Reflections on Embers by war-artist Arabella Dorman
All Souls’ Day is an auspicious time to view a war exhibition, but as this was the date when we commemorate the faithful departed, at the start of Remembrance-tide, it was the day when All Hallows Twickenham held their private view of Embers, an exhibition of war painting by leading artist, Arabella Dorman.
The church, not far from the Twickenham Rugby stadium, is showing the artworks as part of its Inaugural Remembrance Festival. At the start of the evening, BBC war and religious correspondent Caroline Wyatt, was recollecting her first meeting with the Revd Kevin Bell, Vicar of All Hallows and former Army Padre who’s last appointment was at the Guards’ Chapel where he was Senior Chaplain to the Household Division. Over the course of his military career of more than 26 years he dealt with a number of soldier deaths on duty, but between 2007 and 2012 he was responsible for the UK repatriation of 52 soldiers.
Wyatt recalled meeting military personnel while reporting for the BBC, including bomb disposal officers from 11 EOD regiment, such as Captain Judith Gallagher, who on her first night in Helmand, defused nine bombs, and somehow survived the war, while too many of her comrades didn’t. With her calming voice, she told the audience about other interactions, which included a Christmas Eve service in December 2007 with British troops, or meeting an Iraqi farmer’s wife who showed such great concern towards Wyatt at not being married.
She ended her recollections profoundly:
“Today, the mothers and the widows I met who lost their sons or their husbands in Helmand are all too clear in my mind. For mothers such as Margaret Evison, whose son Mark was just 26 when he was shot and killed in Helmand, every day is Remembrance Day. She – they – will never forget.
“And nor should we. The dead of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are – thank God – not nearly as numerous as earlier conflicts. We know each name, each age, each story. There are no graves for the unknown British soldiers from those recent campaigns.
“But there are many more still living with the legacy of war. With physical and mental wounds. Some – like Tom Neathway, a young Paratrooper, living with just one limb. For their families, too, life will never be the same.
“For me, remembrance is not only about those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the recent wars or the world wars of the past. It is a time to remember all those who have served and fought for their country, as well as their families, who watched, prayed and waited anxiously back at home – hoping that their son or daughter would come home”.
Speaking after such a powerful testimony can be difficult, but Arabella Doorman, whose previous work included Flight, at St James’s Piccadilly, spoke movingly about her work and what it means to picture the lives of people in war-torn areas. She noted that she was not a ‘war artist’, but an artist who highlights what war exposes. She stated:
“Many of us turn to God in times of darkness, just as God, or to put it in simpler speak – love, hope, charity – is most readily encountered in the poorest, most desperate, war-torn places on earth. Love, hope, charity – these are not concepts we associate with war, but as you can see, my work is not really so much about war, as about what war reveals, in fact for a war artist, and there is startlingly little of it here.
“Look around [at the paintings] – here you see the human face of conflict – less the weapons or extraordinary technology that supports our deployments. More the consequences of those deployments. The immediate impacts and long-term repercussions of war itself. The Fallen, the wounded, the invisible wounds of loss, the trauma and guilt, the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on a soldier and his family, or, something none of us can escape from today, the millions of refugees fleeing the guns, bombs and all that which is raging across the Middle East and beyond”.
Dorman commented that her work teaches there is more that unites than divides us, and added:
“There is an old Eastern proverb which I find illuminating and helpful. ‘If God exists, He is like the sun, giving light and heat, but also casting shadows’. War does indeed lie low in those shadows, but, when you meet an old schoolmaster in downtown Lashkar Gar, who tells you he has never stopped teaching in 40 years of conflict – the shadows start to recede. This exhibition is as much about the hope that can rise from the embers, as it is about the poignancy and pathos of war. It is about sacrifice and remembrance, exile and despair, but it is also about tenacity and faith”.
Viewing the exhibition and listening to the stories from Arabella, Caroline and Father Kevin, I think it is a deeply respectful way to start the Remembrance season. I was greatly moved when entering the church to find the inflatable dinghy which was last year’s Flight installation, deflated in the doorway surrounded by poppy petals. Suggesting, the reason there are so many refugees arriving in Europe is because of the horror of war.
Then, after walking into the main body of the church, you realise the pictures are expertly hung by church staff, who understand the need for great lighting, reflective descriptions and space for the art to breathe.
There are two pictures that will stay with me. One is a non-military man or boy lying on his back with blooded clothes clutching his head. He may have lost his lower limbs, we can’t really see, but the straps holding his torso to the stretcher indicate severe injuries. This work entitled Cross-Fire, 2014, Afghanistan, is exhibited nearby to images of people going through everyday lives. The other painting, Lance Corporal Rory Mackenzie, Wounded in Action by a Roadside Bomb, January 2007, shows a young man sitting for the artist, clean shaven with one arm on a crutch. He also has lost a limb, and stairs directly, at the artist, or viewer in the face.
The exhibition brought home what my friends, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, have experienced and were presented with. It shows the effects of war, which we all suffer with, and shows how lives are irreparably changed, whether they are serving military personnel or local residents in the theatre of conflict.
Ending her speech Arabella noted:
“As we enter our time of remembrance – in a world so full of conflict – I hope that my work will speak about the urgent need for empathy, understanding and respect for our fellow human beings, as we honour the fallen, and remember all who live under the shadow of war today”.
One of the most poignant moments of the evening, was when the Incumbent and Dorman stood before a picture of a soldier painted over a collage of photos, showing the faces of the fallen. As they chatted Fr Bell commented:
“There are some men in this picture who died when I was a Padre”.
This exhibition is well worth a visit, and you will leave the church with a deep resonance of the effects of war on the soldiers, the local population caught up in the conflict and for us here in Britain. This festival is a first-class way of remember all of the Fallen and why we must never forget.
The Festival of Remembrance, featuring the artwork of Arabella Dorman runs from 3 to 13 November and is open daily from 9.15am to 6pm (from 11.30am on Sundays).