Paul Nash and WWI

By Judith Phillips

In our last newsletter there was a piece about the Paul Nash exhibition on at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle.  So it was great to be emailed by someone who had gone to see it and thought it was ‘wonderful’.  I had seen the exhibition when it was in London but I went again last week.  Here are some of my thoughts.

I spent quite a lot of my visit looking very carefully at the First World War paintings.  At the Laing display you can get very close to the paintings and that meant I noticed things I’d not seen before.  ‘The Menin Road’ is one of Nash’s most iconic paintings – I’m sure we’ve all seen reproductions of it in books about the war or on TV documentaries.  But the original is spell-binding, I think.  It’s not the biggest painting of a war scene but it’s certainly one of the most compelling.  Nash’s landscape dwarfs the human figures who are almost only sketched outlines but, for the first time ever, I noticed what is probably a soldier’s corpse lying in a large pool of water at the front bottom edge of the painting.  You can only see the soldier’s coat and cap floating there – there’s no obvious face or hand on display – but somehow I was convinced this was a man who had been killed some time earlier and was now completely separate from the other human beings seen at a distance in the war-torn landscape.  I found it utterly compelling.

And yet, even the war paintings are not all gloomy.  ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917’ depicts ravaged trees but some are showing signs of new growth – a theme we have also come across in some of the books recommended in the book group.  Personally I find some of his later work, particularly those in the surreal and abstract styles, more difficult to get to grips with but the exhibition labels do help to show the connections and developments in his paintings.

But don’t just take my word for it – try and see the exhibition while it’s still on at the Laing (until 14th January 2018).  And there’s a copy of the catalogue in the museum’s WWI reference library, so you can come in and use it when the Reading Room in the museum is open.

Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War

Sunday 13th September saw renowned folk musician Sam Sweeney arrive in Barnard Castle to perform his fantastic show Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War.

The show tells the simple story of the life of Sam’s fiddle, bought in Oxford, 2009. It had all the appearance of a new instrument but the label inside gave the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard. Research revealed that the violin had been made, but never finished, by a luthier and some-time music hall performer from Leeds called Richard Spencer Howard.  He had signed up in 1916 at the age of thirty-five and less than two years later fought at the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium.  His violin had been left unfinished in his workshop. The carved pieces of the fiddle lay in a manila envelope for nine decades until they finally made their way into the hands of Oxford luthier Roger Claridge who set about finishing the instrument in his workshop.  Over ninety years after Richard Howard began working on the fiddle it was finally finished and placed in Roger’s shop.

Through original music composed by Sam and his accompanying musicians Rob Habron and Paul Sartin and finely-crafted story, delivered by master storyteller Hugh Lupton – the quartet brought the story to life. Unadorned and without ego, the gathered facts of Howard’s life were fleshed out, taking the audience from his home life surrounded by family, friends, the music hall and his workshop in Leeds – to the front line, and in turn his demise.

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by The Cream Tees, Heart of Teesdale’s youth folk orchestra, who were all enraptured by the show, following the simple sounds and songs that were produced between the 3 musicians on fiddle, clarinet, harmonium and concertina. As we left the music hall (a highly suitable venue, given the context of the show), we noted there were few dry eyes in the audience – as the tale came to its unavoidable close.

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Lights Out

Lights Out lights-out2

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

On 4th August 2014, The Bowes Museum hosted a shared evening of remembrance as part of the nationwide initiative LIGHTS OUT, led by 14-18NOW. The audience congregated at the DLI Memorial, where at 10pm we led participants around the grounds of the museum in a candle-lit procession, pausing at a number of points along the route to reflect on poetry written during the conflict of the First World War, read to us by volunteers from the local community ages 8+.