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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 August 2006, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK
Singapore war internee's art on show
By Nick Meo
BBC News, Singapore

A view of the jail's courtyard (courtesy of Changi Museum)
Mrs Bateman painted several pictures of Changi jail
To her family in Britain, Mary Angela Bateman was a loveable old lady who had survived the British Empire's tragedy in Singapore.

She lived out her days in genteel post-war poverty in a tiny flat in Earl's Court, London, and they thought there was nothing very remarkable about her.

But a chance discovery in a junkshop in England long after her death revealed a forgotten talent - a collection of 15 watercolours, paintings and sketches recording the sufferings of civilians in World War II Japanese internment camps.

Mrs Bateman was one of thousands of women and children who were herded into cramped conditions for three and a half hungry years.

The humiliation of defeat and the privations of imprisonment were particularly hard to endure, because many of the captives had enjoyed lives of great privilege in colonial Malaya. Many of them died.

Like many amateur artists who were prisoners of Japan, Mrs Bateman recorded her experiences. But unlike some of the well-known male artists from the camps, her work was not recognised after the war and was not displayed until last year.

Then Changi Museum put it at the centre of a collection to commemorate captives' wartime experiences.

The museum opened two years ago at the site of the notorious Changi jail.

The exhibition chronicles the life and death of more than 100,000 British and Empire prisoners and internees, who were taken into captivity at the fall of Singapore in 1942, one of the greatest military disasters in British history.

Art teacher

The collection of Mrs Bateman's art was found in a dusty pile in a British junk shop in 2002, by a Singapore-based businessman who recognised its significance.

[The paintings] are important because they show what life was like for women in the prison
Changi Museum curator Simon Goh

Researchers from the museum discovered that in 1942, Mrs Bateman had been the 60-year-old wife of a chartered accountant, Osborne Robert Sacheverel Bateman.

Although she was not one of the recognised wartime Far Eastern artists, they found a diary entry describing her as an art teacher.

Many of Mrs Bateman's images are preoccupied with the prison's black-and-white brooding walls, and its stark buildings set against a clear blue sky.

Others show the huts at Sime Road, another Singapore internee camp, and glimpses of the cramped and uncomfortable life there, including a women's work party gossiping under a tree and a blonde child playing in a prison corridor.

Changi Museum curator Simon Goh said: "It is rare that the museum comes across an original painting, and hers are important because they show what life was like for women in the prison."

Stark images

Mrs Bateman was one of only two known female war artists in the area, but the camp experience and the notorious Burma railroad produced much artwork by male prisoners of war.

The Sime Road internment camp (courtesy of Changi Museum)
Mrs Bateman spent more than three years in camps during the war

They scrounged from sympathetic captors, or used improvised materials, and taught each other in "Changi University", which prisoners set up to stave off boredom.

Many of the artists recorded stark images of life and death in a brutal captivity in which thousands died.

The women used colour more than the men, but were also short of materials. Some of Mrs Bateman's pictures are back to back on the same sheet of paper.

Mr Goh said: "The women's pictures seem to be more detailed than the male prisoners. Perhaps they had more time."

While conditions were much worse for captured soldiers, who died in their thousands building the Burma railroad, conditions for civilians internees were also harsh.

They were poorly fed, and had to hunt for frogs and snails to supplement their meagre diet of rice and tapioca.

Women were sometimes forced to stand in the sun for long periods by Japanese guards, for transgressions of camp rules, but were not generally tortured.

Male internees also suffered less than their military counterparts, although there was one notorious incident in 1943 after a commando raid on Japanese ships in Singapore harbour, when 57 civilian internees were tortured to death by the Kempeitai secret police.

Angela Richardson, Mrs Bateman's granddaughter, who lives on Jersey, said: "I remember my granny in London and never had any idea that she was an accomplished artist.

"Like all of them she suffered terribly during the war. It has been very exciting to discover these pictures."

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