Brian Stonehouse was the gay secret agent who survived five Nazi concentration camps and went on to become a legendary fashion illustrator. A selection of his best male drawings from the 1970’s will be on display alongside other works as part of Henry Miller Fine Art’s exhibition at the Coningsby Gallery from 5th to 11th September.
From World War 2 spy to royal portraitist, Brian Stonehouse was one of the most prominent fashion illustrators from the 1950’s through to the 1970’s, working for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Born in 1918 and brought up in France, Brian Stonehouse studied art in England and worked as an artist until the outbreak of World War 2 when he joined the Territorial Army. In 1940, he acted as a French interpreter before being spotted as potential agent material by a Special Operations Executive because of his language skills.
It wasn’t long before he was parachuted into occupied France as a special agent, carrying an artist’s paintbox concealing a B2 suitcase radio; his cover story: he was a French art student working for Vogue.
Handsome and charismatic, he wasn’t the most capable radio operator and was captured after only three months. He was sent to several prisons and concentration camps, including Mauthausen where, luckily, he befriended an SS guard who had been well treated by the British as a First World War prisoner. Upon discovering his artistic skills, the guard assigned Stonehouse to draw portraits of officers and their wives. In 1944 he was taken to Dachau, where conditions were much worse and he was regularly tortured and threatened with death. Together with other British officers he organised the International Prisoners Committee, which helped people survive and boosted morale until the camp was liberated by American troops in 1945.
Back in England after the war, he was awarded an MBE but soon, like many other European survivors, emigrated to New York, where he forged a new career as a portrait painter for well-heeled families, socialites and celebrities. In 1952, Jessica Davies, a fashion editor at Vogue, gave him a job and made him the first new illustrator to be taken on by the magazine since 1939.
After a decade being one of the most sought-after illustrators working in fashion, Stonehouse left Vogue in 1962 and went on to forge strong relationships with Harper’s Bazaar, Elizabeth Arden and Saks Fifth Avenue, producing illustrations for several successful advertising campaigns. While at Vogue he was most famous for women’s fashion, during the 1970s, he began to experiment with his drawings and excelled at drawing male models, capturing the period’s sexiness with a strong hint at his gay tendencies.
Original sketches for fashion illustrations were usually destroyed after publication but Stonehouse kept many of them when he moved back to England.