Rachel Lowther’s recent exhibition at the Reid Gallery, commissioned by the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), drew heavily on the School’s First World War archives. Its title Nothing compares to the first time getting shot at is a quote from a British soldier who served in Afghanistan in 2010. Digging In spoke to Rachel about her work on the archives and how art can help us make sense of and remember conflict.
‘I think art and the broader arts in general has a great role in telling stories of war and helping us consider how we think about war,’ she said. ‘Art is a great carrier of our memories and our feelings about war.’
The stereotype of artists as somehow inherently ‘peaceful’ is notably absent, with the one known conscientious objector from the GSA missing from the records – though, as Jen Novotny from the University of Glasgow’s Great War Project notes, conscientious objectors can sometimes be traced through the non-combat roles they assumed.
For the most part, however, the GSA archives present snippets of information from Glasgow’s home front, with mundane details on how life continued despite the war. Through sculpture, film and the music that accompanies them, Lowther’s exhibition explores the First World War in a series of forms with the archives playing a pivotal role.
In this body of work, the feather in its various and violent forms is a recurring theme. As documented by film-maker Anne-Marie Copestake, the carefully designed and laboriously detailed life-size sculptures were constructed over several years, yet twisted and disfigured in minutes. The works grimly echo the words of Private A V Pearson from the Leeds Pals Battalion on the Battle of the Somme:
‘We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.’
If the chicken costume seems odd, it is perhaps less absurd than sending teenagers into industrial warfare.
Lowther’s ‘chicken’ film is based on a family story. Her great uncle, Carl, who at 17 was tall for his age but too young to enlist, joined up after he was handed a white feather – the symbol of cowardice. Carl was sent to fight in France and killed soon after his 18th birthday.
In the weeks that followed his death, the motif of the feather returned. Carl’s mother dreamed of his death and saw, as she put it, ‘her son being carried across the battlefield by a man with a feather in his cap.’ In the story, the family was later visited by a friend of Carl’s, who told his mother how her son had fallen and how he had carried him back from No Man’s Land. Carl’s mother asked the friend if he wore a feather in his cap. The answer: as a member of a Welsh regiment, he did.
It’s through stories like these that the First World War lives on in our collective memory.
Through spending time in the archives of the GSA, Rachel has been able to move beyond her own family’s stories and into other people’s lives. Personal letters sent and received from the School of Art over the course of the war reveal the conflict’s wide-ranging impacts.
In documents held in the archive, the School of Art expresses concern over shortages of food and fuel supplies, but also refers to restrictions placed on male art teachers seeking work – particularly those that had been turned down for military service. Yet, as Rachel discovered, for the then-director of the Art School, Fra Newberry, the war also created opportunities for women to move into new careers that were otherwise beyond reach.
Her embroidered works also have a personal note, drawn as they are from private correspondence between the Glasgow School of Art and the families of fallen soldiers. She has sewn them to match the original handwriting, as in an excerpt from one father’s letter on receiving news of his son’s death: ‘but my boy was a hero.’
Our interview with Rachel can be seen below.
Words and film by Ned Suesat-Williams