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!