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Children learning how to use gas masks, 1939-1940, Charles Mahoney

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Children learning how to use gas masks, drawn around 1939-1940 by Charles Mahoney

This drawing shows a group of children helping each other with their gas masks. They are in a school playground, and we can see a teacher standing in one corner, keeping an eye on the row of marching pupils.

During the Second World War, everybody was issued with official gasmasks and children in particular were taught to put them on and off properly. The rubbery smell and claustrophobic feel of the gas masks often feature in memories of the time.

The artist, Charles Mahoney (1903-1968) was a teacher at the Royal College of Art from 1928 to 1953. A member of the New English Art Club, he became Royal Academician in 1961. At the time of this drawing, Mahoney was living in Wrotham, Kent, and the children in the sketch may have been local school children. Wrotham was not evacuated during the war; in fact, the village received children from South East London boroughs.

Mahoney often worked as a mural painter; his two surviving large scale works are at Brockley School and the Lady Chapel at Campion Hall, Oxford. On this drawing, we can see the faint grid lines which would have been used to scale-up drawings onto the wall. We don’t know whether this drawing ever became a wall painting.

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