Changing the Landscape is a contemporary visual arts project that interprets one individual account of the lived experience in the trenches, five months before the start of the Battle of the Somme.
Supported using public funding from The National Lottery through Arts Council England, the project has been inspired by the unpublished collection of over 180 daily letters, photographs and photographic postcards written and illustrated by my great uncle, 20 year old Rifleman Barney Griew, a map maker and scout who died on the first day of the battle. It is the first contemporary art exhibition hosted by The National Archives UK and includes a rarely seen military panoramic photograph from their collection, shot from the trench where Griew was stationed from May to July 1916. Barney’s story is told through a spider’s web of archival and contemporary text and images.
As the producer of Changing the Landscape, I have actively sought to focus our sights on the individual perspective, as opposed to a general overview, of the First World War. This has applied both to my own activity as a visual artist and curator (rather than that of the historian), and also to the very particular conflicts and dilemmas revealed by my great uncle in his writing and drawings.
Barney’s letters in many ways challenge our, unwittingly imbibed, stereotypical view of British soldiers at the Western Front. He was the son of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who settled in London’s East End as furniture makers. His letters are peopled with the Jewish furniture, hat and clothing manufacturers of Hackney. Barney and his regiment were stationed in Yiddish Street trench, officially named by the British military to reflect the religious heritage of the inhabitants.
There is an unexpected sense of modernity in Barney’s words which places him, and us, in the same cultural space. So many of the phrases and insightful descriptions that he draws, both in words and pictures, release us from our sense that his generation’s sensibilities were completely lost once they passed from living memory. For example, he wrote to his brother from training in France in April 1916: ‘Somehow I feel happiness to be spontaneous out here – I’ve never felt better in my life’. His philosophical stance and ability to reveal his emotions, in themselves surprising given his proximity to the Western Front, places him firmly in our contemporary world of self-reflection. He also observed: ‘The People here are very old-fashioned, drink a lot of café sans lait, red wine, chaud or froid, quite hospitable, and seem to have large families. This is the villager by me now. He does all the cooking and is peeling spuds..’ Again, it is Barney’s ability to stand back, as an urban creature from London, and contemplate difference, which creates a sense of the contemporary, along with the use of the slang ‘spuds’.
As curator, my great uncle’s archive presented me with multiple images of soldiers, both in groups and within individual portraits. One of the first artistic aims was to create a feeling of intimacy by re-contextualising these with a more contemporary cropping of the original image. I also placed them, and the landscapes sent home as photographic postcards, adjacent to my abstract paintings of aerial views of craters or with digital video screens. My intention is to direct the audience’s gaze back to the eyes of the young men and redefine them as individuals, rather than regurgitate familiar footage of a torrent of faceless troops diving over the top of trenches.
The family archive has proven to be exceptional in one particular aspect: on many days Barney writes home three times a day to multiple recipients. In some ways, the letters and postcards seem like tweets or social media updates – asserting the fact of his very existence and continually trying to connect with home. In seeking an answer to whether this multifaceted correspondence by a First World War private was in any sense unique, I sought advice from William Spencer, principal military expert at The National Archives at Kew.
On first meeting, William clarified a number of points: he was able to establish that privates were not allowed to keep diaries in Barney’s regiment and that they almost always chose not to write home about what was actually happening to them on the frontline. But Barney had, and most days he wrote multiple letters to his sister (my grandmother) Fanny, to his brother Isaac and to his parents Solomon and Rebecca. William told me that the richness of Barney’s backstory was very unusual, a story revealed both through his letters, in which he tells some things to his brother, but not his sister and parents, as well as in the war diaries stored in The National Archives. Through these two sources it became clear that Barney, as a scout and mapmaker, was engaged in secret missions in No Mans’ Land, collecting information for trench maps and establishing a British post in ‘Z hedge’. As he wrote to his brother in May 1916 ‘ I am quite satisfied with my scout job. To tell the truth I feel safer in front than directly behind the trenches. I maintain that if a man gets hit its either his own fault or destiny.’
William also maintained that another very unusual aspect of the archive is the sheer volume of correspondence, his drawings, and his deep connection with what was happening around him. Barney wrote to his brother Isaac on 31st May 1916:
The Firing Line.
‘Just received your letter, hence this answer. Am as above. Isn’t all honey dodging big shells etc. My pal, Middleton, sitting between Sam and myself, was hit by a high explosive in the head and I hear he has died since. RIP. We were very friendly having a great interest in common in sketching. We can’t tell why we were not hit as well, as according to rules, about ten of us should have been hit…… Please don’t let them know at home where I am if you think they will take it badly.’
According to William, these descriptions can often be found in correspondence from officers, but rarely from privates. Barney was able, not only to express his own personal conflict about how much and when he should reveal the truth of his situation, but he also was able to illustrate the letters with drawings.
William also introduced me to the rarely seen military panoramic photograph of Gommecourt, now on view at The National Archives.
It is here that Barney, along with his two cousins, were posted to Yiddish Street trench, and where Barney wrote multiple letters home detailing every aspect of his daily life. It was also from here that he was reported missing in Haig’s disastrous Gommecourt Diversion: an assault on the German trenches designed to draw the fire away from a counter attack to their flank. This action devastated the London Rifle Brigade when the promised reinforcements failed to came to their aid as they sheltered, stranded in the German trench system on the wrong side of No Man’s Land. We look out of the photograph into the empty field as if we are Barney, left with the realisation that hundreds of unseen troops are behind the photographer, and that we are looking at the field where Barney and the other Hackney boys still lie.
Changing the Landscape Exhibition Programme:
The Reading Room at The National Archives until 17 September 2016
Atrium Gallery, London School of Economics, 18 September- 21 October 2016
Manchester Central Library, from October 2016 (dates to be confirmed)