19240 Shrouds of the Somme, Northernhay Gardens, Exeter

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Shroud 1
Shroud 1

Somerset artist Rob Heard began a new project in December 2013. He wanted to find a way to illustrate the scale of the loss of life on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  He started creating 12 inch figures, each wrapped in a calico shroud, ready to be placed on the ground and lined in rows. He made 500 prototypes to assess their visual impact, and set about gathering the necessary support to make a public display on the centenary of the Somme, 1st July 2016.

Having committed to the project, Heard then needed to make a model for each one of the British soldiers killed on that day: 19,240, an astonishing undertaking. Furthermore he worked to a vast list of names of the soldiers who had been killed, named each figure, and crossed it off the list. His project was realised in time for the centenary, and the figures were all carefully placed on the lawns of the Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, ready for the official opening at 7;30am on 1st July – the identical time and date of the order to go ‘over the top’.

Shroud 2
Shroud 2

When we visited on Saturday there were large crowds of people walking quietly around the display, while the names, ranks and regiments of those killed were read out by a retired Serviceman. The brilliant warm sunshine alternated with an irritating drizzle every few minutes. It was impossible not to be deeply affected by the scale of the loss; I counted the ‘bodies’ in the very last row of the display and they numbered 67. Taking that as an average meant there would be in the region of 287 rows of 67 bodies, which I find almost incomprehensible. Most of these men were killed that morning in 1916.

Shroud 2
Shroud 3

There are already many photographs on social media of the rows and rows of figures; they are stark and bleak, and so do their job in relating the ‘shock’ factor of the display. I wanted to do something different here. The gardens are rich with the colour of summer flowers, including poppies, and the (1923) Exeter War Memorial itself is prominent near the entrance. I thought I would try to include these elements in my photographs, but the long lines of shrouded figures would be a constant presence in each one. I decided to make (in-camera) multiple exposures to blend these elements in as meaningful a way as I could, where the poppies blurring with the ‘bodies’ might represent blood loss, the ‘larger’ figures superimposed on smaller massed figures infer the individual horror amid the overall horror, and so on.

Shroud 4
Shroud 4

There are other, more nightmarish metaphors in here, but I’ll let people take from the photographs whatever they will, just as people will come to their own conclusions when seeing the scale of the display in the park.

Shroud 5
Shroud 5
Shroud 6
Shroud 6
Shroud 7
Shroud 7

Heard’s achievement here is profoundly moving, but the display is strictly temporary and will be removed after Thursday 7th July; I urge you to see it, if you possibly can. The figures are available to buy, and profits will go to the Exeter Foundation and the SSAFA Armed Forces Charity. There is more information here at the official 19240 Shrouds of the Somme website.

Shroud 8
Shroud 8

Rob Heard, creator of 19240 Shrouds of the Somme, has authorised the sale of these images, on the agreement that 20% of the price of any image sold is donated to the SSAFA, the armed forces charity. The largest size of each image is only available as a limited edition of 50, after which no more will be made available at that size. You can order the images from my Gallery page here.

Five of these images will be on display throughout November 2016 at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter, as part of their Gratitude exhibition. You can buy the framed prints from there if you wish.

 

 

6 Replies to “19240 Shrouds of the Somme, Northernhay Gardens, Exeter”

  1. Beautifully and sensitively portrayed – you manage to convey the enormity of what you have seen through the careful and understated use of multiple exposure.
    It truly is, a horror beyond all comprehension but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to detail our own personal connection through creative endeavours.
    I truly wish I could see it for myself.

    1. Thank you so much Valda; any appreciative comment from such a peerless artist as you is worth a great deal to me. Thanks for taking the time to read, look and comment.

  2. Daphne – you put it very well. These are beautiful images, full of many emotions. The colours of the flowers reflect what we have now, through the sacrifice of so many.

    Now I need to work out how to do in camera multiple exposures because that is clearly a very valid technique when employed in the right manner and on the right occasion – as here.

    Thank you – I’m not going to get to see the 19,240 shrouds, but your pictures convey so much of the memorial.

    1. You’re very welcome Simon. Your comment about the colours of the flowers representing what we have now, is particularly appreciated. The difficulty was that these were some distance away from the starkness of the figures, so multi-exposure seemed the best way to include them. Really rewarding to hear it hit home for you, so thanks again.

  3. Thank you Daphne, very much. The summer flowers might well have been found near the scenes of battle too, so I felt their colours and vibrancy leant a further poignancy to the stark horrors around.

  4. Terry, I think these images are remarkable: you find beauty in the poignancy and horror, but with great respect. I had heard about Rob Heard’s work and I was moved by his intent, as I am by yours here.

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