Today my second piece as part of my Arts Council funded project, Echoes in Enamel is being installed at the Museum in the Park, Stroud.
There are many tales of bravery and sacrifice that have come from World War 1. Conflicts of all types inspire human behaviour both good and bad. Books, plays and films have made many of these stories well known to us, War Horse, All Quiet on the Western Front, Birdsong, even Black Adder. But it is when we come across the real stories about real people the realities of war and living through it can become very real.
This is how I feel about the tragic story of Archie and Dorothy. Archibald Clutterbuck Knee and Dorothy Beard both from Minchinhampton. Engaged to be married and both devastatingly affected by World War 1.
What was it like to be a 25 year old at the front? How did the horrors of war affect men? We are so aware of this now; post-traumatic stress disorder is a diagnosed illness, euphemistically termed as shell shock in-between 1914-18. How did the war affect the women left behind? How did they cope with the return of the depressed and frightened men who had been fighting at the front?
This is a true and tragic story. Archie had been sent home on sick leave from the front. He had joined as a private the 15th Battalion Gloucester Regiment on 14th June 1916. He was recovering from German measles and was due to return to his regiment on the 27th August. He and Dorothy walked out together on the Sunday morning, their families expecting them to return that evening and Archie to be taken by car to Stroud station to return to his barracks. But late Sunday night both families became concerned as the couple had not returned.
Archie and Dorothy were found the following Friday at Fishery Stream, Longford, tied together with Archie’s rain coat, face to face and drowned. We know from Archie’s father that he had expressed he would rather die than return to serve. But Dorothy’s family maintained that she was happy and positive, her father stated at the Inquest,
‘There has been no sign of upset in my daughters mind- I had no fear of anything of this kind’
This story is romantic and has all the makings of a drama. The love of an 18 year old girl with all before her, but cannot see further than her love for Archie. The fear of going back to an ugly conflict, but Archie was unable to face the end alone. What was the conversation they had between them during the days leading up to their suicide pact? The story has so many unanswered questions and can been seen in many different ways. The romantics among us see a Romeo and Juliet death and love scenario. The practical among us may unkindly see a coward who persuaded a young woman into a senseless act of destruction. It is always the family and friends left behind that shoulder the burden of grief.
I wanted to reflect the romantic aspect of the story with touches of sad realism. I have made a concertina book using steel and enamel. Unable to find real photographs of the couple, I have used period images of an unknown young woman and a soldier about the right age. Both images found lost in a flea market, now playing different roles and giving faces to the protagonists of the story. The enamel is layered and matt…there is nothing shiny about this tale. The couple are together when the book is pushed closed, but death has kept them apart as they were buried in different church yards.
The moths are a simple representation of death flying above the couple. I have purposely used well-worn symbols, red roses for love, white flowers for purity, barbed wire to represent war. The whole piece has a spiky dark quality. This is not a pretty story, one has to ask how did they decide to end their life together and in such a difficult way, drowning can’t be quick? The copper enamelled documents has the look of grave stones where most of the details are illegible, but look hard and you can just see Archie’s and Dorothy’s names.
These art objects bring the story into being, it is designed to make us consider what it must have been like to face something so horrific that the only way out is probably the bravest thing you could ever do…take one’s own life? It gives a presence to the story of Archie and Dorothy which would otherwise not been heard.
You can see this work in the foyer of the Museum in the Park, Stroud until June 5. The Museum is closed on Mondays.