| 9.1°C Belfast

In awe of the hero artists who were prepared to die for democracy


Moving image: John and Rachel

Moving image: John and Rachel

Moving image: John and Rachel

It's a mesmerising photograph. The handsome, brooding, tousled-hair poet and his lover. He looking intense, bruised, involved, she blanker, looking to the distance, possibly for escape from this fierce-burning passion.

One thing is for sure - I kept being drawn back to it as I went around the exhibition on Sunday. The man in the photograph would soon be dead. Killed at the age of 21 fighting in a war he had no need to be part of.

His name is John Cornford, poet and communist, one of many foreign victims of the Spanish Civil War, a member of the International Brigades, men and women who went to fight Franco's fascists who had toppled a democratically elected government.

Cornford was a posh boy as well a matinee idol good looker. His great-grandfather was Charles Darwin. Privately educated and sent up to Trinity College, Cambridge, it was there he joined the Communist Party.

These were different times. The rise of fascism throughout Europe drove many to think of politics in a way that we can barely comprehend today. Some saw communism as the only bulwark against the rise of brutal dictatorship and suppression.

That they were proved terribly wrong should not make us judge them harshly, for Cornford's communism was about freedom and emancipation.

When he died in unknown circumstances defending a hill near Cordoba, his body never recovered, he did not, could not, know the beliefs that drove him on had already curdled to become as black and bitter as the ideology he was fighting.

The exhibition of British art on the Spanish War is fascinating. In different times, with extreme politics mutilating the mainstream, people were forced to think about society and how it worked in a way that we, in the post-ideology world, perhaps are not.

They had to make big choices we do not. On the wall next to Cornford and Rachel Peters, who bore him a son, there's a self-portrait.

It is of another artist few have heard of.

Felicia Browne, bespectacled and rotund, was shot by fascists forces going to the aide of an injured comrade after an operation to dynamite a munitions train was ambushed.

Felicia, the first British victim of the war, was 32. She had begged the Brigade commander to let a woman go on the mission.

The exhibition shows how hundreds of people, many of them artists and many of them very famous, Orwell, Laurie Lee, Picasso, urged Western powers to intervene in a Spain that was massacring its own people.

But as Hitler rose to power, eyes were diverted elsewhere. Governments failed, or didn't want to, see the whole picture.

So John, Felicia and thousands of British and Irish sailed to Spain on a wave of comradely optimism and fraternity. Once there, poems and paintings nor even politics were of much use.

The Republic's forces were beaten, thousands were killed and tortured. Franco remained in power until 1975.

But from the walls of the exhibition Cornford and Browne shine out, artists who could barely handle a gun let alone use it against crack forces, prepared to die for democracy. Cornford's life speaks for itself in a way that burns the imagination, the famous poet Stephen Spender said in praise of the young man's sacrifice.

From a small portrait in a tucked away corner of an exhibition that heat can still be felt.

Mike Gilson is editor of the Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph