I was lucky enough to be one of fourteen artists selected for an Arts Council England funded exhibition, at POD, a new gallery in Bishop Auckland, which, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is an extremely deprived market town in the North East of England currently undergoing massive regeneration thanks to the Auckland Castle Trust.
The theme of the exhibition is The Somme: Remembrance and Expression, and I literally jumped at the chance to take part. My immediate inspiration was my great grandfather, Sylvester Sherriff, from whom I have inherited a wealth of photographs and documentation covering the period of the First World War, so I felt (no pun intended) a strong connection to the theme.
Sylvester joined the York and Lancaster regiment in December 1914, shortly before his 34th birthday. After initial training he was posted to Egypt and then to France. He saw action at Serre on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and, unlike many of his friends, was fortunate enough to survive. For those unfamiliar with the history of the Battle of the Somme, the 1st of July 1916 saw the greatest loss of life in any single day in British military history, with 60,000 casualties, 20.000 of which died. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916 the collective casualties of the British, French and German armies stood at 1,265,000.
Most of Sylvester’s battalion was wiped out in the first days of the Battle of the Somme so, from August 2016 Sylvester was attached to the 257 Tunnelling Company. I discovered this fact during my research prior to making the piece. In the above photograph, the three soldiers are wearing tunneller’s uniforms, which I only discovered when I joined a WW1 forum asking for information about a piece of kit. Sylvester Sherriff is in the centre of the photograph.
Prior to joining the Tunnelling Company Sylvester had worn a standard private's tunic (see first image). This seemed a more immediately recognisable piece of uniform, so I decided to make my exhibition piece based on this using the wool from my own flock of sheep. Since Sylvester was a Yorkshire man I selected wool from my Wensleydale sheep, a Yorkshire breed, as the most appropriate. The piece is made from flat felt, which has then been cut and tailored to fit. Although I hadn’t anticipated any problems in this area, despite an extensive search I was unable to find a pattern for a private's uniform. I found plenty of patterns for officer's tunics, German infantry tunics etc, but nothing resembling what I needed. However, I was lucky enough to gain access to the Durham Light Infantry Museum and, once there, was able to measure, sketch and photograph uniforms. From these unpromising beginnings I was able to construct a pattern, testing my tailoring skills to the limit!
The finished piece hangs on a cast modelled on one of my teenage sons, a great, great grandson of Sylvester. In order to incorporate more of my great grandfather's history into the piece I decided to make a half tunic, leaving the other half of the cast to be decorated with calico bandages printed with images taken from original photographs and documents from my great grandfather. These include his Small Book (a book he carried with him throughout the war), his identity papers, demobilisation account and travel ticket home at the end of the war. I sourced the buttons and belt hooks from original WW1 uniforms, though sadly Sylvester's own uniform was burnt by relatives following his death in 1962 at the age of 81.
The title of the finished piece is ‘Somme Survivor’. The exhibition The Somme: Remembrance and Expression runs from 8th February to 26th March 2016, 10am - 5pm daily (except Sundays) at POD, Market Place, Bishop Auckland DL14 7PB.
Woolly-minded shepherdess treading softly through the world.