Elias, Gertrude (1913-1988)
A brief biography by Graham Stevenson:
Gertrude was born on November 5th 1913 in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father was a left-wing Jewish lawyer who took on the cases of poor people for nothing. Her grandmother, she later wrote, “sewed up the elaborate underwear worn by the luscious full-bosomed ladies of the Habsburg Empire”.
Gertude studied at the Austrian State Academy of Applied Arts, beginning also to do industrial design work, for knitwear initially, whilst still studying. Although she had already begun to work in Britain, after her father died, she fully left Austria for good due to the political situation at the end of 1937. She brought with her a series of animal cartoons for an intended children’s book.
She was forced to work as a charwoman in a boarding house while she hawked her drawings around various publishers. Spending much time in the British Museum, she redesigned her drawings for the aim of producing an anti-nazi cartoon film.
She illustrated a children’s novel, eventually published in 1943, Secret Service!, which gave her a more ambitious idea. Having worked for a time at The Ministry of Information, she was well acquainted with one Eric Blair (George Orwell), who was an editor there. In 1941, Gertrude showed him some of her drawings, which were intended as a kind of story board for an entirely original satirical cartoon film, with the Nazis portrayed as pig characters ruling a farm in a kind of dysfunctional fairy story. Her idea was that a writer might be able to provide a text.
Having claimed to her that there was not much call for her idea, disappointing her into further inaction, Orwell later changed the pig-nazis to Communists and made the Soviet Union a target for his hostility, turning Gertrude’s notion on its head. (Incidentally, a running theme in all every single piece of Orwell’s work was to steal ideas from Communists and invert them so as to distort the message.)
Having touted his version of the tale, as a sort of journalistic story, around Western security services (around the same time as he fingered dozens of left-wing intellectuals to Britain’s security forces as being dangerous subversives), Orwell accepted a change to his original story name of Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, which was in tune with Gertrude’s conception, to the simpler Animal Farm. The CIA later made this a cartoon film (enabling an easy sound track to be made in all languages), unknowingly turning back to Gertude’s conception of a satirical cartoon, an ironic accolade to the true originating author.
Despite this outrageous event, Gertrude did function firmly as a serious professional illustrator and artist throughout. For a time, possibly arising from the loss of her entire extended family in the Holocaust, and perhaps as yet un-comfirmed personal losses in her early days in Britain, she was caught up in psychological counselling, which led her to craft a series of linocuts illustrating the doctor patient relationship. In the 1970s, Dr Hugh Faulkener published her prints in Medical World.
In 1950, she illustrated the books on handwriting diagnosis, ‘Graphology and Everyman’; ‘The Graphologist’s Alphabet’; ‘Handwriting and Marriage’; ‘Personality in Handwriting’ by Dr. Eric Singer. The books illustrated by Gertrude were repeatedly republished over many decades and more or less single-handedly established a new study area often used by business or police. Although graphology was in commercial use by the early 1900s, it was its development in a scientific model by European refugees just before before the Second World War that truly embedded the discipline in Britain.
Gertrude’s sometimes humorous, always human, illustrations brought the subject of graphology into high public focus and it is actually Frank Hilliger, a former pupil of Eric Singer, who is seen by proponents of the discipline to have established it in a formal and professional basis in the UK. This Singer does not seem to be the same person as H V L Singer, whose birth name was Hermann Peveling (the culminating sound providing `Ling’, also known as Eric followed by Ling, Kossoff, and Singer (his wife’s maiden name). Imprisoned by the Germans, Peveling was helped to escape from prison in Prague and then came to Britain and worked for British intelligence. He had once been a pupil of Dr Ludwig Klages, seen as the father of modern graphology, and had also worked at the Marx-Engels Institute in Berlin before the Nazis took over. His post-war profession was journalism and writing and he was known only as Eric Singer at this time.
Following this success, much of Gertrude’s artistic flair was sublimated into design work for the British textile industry during the 1950s to 70s, a field that matched her early training.
In November 1962, she exhibited at a Communist Party Artists Group Exhibition in London; amongst her work were several linocuts, probably including those that had interested Faulkener.
She was a contributing participant in the National Assembly of Women’s European Seminar for the United Nations’ International Women’s Year in 1975, on July 4th to the 6th, held at the London Graduate School of Business Studies, Sussex Place, Regents Park.
As an Industrial Educationist, she expressed concern at the way in which the creative talents of young and skilled women workers were being exploited. A consultant designer, she visited factories in the north of England and in Northern Ireland where she saw isolated factories make use of young women workers who were not directly in touch with a trade union. She often advised these very gifted and skilled young women to go on to higher education and called for unions to take a greater interest in the problem.
Her cousin, Edith Sukelas, also an immigrant, set up and owned a couple of small factories in Northern Ireland, which presumably was the connection that took Gertrude over there.
As well as participating in the Communist Party Women’s Department work, Gertrude was certainly a member of the Communist Party’s History Group, at least up until 1984. She was never seduced by Zionism and was quite closely involved with the Movement for Colonial Freedom – later renamed Liberation – from its early days in the 1950s; and following the demise of the CPGB she agitated from the left within the Labour Party.
She dubbed herself part of The Suspect Generation, the title of a collection of her writings and Illustrations produced by the community publishers, London Voices.
She produced an exhibition, `Women’s contribution to the liberation of mankind – a historical survey of 150 years’ in 1982 for the London Borough of Camden and the Camden Council for International Cooperation.
Gertrude died on the 28th October 1998 at her home, 16 Agincourt Road, Hampstead.
Exhibitions included Women’s Images of Men, ICA, 1980; Art and Society, Whitechapel Gallery, and Contemporary Artists in Camden, Burgh House, both 1981; and Midland Group, Nottingham, and Intergrafik, Berlin, both 1984. Had a retrospective at Margaret Fisher, 1984. In 1993-4 her autobiography appeared: The Suspect Generation, extensively illustrated mainly with political cartoons from British and foreign journals for which she had written many articles. Victoria and Albert Museum and The Museum of Labour History, Manchester, hold examples of her work. She lived in London.