Joseph Gray (6 June 1890 – 1 May 1963) was a Durham-born painter and etcher of landscapes, architectural subjects and battlefield scenes. Some of his most evocative work hangs in the Imperial War Museum and different Regimental Museums throughout Britain.
Gray trained as a sea-going engineer before attending South Shields Art School. He travelled extensively – to Spain, France, Germany and Russia – gathering material for his drawings, before settling in Dundee by about 1912, to work as an illustrator for the Dundee Courier and other publications. Gray joined the 4th (Dundee) Battalion, the Black Watch Regiment, after the outbreak of World War One and fought with them from August 1914 to March 1916. During 1915-1916 Gray sent back many reports to the Dundee Courier but was eventually invalided out of service in March 1916. Back home he was appointed official war artist at The Graphic illustrated newspaper and contributed drawings and articles about different aspects of trench life. All his drawings were based on original sketches made during his time in the firing line. While working for the newspapers Gray received a number of painting commissions of military subjects and some of his drawings were submitted to the newly created Imperial War Museum in September 1918.
In the 1920s Joseph Gray and his family moved to Westbrook, Broughty Ferry, which had both a studio and a printing room. Before the move Gray had worked on paintings of wartime subjects, but here he hoped to find new inspiration elsewhere and overseas, travelling to the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. He began etching serene, mostly unpeopled landscape scenes.
Gray’s etchings and drypoints were widely exhibited and reproduced, and sold well both at home and in America. In the decade 1925-1935 he produced about 50 plates, mainly drypoints. The majority of his engravings depicted architectural or landscape views. Printed in signed editions of seventy-five impressions, they entered into many public collections including the Victoria and Albert and the British museums.
Gray moved with his family to London in 1931, and planned to reinvent himself as a portrait painter, since his war commissions had always been praised for the accuracy of their depictions.
Gray’s first years in London (1931–33) proved promising. He rented a studio in Chelsea, the same rooms previously occupied by painter John Singer Sargent. There he painted scenes of the River Thames alongside portraiture commissions. In 1933 Lord Brocket requested a full-length portrait, but Brocket died before any payment could be made. This virtually ruined Gray who gave up his studio.
Towards the end of the decade Gray became increasingly certain there would be another war. Aware he would be too old to return to the firing line, he began to consider other ways where his experience and skills might be put to use and he became interested in camouflage, specifically how Britain’s cities might be protected from the growing threat of German air attack. He visited the Imperial War Museum, using his contacts to gain access to the extensive archive of German, French and English camouflage materials and began a study of large-scale static camouflage. By 1936 he had completed his treatise, Camouflage and Air Defence, which he submitted to the War Office. He was quickly recruited into the Royal Engineers and travelled all around the country visiting sites of national importance, working out ways to hide them.
During the early years of World War Two he also devised a kind of steel wool camouflage which was used to conceal large military bases and factories from air attack. Gray’s notes from his time as a camouflage officer and his research and experiments into steel wool are now kept in the Imperial War Museum Archive. There are photographs, drawings, samples of material, reports and memoranda. To his co-workers he became infamous for his nightly rambles through the blitzed London streets, ignoring air raid warnings, witnessing scenes which he would later immortalise in the Battle of Britain etchings series. During this time Gray’s works still helped raise money for regimental charities, in particular the Fine Art Draw of May 1940, where 100 valuable original signed etchings and prints by celebrated artists were raffled for Andrew Paterson’s Camerons’ Comforts Fund.
His work is represented in the British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, Dundee City Art Gallery, Leeds City Art Gallery, Scottish National Gallery, The Highlanders Museum at Fort George, South Shields Museum, the Highlanders Museum and in many private collections. In 2013 original samples of his preliminary sketches for the war paintings hanging in The Highlanders’ Museum at Fort George went on display there.