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Some ideas are more equal…

Gertrude Elias – talented artist who accused Orwell of stealing her ideas and artwork – remained true to her beliefs

16 March, 2017 — By John Gulliver

Hampstead artist Gertrude Elias accused George Orwell of stealing her ideas for Animal Farm

GEORGE Orwell is in the mould of our great essayists William Hazlitt and Oliver Goldsmith. Few other writers have exposed the language lying bureaucrats and politicians use as double-speak.

And as for our democracy, it is “better to have half a loaf than none” as Orwell put it in the mouth of a worker in one of his essays.

But I have long ago abandoned the gods of politics and art.

That wasn’t quite what I thought in the late 70s when I got to know Gertrude Elias, a superbly talented artist. She didn’t conceal her communist beliefs and accused Orwell of stealing her ideas and artwork that led to his fabled satire Animal Farm.

A brave woman, who had fled from Vienna to London in 1939 with her husband, she soon established herself as a sought-after illustrator – prestigious publishers paid her handsomely for her work which adorned important novels in the 40s.

During the war she sent eight full-colour cartoons of animals to the Ministry of Information as an idea for an anti-Nazi satire which was passed on to the BBC – and rejected.

An example of Gertrude Elias’s work

A little later Orwell published his Animal Farm, and she became convinced that as he had access to her work at the BBC he had stolen her ideas, turning his animals into communists when in fact hers had been Nazis. Orwell aimed his barbs at the Russians – even though they were our allies, and the balance of the war was still in doubt.

I believed in the genuineness of her feelings whenever I met her, sometimes in the office, occasionally shopping at Sainsbury’s or at her Hampstead home. How could I do otherwise? She was one of those people about whom one never has any doubt is telling the truth – as she sees it.

It was only a few months ago that I met a couple, Nilu and Martin York, who had worked closely with Gertrude when she was in her late 70s in editing her stories for a very good publication, London Voices. In their talk at Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell they spoke so vividly about Gertrude, who died in 1998 at 84, that the little woman with a heavy Austrian-German accent came alive again.

They could not fail to mention the George Orwell episode, and they filled in all the little details about who Gertrude had left the cartoons with and how possible it would have been for her contacts to have shown, probably accidentally, the cartoons to Orwell, or for him to have come across them at the BBC.

If you think about the animals in Animal Farm and who were the baddies and who were the heroes you can see how her ideas could have been used.

The evidence she had supplied them with that I had come across for the first time convinced me she had a strong prima facie case of plagiarism.

For Orwell, this led to world fame; for Gertrude Elias it meant obscurity.

She offered to produce evidence for Bernard Crick, who was toiling away at Orwell’s biography at the time, but he declined any interest.

Gertrude Elias – one of the most modest persons I knew – never even hinted at her ability as a book illustrator whenever I met her. But there was no doubt about her enormous talent when Nilu and Martin York showed the audience in the library copies of her illustrations – they showed superb draughts­manship and a sense of colour. Gertrude remained true to her beliefs for the rest of her life – she took up the cause of the Palestinians and opposed apartheid in South Africa, forever on the side of the downtrodden.

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