A sculpture built from clay taken from the Passchendaele battlefield site representing soldiers from each side of the conflict has been unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum as part of the centenary commemorations of one of the most notorious battles of the First World War.
Professor Stephen Dixon from Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University has crafted an ‘everyman’ composite sculpture inspired by photographs of soldiers from the six nations involved in the battle.
The metre-high portrait is the central feature of the Arboretum’s new ‘Passchendaele: Mud and Memory’ exhibition, using clay from both the Wienerberger Quarry and Brickworks, located on the Passchendaele battlefield site, as well as local Staffordshire clay.
Two of the subjects depicted in the piece are Lieutenant Colonel Harry Moorhouse, and his son Captain Ronald Moorhouse who were both posted to the 4th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the 49th Division. Harry was wounded on two occasions, but he always insisted on returning to his unit, until eventually he was in command with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
On 9 October 1917, the battalion was called up from divisional reserve to support the assault troops who had come under heavy fire. Ronald led his company in assault of the first objective, when he was wounded at the head of his men. On hearing of his son’s injuries, Harry left battalion headquarters to come to his aid, but was shot dead by a sniper when he sought medical assistance. Ronald was unable to survive his injuries and died on the battlefield, and when the attack broke down forcing the battalion to retreat to it’s starting position, both bodies were abandoned, never to be recovered. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Moorhouse and Captain Ronald Moorhouse are now both commemorated by name on the Tyne Cot Memorial.
The exhibition opened in the Arboretum’s Landscapes of Life Temporary Gallery on 8 July 2017 and will be on display until autumn. Professor Dixon has visited the site to demonstrate to visitors the press moulding process involved in the creation of the ‘everyman’ sculpture.
Artefacts from the conflict
Other elements of the exhibition focus on the evocative power of historical artefacts from the conflict, many of which Professor Dixon has collected himself. The inspiration for the exhibition came from handling these objects, and experiencing a material and emotional connection with the daily lives lives of individual soldiers from the First World War.
Stephen Dixon is Professor of Contemporary Crafts and leader of the Crafts Research Group at Manchester School of Art. His practice-led research investigates socio-political narratives in contemporary ceramics, particularly in relation to conflict and commemoration. Recent work has focused on the material resonance of archives and collections, and the ability of historical objects to engage with the contemporary imagination.
The Arboretum’s cultural offering has expanded greatly since the construction of the new Remembrance Centre. It features new galleries for temporary exhibits, and Landscapes of Life; a permanent interactive feature of the Remembrance Centre, where visitors can delve into the vibrant history of Remembrance, exploring Remembrance practices from the Bronze Age to the present day. It is interactive, with audio visual activities, historical artefacts, and a ‘Memory Booth’, where visitors can leave messages of Remembrance.
Professor Stephen Dixon, Manchester School of Art, said: “The genesis of the project was a conversation about the brick-works on the Passchendaele battlefield site, and the possibility of getting clay from there to make a commemorative piece on the 100th anniversary of the battle. Passchendaele is known for its horrific muddy conditions, and the idea of making a sculpture out of the actual ‘stuff’ of the battlefield attracted me to the project. This chimed with my longer-term research interests in the material culture of the First World War; I have built a collection of personal, resonant and emotive objects, excavated from First World War battlefields, which also features in the exhibition”
Kathryn Rogerson, Exhibitions Officer, National Memorial Arboretum, said: “Temporary exhibitions are a key part of our cultural offering, allowing us to engage new audiences and explore artistic methods of Remembrance. We are delighted to host this new exhibition from noted sculptor Stephen Dixon, bringing part of Passchendaele’s battlefield to the Arboretum through an imposing mud masterpiece.”