Our latest exhibition ‘Services Rendered: An Ode to Private George Archer’ is now on display at the museum in Leeds. The paintings by artist Jessica Holmes depict spent rounds recovered from the Passchendaele battlefield. They will be on display at the War Gallery in Leeds until November 2017. In this blog post, Jessica gives her thoughts on the inspiration and process behind the creation of her artwork.
My work is closely attached to forgotten spaces and the half-remembered traces of ordinary men. I’ve been making a body of work using objects found on battlefields for a few years now. It started with cannonballs from the Battle of Waterloo and moved on to bullets from First World War battlefields. My late father was a military historian specialising in the First World War and it is through him that I developed this interest in battlefield artefacts, military people and places. When I saw these spent rounds from the Passchendaele battlefield, I thought they were really beautiful – the rust had created the most wonderful colours. When produced, they were supposed to be so uniform in colour and shape but time has altered and distorted them so beautifully. I thought it would interesting to try to capture these rusty, weighty, objects, so imbued with meaning, in the delicate rather ephemeral media of watercolour on paper.
This exhibition is also inspired by family history and the ways in which memories are kept alive. As well as being an artist I have worked as an archivist. During my master’s course in archiving a few years ago, I became very interested in the area of family, local and community Archives and histories. I found the West Yorkshire family history website ‘Kirklees Cousins‘ whilst looking for histories related to my mother’s Yorkshire family last year and was entranced by the story of George Archer, whose granddaughter, Christine Widdall, tells the story of his time at Passchendaele. George Archer’s story resonates with me because it speaks of the profound bravery and courage that he had aged just 21. Christine writes that George did not speak of his time at Passchendaele simply saying ‘it was too bad to talk about’. Despite all this horror, he went home and got on with his life. Now he is gone, but the spent rounds sit preserved in their display case – sinister relics of that terrible battle.
Drawing and painting these spent rounds is my way of investigating them. I start by making pencil sketches and then small colour studies. Through these, I get a better understanding of these objects and how I might describe them through the paint. Somewhere along the line, describing them with the paint transitions from translating what I see into giving the painted bullets character and a life of their own along with the plants and rock depicted. When I started making the finished work, it was a mark making journey across the paper, just like covering the real ground to create these ‘fields’ of objects.
I think it is hugely important to remember George Archer and men like him and I think remembrance is of great relevance in our current society. Not only is it important to recognise the sacrifices made by others for us however long ago, but I believe that through the act of remembrance we are obliged to consider current events concerning the deployment of troops and question our position on recent military involvement.
I have no specific intentions regarding the way in which audiences react to the work. I hope that the large scale of these works allows the viewer to get ‘lost’ within the shifting, unstable terrain of rocks, plants and spent rounds. It is very important to spend some time looking at the work because I believe that these pieces reveal more about themselves over time. I hope people will find a little more in the work each time they see it and meditate on it. Perhaps they will think about George Archer too.