Joyce Dennys – VAD and Wartime Artist
7 September 2018
“When we took it in turns to do night duty (…) I would get out my candle and my paint box and paint all night. The night surgeon said, “I really think that little nurse might wait ‘til I’ve finished my rounds.”’
Joyce Dennys was training as an artist when the First World War broke out. She worked as a VAD in Devon and produced artworks for recruitment posters and instructional booklets.
‘Our Hospital ABC’ was published late in 1916, the product of all-night painting sessions from a young voluntary nurse named Joyce Dennys and her ‘protector and friend’ fellow nurse Mary Tindall. Joyce’s training in poster and mural design at the Exeter College of Art had come to an abrupt end in December 1914, when she decided to dedicate her time to war effort instead. At 21, she was too young to qualify as a VAD nurse, so worked instead at General Duties at the Red Cross Hospital in Budleigh Salterton.
‘All I ever did was to wash up plates and dishes, knives and forks. I had never done anything of the kind before because those were the days of servants, and in spite of being so poor, my parents had two.’
Sometime around 1915, Joyce drew the artwork for a VAD poster, used nationally to recruit women to Voluntary Aid Detachment work. In early 1916 she passed her Red Cross examinations to become a fully-fledged nurse, a role, however, she was not particularly good at, her attention usually directed towards sprained ankles and the like ‘where it was reckoned I could do least harm.’ It wasn’t long before her friend Mary Tindall began composing light, humorous verses to accompany the paintings. Soon, Joyce got up the courage to approach a publisher directly and their work was accepted and published in time for Christmas. ‘Our Hospital ABC’ represents not only the alphabet but also the Australian (Anzac), British and Canadian soldiers who were treated at Hospital No.2 in Exeter.
Joyce later married a local GP and lived for a while in Australia, before returning to Budleigh Salterton. She trained at the London Art School and continued to paint, draw and publish for the rest of her life.
Howard, A. 2015. Joyce Dennys – Nurse, Artist and Author. [online] Devon Remembers Clinton Estates Website. Available from: http://www.devonremembers.co.uk/content/ww1-stories/nurse-artist-and-author [Accessed on 18/06/2018]
Neville, J. 2018. Our Hospital ABC by Joyce Dennys. Our Hospital ABC Facsimile. Exeter: Devon Local Studies Collection, SWHT.
Joyce Dennys circa 1914. Courtesy of Michael Downes.