Essay by Gill Saunders, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, V&A London
Resting PlaceThough it is now a century distant from us and has thus passed almost entirely from living memory, the First World War still looms large in our collective consciousness. It was this war which largely shaped our rituals of remembrance – giving us the poppy emblem redolent of the blood spilled in ‘Flanders’ fields’, the Cenotaph in Whitehall which is the nation’s foremost war memorial, and the observation of a two-minute silence at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” (marking the end of hostilities on the Western Front between Germany and the Allied forces at 11am on 11 November, 1918). This war is embedded in modern memory, with a singular power to evoke pity and horror, the power to move us in ways which more recent conflicts do not. As the poet Vernon Scannell describes it in his poem The Great War (1960):
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
Much has been made of this in literature – in the work of novelists, such as Sebastian Faulks in Birdsong, and Pat Barker in her Regeneration trilogy, for example – and in popular culture, as we see in the recent success of stage and film adaptations of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse - but it has rarely impinged on contemporary art. A notable exception is the artist and printmaker Dawn Cole who has been quietly crafting her own affecting memorials to the events of the Great War, in a growing body of work which draws on the experiences of her great aunt Clarice Alberta Spratling (1891-1942) who served as VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in Wimereux, northern France, from 1915 until the end of the war.
Clarice kept a diary of her time in France, and it is this modest record (along with the accompanying photographs, and other archive material) which have supplied Cole with the ideas and motifs which have inspired successive projects and sequences of prints. Terse and matter-of-fact, the diary entries often belie the awfulness of the events they record. Clarice notes that the “wounded are continually coming in” and includes accounts of shocking injuries, and of the distress of men who had been wounded and gassed, all set down in blunt unemotional prose: “Dec 21st 1915: Gas boy died”; “Jan 2nd 1916: Men had eyes removed”. In another entry the stark phrase “Amputations, etc” is a brief brutal summary implying literally unspeakable horrors (often the sights and sounds are simply “too terrible for words”). Only rarely does she give voice to any emotional response to the sufferings of her patients, but the expression is conventional and impersonal: “Blue is better, but makes a terrible noise when leg is dressed, making ones heart bleed”. These truncated phrases suggest cauterized emotions, and a “bright immunity from pity” as the result of the nurses repressing their human sympathies in order to remain professional and effective. In the sentence which follows, Clarice moves abruptly from Blue’s agonies to “Off duty at 5pm and went to the nurses club where there is reading and tea room downstairs and writing room upstairs. Pay 2 francs, warmth, very comfy.”
Resting Place incorporates not only the narrative of the diaries but springs also from Cole’s intensely personal engagement with her aunt’s story, with a larger family history, and with the nature of memory and remembrance as public ritual. This project moves away from the ‘private’ space of home and studio and gallery, into public arenas where it encompasses and re-stages communal acts of commemoration. The multiple allusions of the prints and pillowcases which constitute the material exhibits of Resting Place are amplified by site-specific installation and performance, their symbolism given substance by their context.
Resting Place is inspired not only by Clarice’s account of her nursing experiences, but takes in the larger story of Wimereux’s role in the war and its aftermath. The town was a major hospital centre for the treatment of British soldiers, and it is also the site of a cemetery for those who died in these hospitals. It may be that some of her nameless patients – Gas Boy and others – are amongst those buried in the War Graves Cemetery. The cemetery is unusual in one particular respect – all the headstones are laid flat on the ground because the sandy soil is too soft to support them in an upright position. On a visit to research Clarice’s story Cole was immediately struck by this, seeing the rectangular white stones as pillows, laid out in neat regular rows like the beds in the hospital wards. From this point on, the project was conceived as a series of pillowcases, printed with texts transcribed from the diaries, to be installed at various locations where they would be laid out like beds – or graves. Cole’s visual metaphors echo a vivid contemporary commentary: in a letter to his wife in 1917, whilst he was on an exploratory visit to France, Sir Edwin Lutyens (architect of the Cenotaph, and of the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval) gave an evocative description of the battlefields and “the graveyards, haphazard from the needs of much to do and little time for thought – and then a ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way across miles of country where men were tucked in where they fell…”
The parallels and metaphors multiply: the bed as a site of birth and of death; the grave where the dead enjoy eternal rest. In euphemistic epitaphs death is a perpetual sleep, the word ‘death’ itself a taboo that must be circumscribed in safer, less literal language such as “he fell asleep…’. The white bed linen – sheets and pillowcases – reminds us of shrouds and of linen for ‘laying out’ a body when preparing it for burial. Conscious of these evasions and elisions – in Clarice’s diary as well as in the wider culture surrounding death and burial – Cole has chosen another euphemism for the title of this project, ‘resting place’ being of course another name for a grave. But as so often in Cole’s subtle and multi-layered work ‘Resting Place’ also alludes to the work’s public aspect and the sequence of installations which began with a laying out of the pillowcases as part of a multi-media event, no man’s land , at the disused Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo Station and will be followed by further stagings which will reference Clarice’s original journey from Ramsgate, Kent, to London, on to Wimereux, and back. As well as the places mentioned in the diary, the work will also be exhibited on a train and a boat or ferry.
Keen to use not only Clarice’s words but also her hand-writing in the project, Cole undertook a painstaking process of copying the diary entries. Cole identified with her aunt as she photocopied the fragile pages of the diary, and then wrote with fountain pen over these faint traces of Clarice’s tiny hand-writing. In doing so she learned yet more, discovering in the awkwardness of replicating some of the strokes, that her aunt was likely right-handed where she is left-handed. In this physical process, seeking the feel of her hand, Cole has been ‘shadowing’ Clarice, following in her footsteps as she works to know and understand what is written ‘between the lines’.
Having transcribed the text of the diary, Cole chose certain passages to be applied to the pillowcases, thereby amplifying the analogy between these rectangles of white linen and the marble headstones in the cemetery in Wimereux, each incised with an epitaph for the body beneath. The method by which Cole chose to print the text on the pillowcases brings with it further resonances and allusions to this passage of history, now fading from living memory but preserved in photographs and films, diaries, novels, and of course the cemeteries and war memorials which formalise the idea of commemoration. The texts are ‘printed’ using the devoré process: a gel containing sodium hydrogen sulphate is applied to areas of a piece of cloth, burning away the fibres. Usually used to produce a decorative pattern on fabrics such as velvet, the devoré technique (devoré from the French, meaning ‘devoured’) was used here by Cole to burn her chosen words and phrases into the linen. The faint burn-marks which fringe the edges of the handwritten lettering are visual echoes of the sepia photographs of the period, and the faded ink of the diary entries; but beyond this they also evoke the burns suffered by soldiers who were exposed to mustard gas, one of the most horrifying weapons employed by the German forces in World War I. The gas (a compound of dichlorodiethyl sulfide) burned and blistered exposed skin; it could quickly penetrate wool and cotton clothing to produce painful, sometimes fatal, chemical burns, damaging the skin and eyes; prolonged exposure would damage the lungs too (as the diary tells us, at least one such victim under Clarice’s care died from the effects: ‘Gas Boy died’). A British Army doctor describing a patient affected by mustard gas recorded ‘Brownish pigmentation present over large surfaces of the body. A white ring of skin where the wrist watch was.” A nurse wrote “Gas cases are terrible...Their lungs are gone - literally burnt out. They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets....One boy today, screaming to die, the entire top layer of his skin burnt from face and body.” Cole’s devoré-etched texts allude to all this suffering, as the war literally ‘devoured’ the lives of thousands of young men, meanwhile scarring the minds and the bodies of those who lived through it – not least the nurses who witnessed the suffering, often helpless to alleviate it.
Each pillow is identified with a soldier nursed at Wimereux; Cole has attached to each pillowcase a paper label, with a name and a date, analogous to the ‘dog tags’ worn by each soldier; from July 1916 all British soldiers were issued with two tags, one to be left on the body for identification, the other taken for record-keeping purposes and often sent to family at home later. Some of the names are those of men who died in Wimereux, others those who were wounded and returned to Britain. French soldiers also wore similar identification tags; in his memoir Louis Barthas recalled the gruesome business of removing the tags from corpses: “It seemed like defilement and we spoke softly, as if we were afraid of waking them.” The labels also relate to Cole’s research in the Red Cross Archives, where she discovered a ‘Diary of Transference’ which contained all the medical documents concerning an individual soldier. Instructions stamped on the envelope state: “Every Ambulance Train or its equivalent Convoy will be shown on the space below on this envelope which must not be destroyed or removed from the patient until his final disposal in the U.K.” Labels were also attached to wounded men, with details of their injuries. A Royal Army Medical Corps surgeon described how speechless exhausted men arriving at a field hospital responded to questions about their condition by simply pointing to their label. This labelling and transporting of the wounded men is recorded in bland unfeeling bureaucratic language that is the equivalent of the business-like prose which characterises Clarice’s diary.
Like every aspect of this project, the labels themselves are carefully crafted and subtly resonant. Having discovered, in the course of her research, that the labels which were attached to injured men recording their treatment as they ‘travelled’ through the hospital system, were blue, Cole set out to make her own. She used a pale blue paper, watermarked ‘Handmade 1915’ to make a series of labels, modelled on ordinary luggage labels, which reflect this ‘processing’ of people, and emotions, as well as bringing to mind the idea of journeys as embodied in the enactment of ‘Resting Place’. Clarice’s own journey is also commemorated by a pillowcase; the words etched on this one come from the first entry in her diary; this is undated, but the evidence suggests that it was written in the first week of September 1915. An expression of bravado and determination, these first paragraphs suggest a stoical character, but with their scattering of eager exclamation marks her words also have a flavour of optimistic innocence, as if she and her two like-minded friends were setting out on a ‘girl’s own’ adventure (indeed the diary is titled ‘Adventures of a VAD’):
In time of war everyone has an idea that they ought to join the Army or Navy and if they are unfortunate enough to belong to the female sex, ammunition work or nursing! Naturally every woman, girl, and even child who has anyone fighting for their country feel they absolutely must do something, definitely – to help.
These were the feelings of my two friends and myself. Every day we would ask one another ‘What should we do! Could we nurse! Yes! Would the War office employ people that were willing, but unable to find sufficient funds for nursing abroad. Still we wondered! However, where there is a will there is a way!
The pillowcases themselves are a series of tabulae rasae – blank sheets – onto which various meanings can be projected, but they are most obviously emblems of home and domestic life, and Cole has embellished them with hand embroidery as well as the etched texts. Embroidery – women’s work – was closely associated with home-making, a decorative manifestation of a woman’s care for her home and the well-being of her family. It has been commonplace for women to embellish everyday textiles such bed linen, cushions, tray-cloths, antimacassars, with lace, embroidery, and crochet-work. The pillow is an object of every-day comfort and homeliness, and it often occurs in representations of the dead. In memorial brasses and medieval table-top tombs, for example, the recumbent effigies of the deceased are often shown with their heads cushioned on pillows, as if they were simply sleeping. And of course, almost every man buried at Wimereux would have died with his head on a pillow. Cole has unearthed startling statistics which show how many pillowcases the British Army issued in the course of the war: 3,000 between October and November 1914, but in October 1917, 37,672. As this figure implies, the numbers of men wounded and killed had increased at a shocking rate.
Prompted by her research for Resting Place, Cole has collected a number of vintage hand-embroidered pillowcases which have been the starting point for a related body of work, The Pillow That Smells of His Hair. The title is a quote from a mother whose son had been killed in Afghanistan, as she described how she had kept his pillow because it smelled of his hair and was thus a precious intimate reminder of him. Cole has made plaster casts of these pillowcases which she has then used as printing plates for a series of more than 50 collagraph prints. These prints – with their precise replication of the raised areas of embroidery, and even the texture of the weave of the fabric, are like fossilised fragments; the delicate pastel colours copied from the embroidered motifs are no more than faint traces, faded remnants of a vanished life. Stiff shards of what was once soft and comfortable, these prints prompt us to think once more of the marble headstones ranked in the cemetery, and of the illusion of softness we see in the cold marble likenesses of the tomb sculptures. These prints, with their raised surfaces, the grain of the cloth embedded in the paper, invite our touch, just as the incised lettering on a gravestone or a war memorial might do. As Michael Longley says in his poem The War Graves, of a visit to an unnamed cemetery in northern France, “For as high as we can reach we touch-read the names /Of the disappeared”. Just as Cole has reached back to her aunt’s experience through touching and tracing the words in the pages of the diary, so do we seek a physical connection with the dead and with history as we ‘touch-read’ weathered inscriptions as if they were a kind of Braille that we can only know through the sensations of our finger-tips.
Gill Saunders April 2013
1. Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (first published 1933), London: Virago, 2004, p.187 (Like Clarice, Vera Brittain also served as a VAD nurse during World War I).
2. Quoted by Gavin Stamp in John Garfield, The Fallen: a photographic journey through the war cemeteries and memorials of the Great War, 1914-18, London: Leo Cooper, 1990, p.vi
3. no mans land, (2012), Platform-7 Events, Annual Remembrance Event, website url; www.no-mans-land.me, 11th April, 2013, London, England, www.platform-7.com
4. Quoted in Leo Van Bergen, Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-18, Ashgate, 2009, p.184
5. ibid., p.184
6. ibid., p.482
7. ibid., p.308
8. A notebook dated 1908, found with Clarice’s diary, contains patterns for crochet and knitted lace, as well as recipes and remedies.
9. Cole heard this in a radio interview broadcast on 11 November, 2011, as she was working in her studio.
10. In Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan, London: Jonathan Cape, 2000, pp.22-23