Jacqueline Hurley is the artist whose work is being exhibited at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire from March to July this year (2017). The work is a collection of mixed media paintings and has earned Ms Hurley the recognition of being the country’s foremost remembrance artist and rightly so having seen this exhibition in April.
Ms Hurley’s original painting as done as a tribute to a friend, Royal Marine Neil Dunstan who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 and since then she has perfected her style which is a mix of Impressionism and Expressionism. The acrylics that are used are applied using the impasto technique which creates texture and depth and when combined with the grey tones of the impressionist backgrounds also creates a highly charged but sensitive mood or emotion. The works combine of the despair and horrors of war with the bright red poppies which have become the recognised symbol of peace and remembrance and the works create a powerful and emotional response – perhaps because I have seen them at the National Memorial Arboretum which is a national centre of remembrance in the UK or perhaps because, like so many, I have grandfathers who served in both World Wars and my own father was a serving army office when I was born.
Seeing the works of art in the newly finished Visitor Centre is almost a privilege because the setting is so perfect – you see the pieces before you go out into the grounds with the wide variety of memorials including the Armed Forces Memorial or perhaps after you have done so and they really bring home to the spectator the conflicts and the human cost just that bit further due to the scenes they depict
Ms Hurley states that the works are pieces that have many layers and what is hidden is just as important as what is seen and this is something I can relate to in my own work because each unseen layer of a textile or painting is just as vital to what is seen as it builds up to create the finished piece – an example is that a quilt is made up of a 3 layers and yet the wadding is not seen at all and yet it is very much a vital part of the quilt in the same way a watercolour is built up of layers of translucent or opaque washes.
It is very hard to choose favoured images from the collection but below are 7 that really resonate with me and I have noted my reasons why – all are mixed media on canvas are are dated 2016. My responses and accompanying notes are based on my personal interest in World War I and II history and my interest has always been very much on the stories and personal history of the people of the time and in particular the armed forces personnel. Please note that I have Ms Hurley’s permission to post my photographs of her works.
The first is entitled Raid of Remembrance and is almost an iconic image of what appears to be Lancaster Bombers dropping poppies over fields of remembrance. I partly grew up near RAF Conningsby in Lincolnshire which is the home of the City of Lincoln Lancaster bomber and this is why this particular piece really resonates with me – the silhouette of the plane is one I know well having seen it fly several times and understand the dangers of being one of the crew due to having a keen interest in World War II history with the emphasis not on the conflicts but on the human side and in particular the stories of the forces personnel. The red poppies are very much the focus and reminiscent of the poem In Flanders Fields which was written during World War I – this is the most striking image due to the dominance of the poppies against the simplicity of the planes as they drop yet more to scatter on the ground in memory of those lost and many who lie there still.
The second image Below the Brave the Poppies Grow harks back to World War I and I find almost the same theme as the first – the planes above the fields of poppies but this time with the planes being the ones in the earlier conflict. The bi-planes are striking in their appearance and I can only think of the levels of bravery that it took to fly these incredible machines above peace time fields yet alone in a war time scenario – the dangers must have been immense and beyond comprehension to our modern eyes and yet these airmen took to the skies in order to defend and protect our countries. The scene below the planes I wonder if it could be Dover or along the south coast – if it is Dover then I have a personal connection as that was where my grandmother was born and lived during World War I and possibly even met my grandfather during or after the war, (they married in 1920), and this image makes me wonder if she looked up and saw scenes such as this. Beneath the battle in the skies the battles of the land raged on and the poppies are a very direct reminder of both aspects of the Great War – we tend to think of this war as being land and sea based but the aircraft were taking to the skies and become a part of modern warfare and hence at the end of the conflict the RAF was born.
For Heroes and Horses the Poppies Grow – the heroes of the Great War were not just the soldiers but the horses who died in their thousands and who should be honoured with equal respect for they carried not just the men but pulled the canons, the medical carts, supplies and countless other desperately needed jobs.
This is another piece that has personal resonance because it is believed that my maternal grandfather may have been cavalry but we do know that my fiance’s grandfather certainly was and was also greatly involved in the care of the horses – I have also a life long love of horses. At the NMA there is a memorial that is the process of being made that will commemorate the war horses of World War I and this image is a perfect reminder of their vital and equal role alongside the soldiers – the bright red poppies in the foreground serving to remember those who fell and fought with the simplicity of the silhouette of the horses and cavalry soldiers giving such a powerful impression.
For Mother and her Boys, the Poppies Grow – again an image depicting World War I with the silhouette of one of the tanks that first became part of war time operations and modern warfare.
The mere title of this piece says all that is needed …. for each boy and man (for there were both) killed there was a mother at home whose loss was unimaginable. Works of art such as this have really started to grab at my heart more than ever just recently as I have two sons now aged 20 and 22 and yesterday found out that my maternal grandfather was 21 years and 4 months old when he enlisted in his regiment …. it kind of really brings it home to you to think of the mothers who saw their sons go off to war so young, and indeed there were too many who were yet younger still, and who never came home. My family was lucky – my grandfather survived the 4 years, albeit with scars and a severe injury to one hand, but died at aged 56 and my single photo shows a man aged 54 but looking many years older due to a weak heart and severe bronchial issues which I now believe to be due to the effects of the gas used in the warfare … I have traced his regiment and know that he was in an area which was affected and like so so many who were lucky enough to survive were still to later become casualties of the Great War as a direct result of injury of health problems caused by the gas warfare.
The desolation of the landscape in this image is a powerful reminder of the horrors and destruction of the Great War – so little lived and yet so much was fought for and those fields still lie beneath the poppies.
Remember and Reflect – do I need to describe why this is chosen? The simple framing of the silhouetted figures who could be soldiers of any conflict as they stand guard and in tribute to friends/colleagues lost with one by the grave with the simple cross and the other by the weapon topped with the helmet of the soldier. The depiction of the land takes no prisoners in its depiction of the desolation and mud of war and this image is made all the more powerful by the poppies being above the heads of the soldiers and not at their feet – the poppies rise above the soldiers as they bend gently over as if bowing in remembrance and respect to those lost.
Brothers in Arms – chosen as a reminder of my Dad who was a serving army office when I was born as stated above. My Dad’s role in the Royal Artillery was as a helicopter pilot so this image was immediately resonant very personally as I knew he was one of the last pilots out Aden during the conflict that ended shortly before I was born. The helicopters are also a firm reminder of modern conflicts with the soldiers carrying the injured colleagues or the bodies of those who have died to the helicopters flying in to take them to safety or a place of medical treatment. The poppies are simpler int his image and less prominent as they let the soldiers and helicopters talk to the viewer but at the same time their role is no less important – a firm reminder of those who only came back in wooden boxes.
Thankful for Little Ships – my final image is chosen because it also shows the little ships that were so vital to the rescue of the British and French soldiers.
The poppies in this image almost take a back seat to the use of the shells in the foreground and the depiction of the ships and lines of men in the middle and background. The poppies are subtle and understated serving as the gentle act of remembrance – this subtle nature of their depiction however makes them no less important and each part of this image serves the purpose of telling the viewer of what happened during that time
I think my interest in the history of the conflicts is apparent as is the emotional impact these works of art have had on me personally – it is hard to chose even just 7 of the pieces because each is so beautifully rendered and composed with a sensitivity to the subject. The simplicity in the colours used throughout the collection serves to emphasize the subject matter with a subtlety that I find incredibly moving but also at the same time with an emotional or almost physical strength that when combined with the poppies really strikes a chord with whoever views either a singular image or the collection as a whole. I am fascinated by the use of the acrylics to create the textures which are built up in layers and add depth to such an effective degree as well as the textures of the landscapes depicted. I am finding I am being ever more drawn to works of art that have an emotional impact on me and although I love the use of colour I am also being drawn to a limited colour palettes such as these which allow the subject to speak to the viewer more directly – the colour emphasizes the subject matter rather than becomes the subject. I note the impressionist style of the landscapes – they have a realism in their starkness as they seek to tell of the horrors that have happened but at the same time they are not so realistic that you loose the message of remembrance of the piece by being overawed by what you see.
To summarize this exhibition I am in awe of this artist for her skill at creating a collection of works that so exquisitely and sensitively serves as images of peace and remembrance and it is right that she is held in such high regard particularly by The Royal British Legion and all who see her work.
POST Original Art Limited. (date unknown). Jacqueline Hurley’s War Poppy Collection [online]. [Date accessed: 5 June 2017]. Available from: https://poshoriginalart.co.uk/about/