RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Category: History

Letters and Layers

There can be few, if anyone alive who faught in the horror of those fields in Flanders during the First World War and the family threads which tie myself, like so many others to that generation grow ever weaker as each year passes.

Over the last four years we have seen many services, exhibitions and publications in commemoration of the 1914-1918 Great War and they may well be the last of any major significance.   And commemorate is all we can now do, first hand experiences have exhausted their testimony as the final battalion of veterans have joined their brothers in arms.  And yet the war has influenced, however indirectly, each and every one of us and the world in which we now live.

It’s effects resonate and rumble on, the bass tone which echoes around the world of which we are barely aware, as the sountracks of each generation since have been laid down and mixed atop.  They can no longer be separated, as fresh paint meets rust, it peels and flakes, old with new.

For many family life and history was forever changed as layers of desperate, heartbreaking pain and fear forced their way into the very DNA of homes across the land,  plastering them with an unwanted, enveloping layer of ‘wallpaper’, whole families captive within the confines of this compound.  The rumble of the guns have ceased but the fallout has echoed down the generations, defying the latest paint and fashions, etched into every nook and cranny.  Precious letters so carefully tucked away,  come to light as homes are cleared and another generation takes up the mantle.  Faded photographs of life before and life after – ghostly abscences, once there were four now just three.  Scratch beneath the layers a little and there you will reveal the evidence, the reason for enigmas and  secrets and sadness.

There you will find answers to why things are the way they are.

 

Top:  ‘Madame Brugiere’

Above: ‘Un Petit Mot’

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The Red Hat

 

Sometimes I’m asked about the stories behind my paintings.  More often than not they’re personal to me and I prefer to leave the viewer to connect (or not) in their own way so that the image becomes meaningful to them.  However, this year I have been working on a collection inspired  by the World Wars in particular the First, the end of which in 1918 left a trail of fragmented families and shattered lives.

I’m not even sure that ‘inspired’ is the right word – how can you be inspired by such carnage, such ‘….guttering, choking, drowning ….’ as Wilfred Owen wrote?  I think it would be more correct to say I’m awed by the people who were there and those who were left behind, by their ability to ‘carry on’ in the face of extreme adversity.  It’s this ability of a human spirit to navigate the unknown, the uncertainty, the highs and the awful lows which speaks to me.  During those long endured years the highs were to be snatched and savoured, wherever and whenever possible, moments and memories created eagerly, providing new escape routes for an anxious mind.  Like buying a new hat.

A year ago I attended a talk by Magnum social photographer David Hurn.  Now in his eighties he was both fascinating and entertaining, not just for his wonderful images but for his personal and insightful stories.  He’d never considered becoming a photographer until one day he picked up a copy of ‘Picture Post’ and saw a photograph which changed the whole course of his life.  The image was of a Russian Army Officer buying his wife a hat in a Moscow department store.  It moved him to tears as it reminded him of how his own father, home on leave from the Second World War, had taken his mother to buy a hat.  In that moment he realised the power an image can have on it’s viewer and he was hooked.

This story only came into my mind as I was in the final stages of painting ‘The Red Hat’.  The woman wearing it is my maternal grandmother ‘nana’ – her husband I never knew even though I carry his genes.  As a career naval man he survived the First World War and despite being in his mid fifties was called up for the Second, which he did not.  I don’t know what to call him – grandfather or grandad implies a familiarity which we never enjoyed.  I’d never seen a photograph of him until last year and it was a powerful moment, to witness for the first time someone who I recognised despite never having met. It moved me to tears too.

This series of paintings called ‘Futility’ – a reference to Wilfred Owen’s poem of this name –  is my way of acknowledging his existence and contribution, of weaving some kind of relationship between grandparent and grandchild.  So the paintings are full of stories, not just mine but other people’s.  As for the hat, I don’t know whether it was red or not so I indulged in a little artistic licence!

‘The Red Hat’

Rebecca Pells Fine Art

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Letter writing by hand is a lost art.

In an age of digital swiping, likes and emoji’s, putting pen to paper is considered so last century!  But I miss it – both the writing and especially the receiving.

There is something visceral about a hand written letter;  it requires the will to make the effort to sit and be still for a few minutes or more, to concentrate and compose, unaided by ‘Alexa’ or auto-correction.  It’s an ongoing conversation, into which we can ease ourselves,  share more of our feelings than we may be willing to risk face to face.  It’s the passing of a moment from the sender to the recipient, bearing not only a postmark but the hallmarks of our personality, our quirks and flaws scribed in ink.

During the First and Second World Wars letters were emotional lifelines, the only means of communication between family and friends.  They were precious, longed for and savoured, read and re-read, kissed and cried over.  The physical nature of the letter was as important as the words it conveyed, a small but tactile presence which was able to transcend the dividing miles, transporting the author into the private domain of the recipient.  Letters which were so precious they were often kept for years, the faded handwriting belying the central role they played in so many lives.

In today’s instant society where even greeting cards are sent digitally is there still a place for a hand written letter ?  We are once again embracing the audible richness and variety of vinyl and the depth and perception of photographic film both of which transcend the sterile perfection of digital.  I would love to think that for personal messages at least letter writing can enjoy a similar revival.

 

‘Letter Home’ mixed media original painting available from Rebecca Pells Fine Art

PLATOON of POPPIES

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.”

On the 11th day of the 11th month 1918 Wilfred’s mother received news that her son had not survived.
He lost his life just six days before the armistice.
 
 
Platoon of Poppies‘ by Rebecca Pells Fine Art

Mud and a Meeting of Minds 1917

 

Mud.

Thick, cloying, seeping.

Consuming, filthy, blanket

binding you as brothers

in mud laden arms.

Bath.

Soap, water, scrub.

Submerged, aching, wallowing

purging you as brothers

in trenches of white.

Search.

Memories, mind, self.

Trapped, engulfed, besieged

chains you as brothers

in images of hell.

Write.

Poetry, prose, horror.

Dredge, expose, release

links you as brothers

in words of truth.

 

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at  Craiglockhart War Hospital August 1917

The meeting lead to Owen’s haunting ‘war poems’.  He was born in Oswestry and lived in my home town of Shrewsbury, England.

‘Poppies for Peace’ Rebecca Pells

Still Life – a Personal Heritage

 

001‘Silver Jug with Lime’ 2016

Many of us seek an identity – or perhaps seek to escape from ourselves – through the things with which we choose to clutter our lives. Most are transient, outliving their usefulness, unable to keep up with our changing desires as the years pass by.  Few linger long after we have gone, travelling in time in a way which is closed to us.

There is a comfort in the familiar, in the multilayered existence of inheritance; a stabilizing, grounding sense of belonging which comes from things with which we grew up, the landmarks by which we navigated our early years. They are the threshold between our history and the present, between what has been, what is and what is yet to come. A kind of immortality we ourselves cannot achieve.

Such objects become integrated and entwined in our personal history handed down from generation to generation.

A familial wave passing through our lives.

001‘Silver Spoon with Lime’ 2016

https://www.artfinder.com/rebeccapells

The Somme 100 Years

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The Somme 100 Years

1st July 1916 marked the start of this bloody battle

57,470 casualties

19,240 died

And that was just the British

In a single day.

Today

in a fractured  Great Britain

on the cusp of cutting ties of friendship with Europe.

Least we forget the terribly consequences of political failure.

Peace must be prized above all else.

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(Installation by UK artist Carl Jaycock)

Lusitania 101 – a Life before the Tragedy

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On the 7th May 1915 the British liner RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world at the time, was struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland.  Of it’s 1962 passengers and crew only 764 survived – my great uncle and aunt were among them.  Their one year old son John was not.

An account of their trauma is taken from statements made by both  Mary and Elmore upon their eventual arrival in England.

“(Cyril) Elmore and Mary Anita Pells, travelling with their infant son John from Canada to England where Mr. Pells was to join his regiment, despaired of ever leaving the ship safely. At the time the torpedo struck  they were dining in the second class salon and returned to their E Deck cabin to retrieve John, and Elmore made a second trip below for lifebelts.  Not expecting to survive, they took seats together somewhere on one of the upper decks presumably on the port side, to wait for the end. When it came, they were pulled down deep with the ship, and in the torrent John was wrenched out of his father’s arms and lost. Elmore and Mary surfaced and were able to pull themselves atop an overturned lifeboat.”

Following a short period of recovery in London, Elmore joined his regiment as originally planned but after receiving a brief note telling of his safe arrival in France, Mary never heard from him again and he is documented as having been killed in action during the Battle of Aisne-Chemin des Dames on May 27th 1918.

The human element of this disaster, which has largely been lost among the controversial nature of the incident together with the passing of time, is now coming to light, re-surfacing along with the personal stories.  I have researched Elmore and Mary’s accounts with the benefit of the internet and personal family history.  However, I am also in possession of a wonderful photographic record of their lives in Canada prior to their fateful journey. The images long since faded, document a young couple in love.  Elmore met Canadian born Mary in the UK and following their engagement they emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia and and were married at North Lonsdale in April 1914.   Their son John was born in February 1915.   The images tell a story of a vibrant life together, socialising, fancy dress and tennis parties and picnics on the beach with friends.  Just one image remains of their infant son John.

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It is their own record of their life together, each photograph carefully entered into the small album by their own hands, unaware of the tragedy which was shortly to unfold and change their lives forever.  Faces reach out from the faded images, ethereal and yet full of life, crossing the threshold of a time long since gone and reaching into the 21st century in an effort to be remembered.  A reminder that they lived life to the full during their short time together:  there was life before the Lustania and for Mary a life after but very much changed.

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Through the remainder of the war Mary served as a nurse, and she was awarded a sum of $1089.15 for the loss of her personal property and Elmore’s medical expenses after her return to British Columbia.  For a time she lived in California, where she continued to study nursing, before returning for a third time to Canada, where the trail is lost in time.  However, somewhere along the way she maintained a connection to the Pells family – in 1936 she received a legacy from Elmore’s mother upon her death.

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Elmore – ‘lost in action’- has no known grave but is remembered at The Soissons Memorial located in the Aisne département of France. The memorial lists 3,887 names of British soldiers who were killed in the area from May to August 1918 during the Spring Offensive.

And somewhere, somehow, this little album has found it’s way from Canada back to England, passed down my family and  following the recent death of my own father John, who was named after his young cousin, is now one of my most treasured possessions.

 

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Easter 1916 – Was it Yesterday?

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‘Was it Yesterday’ by Rebecca Pells

available from https://www.artfinder.com/product/was-it-yesterday/

A few moths ago I attended the launch of a book written by the father of a friend.  First published in 1928/29, ‘Was it Yesterday?’ by A M Bown recounts his experiences in France during the First World War. For many years it remained out of print until his son and daughter, themselves now into their 80’s, realised that his story would be of interest to many others and so they set about the task of re-publishing.

‘When  he volunteered in 1914, A M Bown was a twenty year old scholar at Oxford (university) studying science.  He became an artillery subaltern and remained one throughout the First World War, being wounded twice and gaining the Military Cross for bravery.  This book, although fictionalised, grew out of his personal experiences and is a vivid and authentic account.

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He tells of ordinary day-to-day incidents, some amusing, some frightening, and gives a sense of real lives – and real deaths.  He keeps throughout a respect for his fellow soldiers, saying:

“So this little team in khaki stood waiting for the starting gun . . . in the greatest game of all, and whatever share the fields of Eton (college) may have had in any winning of it, the same share must be credited to the back alleys and the cinder patches, the parks and the recreation grounds which had been the nurseries of most of those who stood together in that forward line, picked to play for England.” ‘

Inspired by Bown’s story and with his family’s permission, I painted  ‘Was it Yesterday?’  The opened book sits upon a table from around 1916.  Original wallpaper tinged with ‘forget-me-not’ blue symbolizes the fading of memories of a time long since gone but which also bears witness to the present – a jug of fresh spring daffodils and bright scarf cast aside in a hurried moment. So intense are the events of which the author writes, that they feel like they happened only yesterday.

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‘Was it Yesterday?’ by A M Bown

available from

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Was-Yesterday-M-Bown/dp/1909644595/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459161959&sr=8-1&keywords=was+it+yesterday+a+m+bown

Olive’s Table

005‘Olives’s Table’ 

available from

https://www.artfinder.com/product/olives-table/

A couple of weeks ago I was contemplating the subject of my next painting and looking for inspiration.  Around the same time I took delivery of a small mahogany sewing table which originally belonged to my great Aunt Olive.  When she passed away some thirty years ago it came into my father’s possession and has lived the last three decades in his spare room, somewhat forgotten.

A journey of two hundred miles in the boot of the car has brought it to rest in my home.  An ideal size and height and with a suitable covering for protection, it is has found it’s place in my studio as a table for my brushes and water pot.  Practicalities aside, I’m surprised at how fond I have become of this little table, this physical link which ties one female generation of my family to another.  Slightly battered in places it is of no great monetary value, neither would it take pride of place in a smart antique shop.

However, it does exude charm and on investigation of the deep drawer suspended below the table top, I found my aunt’s personal sewing items – half used reels of thread, a wooden darning ‘mushroom’ and most touching of all – a felt needle case embroidered with her initials.  Immediately I was reminded of my mother’s needle case with it’s navy blue initialled cover and I clearly remember how she taught me to make my own.  I now have all three, a very real thread to the women of my family, items which would have been in daily use by them and as a young girl my own was too.

Then it became unfashionable to make do and mend and financially possible to buy new socks, or a skirt from a boutique rather than homemade.  And thus  a small sewing table became just a piece of furniture, no longer used as the cabinet maker conceived.  But this little table has come into my life just at the right time and  has found a life anew and is in daily use once more.  I also found my inspiration, as I felt this small piece of my heritage deserved a painting of it’s own and so I set it up with a vase of white roses in memory of my recently deceased father along with a book of Longfellow’s poems, a favourite of my mother’s and the result is ‘Olive’s Table’.

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