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On the frontlines: Women war artists and the British Red Cross

By Mehzebin Adam-Suter, museum curator at the British Red Cross

Women war artists have long played a significant but overlooked role in documenting and interpreting the realities of conflicts. 

A glimpse into history

The majority of the artworks in the British Red Cross museum collection are by women.

Their works capture the contributions of humanitarian workers and offer poignant glimpses into the human experience during times of war.

Here, we delve into the lives and works of these remarkable women, exploring their invaluable contributions to the art world and their profound impact on our understanding of history.


Edith Maud Drummond-Hay (1872–1960)

Edith Maud Drummond-Hay, originally from Perth in Scotland, served as a British Red Cross VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in Scotland and France from 1914 to 1919. 

The watercolour paintings below are from her sketchbook. They offer a captivating window into the pivotal role played by women in hospitals during wartime, along with their perspectives on their work and everyday experiences and challenges. 

With the increasing enlistment of men in the armed forces and the consequent surge in the number of injured patients, more women stepped forward as volunteers to aid in the care of the sick and wounded.

Joyce Dennys (1893–1991)

Joyce Dennys was an illustrator, playwright, and author of the well-known book ‘Henrietta’s War’. When her studies at the London School of Art were interrupted at the start of the First World War, she volunteered with the British Red Cross and worked in various roles, including nursing. 

One of her notable creations is a recruitment poster featuring volunteer members of the British Red Cross, the Order of St John, and the Territorial Force. 

It is believed that the overwhelming response to this poster rendered any further volunteer recruitment efforts unnecessary. 

Among Dennys’ other works, she portrayed different female volunteer roles, including a painting featuring a dispenser.

Olive Mudie-Cooke (1890–1925)

During the First World War, female artists were not officially commissioned to enter the war zone. However, some female artists found themselves close to the front line while working in hospitals and ambulance units. 

Olive Mudie-Cooke worked in France and Italy from 1916, driving ambulances for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and later the British Red Cross. She was fluent in French, Italian and German, and worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross. 

While working as a VAD, Mudie-Cooke began to sketch and paint the scenes she saw around her, including ambulance drivers and medical staff. 

Her artworks bring to life the humanitarian work carried out by British Red Cross volunteers close to the front line. Some of her art was later acquired by the Imperial War Museum’s Women’s Work Sub-committee.

Marion Saumarez (1885–1978)

This painting shows a British Red Cross VAD and a trained nurse treating a patient, Mr Worpe, in Shrubland Park Hall in Suffolk. 

The property was loaned by the Saumarez family for use as a hospital during the First World War. It was one of over 3,000 auxiliary hospitals administered and staffed by the British Red Cross during the war. 

The artist, Marion Saumarez, herself served as a British Red Cross VAD nurse at Shrubland Hall, along with her sisters. Gladys Saumarez served as the quartermaster, while Evelyn Saumarez served as the commandant. 

Doris Clare Zinkeisen (1898–1991)

Doris Zinkeisen was a highly acclaimed society portraitist and well-known costume and set designer. During the First and Second World Wars, she volunteered as a British Red Cross VAD nurse. 

At the end of the Second World War, the Red Cross commissioned Zinkeisen to record and portray its post-war relief work in Europe. Her paintings capture the repatriation and rehabilitation of prisoners of war and civilian internees, and some also show the disturbing scenes of captivity she witnessed. 

Travelling around north-west Europe by lorry or air, she sketched images in different places and transformed them into oil paintings in her Brussels studio. The War Artists Advisory Committee acquired some of her powerful artwork. 

Zinkeisen's contributions to the Red Cross during wartime were invaluable in raising awareness of its humanitarian work and the human impact of war. 

Read more about Doris Zinkeisen's work here.

Eve Goldsmith-Coxeter (b.1928)

Eve Goldsmith studied at Saint Martin's School of Art and later wrote novels, short stories and poetry. She has been exhibiting her work since 1948 and is actively working as an artist and writer today. 

One of Goldsmith-Coxeter’s objectives through her artwork is to raise awareness and interest in organisations like the British Red Cross. 

This particular painting shows the profound humanitarian consequences of war on civilian populations. Specifically, it addresses the Gulf War, which lasted from 1990 to 1991 and resulted in the displacement of millions of refugees.

Through her art, Goldsmith-Coxeter aims to shed light on the plight of those affected by conflict, advocating for compassion and support for humanitarian efforts.

Olga Shtonda 

Olga Shtonda is an award-winning illustrator from Kharkiv, Ukraine.

The British Red Cross commissioned this artwork to celebrate 30 phenomenal supporters who contributed to its 2022 Ukraine Crisis Appeal. At the time of print, the Red Cross has reached more than 2.1 million people impacted by the crisis with life-saving support. This piece is inspired by an image taken at a Red Cross centre in Hungary in April 2022. 

Reflecting on her artwork, Shtonda shares a personal insight into its meaning: “Many people I know have left their homes because of the war. My friends had to escape from the city under shelling, and now they are scattered in different parts of Ukraine and Europe. This work, as well as the stories of my friends, are personal to me.

I also can’t go back home now because it’s no longer safe. But with the help of people worldwide and organisations like the Red Cross, people like me are not left alone with their trouble, and faith in humanity and a better future remains."

Visit the British Red Cross Museum to discover more.

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