Always a fascination
Thursday, 21 December 2017
Tuesday, 10 October 2017
Friday, 15 September 2017
National Centre of Crfat and Design. Seaford, Lincolnshire.
This exhibition encompasses over 4 years of research and practical experiments that reflect on the ideas of loss and commemoration. It explores just what we mean by the term ‘decorated’. This year saw the centenary of the death of my Great Grandfather, a person who for me was never anymore than an old photo of a soldier that used to be on my grandmother’s sideboard. Like many of those who served and died in WW1 he was ‘decorated’ with three WW1 medals. Before starting this project I had only a vague sense that these existed or what they signified. It has been a vast undertaking to try and be both respectful to the memory of those who died in the First World War and also to try and reflect what it must have been like for those who survived. The sight of the vast graveyards and memorials in France and Belgium are places that seem so far away from our everyday experience. They are in sharp contrast to the war memorials in every English town and village that seem to blossom and become visible only when they are decorated with wreaths of poppies on Remembrance Sunday.
Taking personal starting points of family and local history, I have produced a number of ‘body bag’ forms that graft actual uniforms with army kit bags in the form of ‘sentinels’. United by an enquiry into the nature of ‘decorations’ in both form and function there is an extensive use of vintage, digitally printed pieces of cloth, embroidery and textile processes to alter these existing objects and allude to narratives of individuals.
Uniforms are designed to make everyone of the same rank and regiment equal. A military decoration is an award of medal and ribbon that denotes heroism. To decorate expresses the need to personalise or make more attractive. For those whose loved ones have served in the armed forces I feel there is a fundamental need to imbue these pieces of clothing with more individual and personal memories that go beyond serial numbers or army insignia. As transitional objects we hold clothing to us to experience some sense of the person to whom they belonged. Mythologies are created through repairing, altering and embellishing these. As an embroiderer the methods and tools I have at my disposal lend themselves to the act of repair. The making of the work has been a method to explore many of the questions that I have had about remembrance and sacrifice and of how people put themselves back together after experiencing a traumatic loss. For me this is a domestic and highly personal act that is concerned with creating memories and re-telling stories through colour, texture, materials and imagery.
During the centenary of the Great War many people have embarked on researching their ancestors and discovering through these connections. As a nation we have lost the ability to understand the language of military regalia and most of us would struggle to recognise and name a WW1 medal or be able to identify the cap badge for a specific regiment. Many contemporary military historians are preoccupied with banishing the myths and making the tragedy of war more understandable. Moving away from blank, colourless memorials, even going so far as colouring archive footage to allow it to resonate with the viewer. Historical accuracy is not a requirement for many who prefer a good story where every tragic death had heroic significance.
‘The Naseby 11’
Naseby is a rural village in the district of Daventry, Northamptonshire, close to the border of Leicestershire. It is 6 miles from the place of my birth and several of my relatives live there still. In the centre of the village is the ‘Naseby Lion’, a war memorial paid for by subscriptions from the villagers and erected in 1921 to honour the eleven local men who died in the First World War. It consists of a single couchant lion in the style of Landseer’s four lions for Trafalgar Square. Carved in stone, it is atop a pedestal with the inscription,
‘TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND IN THE MEMORY OF THE NASEBY MEN
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR. 1914-1919.’
This project was inspired by the lifetime of research, and eventual, posthumous publication in 2014 of ‘Naseby Lion- Naseby’s soldiers and their village remembered’ by my late uncle, Michael Westaway. In this book he closes the opening dedication with ‘It is to these men that this book is dedicated in the hope that they will be remembered well into the new Millennium.’
I am fascinated by the real people and the impact their death had on their loved ones and the village community. One of the eleven was Harry Westaway who was Michael’s father’s brother, so the memorial had a personal connection for him. I feel this monument is representative of those in so many English villages that are now covered in moss and barely acknowledged, while to those left behind a hundred years ago they were more than their army service number or a name inscribed in stone.
When I started this project it was an attempt to try and answer many questions. My main concern was to consider the impact of trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in the village and hearing name after name of those who died. Wondering who might be next. Feeling guilty in hoping your own loved ones would survive? For some families the list of fatalities encompassed multiple siblings, parents, children, relatives or even a spouse. Therefore the order of the soldiers is chronological by the date of their death rather than the alphabetical order described in my uncle’s book.
The more I researched the more I realised most of what I thought I knew about WW1 was wrong. We place flowers on a grave and a poppy wreath on a memorial. This is an attempt to create more individual and personal remembrances of those soldiers. Our memories are imperfect things. Exaggerations, mistruths, ‘alternative facts’, and wilful reimagining blend in with accurate historical research. The work has layers of surfaces and has undergone many manifestations whilst being cut up, patched, pieced and reassembled. Some of the limbs trail onto the ground, whilst the bottom of every ‘body bag’ has a tribute to a specific soldier and the date of his death. Ultimately these are just eleven men of the 100 or so who saw active service from a village with a population of approximately 800 people, they act as a small representation of the 6 million who served and the 700,000 soldiers from the UK who died. 11.5% of soldiers died in the War so the 11 dead from Naseby are slightly above the national average.
For poor Timothy Ashley there is not a single known photograph in existence for us to remember him by.
I am the second child, of the second son, of the second child of Corporal William Holman. This year is the centenary of his death. The oval shaped photograph of him in his WW1 army uniform is one of the few objects I remember from visits to my grandmother’s home when I was a young boy.
My grandmother was only 6 years old, with an older brother, when her father died in April 1917.
I was brought up with Kipling’s famous words from ‘Recessional’ of ‘lest we forget’. The more I have researched and worked on this project I feel that for many of those who survived the First World war everything was about NOT remembering in order to be able to carry on with life.
As a boy my father spent a great deal of time with his maternal grandmother, Nellie Holman, widow of Corporal William. As one of the many women left to bring up small children on her own after the War she was obviously stoic and resigned to a life of hard work, where family was central. She never remarried. Their relationship was close and my father talks of a loving woman full of laughter with her sister, daughter, son and grand children. What he has no recollection of her speaking about her late husband or her loss. She never dwelt on her late husband or her pilgrimage to his memorial in France. The past was something better left unspoken. Those who survived had to patch and piece and make do. His photo was always in the living room but there was no shrine or memorial with her memories being more personal and not for public display.
Before I began this project my father knew very little of his grandfather and was erroneously convinced that he had died in Belgium during the 2nd battle of Ypres, rather than in France, to be exact Bois en Hache, a small wood outside Arras, as part of the battle of Vimy Ridge. Perhaps the loss was the same to his widow, irrespective of exactly where, he was dead and gone with no body to mourn just a name on a memorial wall, so no need to dwell on details? Reading the few surviving pieces of correspondence they act as a portal to another time where emotion was measured, information was limited and ‘over-sharing’ was an unknown phenomenon. With today’s society of social media, where every moment of inconsequential thought and action is recorded forever for everyone to see it is often hard to reconcile the deliberate ignorance about such important facts.
As a child I remember playing dress up with my father’s naval uniform. He was conscripted for National Service in the late 1950’s. I remember being fascinated by the diagrams in his ‘Naval Ratings Handbook’ and the wooden stamp of his name that he used to label his property. I had no interest in the military or even particularly in history and it is only relatively recently that I made the connection that on father’s side alone there were three generations who between them had served in the Army (my Great Grandfather who died in WW1, as well as my Uncle John’s National Service in the mid 1950’s), the RAF (my Grandfather who survived WW2) and finally my father in the Royal Navy. I remember my Grandfather and Uncle as wonderful civilians, and find it hard to imagine their life in Service. My father often talks of his 21 months in the Navy as an ME1. From what he says it was a different world and this portrait tries to reconcile these different facets of their lives.