rabbit wire and tape, to break up their shape and shadow. Hitching a lift in RAF reconnaissance aircraft, they flew over the area and recorded the results. It was flawless, a revelation in what it didn’t show.

*

Maureen had visited Joe and Mary a few times over the years. She’d always traveled alone to Marlow. Why she had kept Joe a secret from her children is something she still struggles to explain, but after years of being kept in the dark herself, she was perhaps more disposed to the idea of it. She also wasn’t sure where she stood with Joe and Mary, and she wasn’t sure how they’d respond to four lively granddaughters. Afraid of upsetting the balance of things, she once again kept quiet, repeating what was a clear pattern. Thus it was only Patricia, when she was almost an adult herself, who would be taken to meet her grandfather.

It was very strange for Joe. The idea of another artist in the family, his young grand-daughter, didn’t sit too well. This was when he muttered those famous lines.

“Art? What has art ever done for us as a family?”

Maureen shakes her head. She took it to mean so many things and didn’t try to reply. My mother, happily oblivious to all that had gone on, was quick to brush it aside. Joe and the elegantly disheveled Mary were too fascinating to resist. After that she would go to Marlow as often as she could. Of course she still wanted to be an artist, and those weekends only made her want it more.

“But according to Joe, there were too many art schools churning out too many artists. He was worried they had no real prospects and it was all too hard, competing in the marketplace.”

The fact that Joe was against anyone else in the family studying art shows his disappointment. Underneath all that cheerfulness, there were shadows.

“I never saw that,” my mother assures me.

But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

* * *

Mary Horlock was formerly a curator at the Tate and has written widely on contemporary art and artists. Her novel, The Book of Lies, was published in 2011, and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. She lives in London.

Editor: Dana Snitzky