The Library at UCL have added An Unknown Soldier to their superb Special Collection. There will be lots more news about this project to come this year. You can read about this artwork here
The Active Service Gospel recently received its official launch at the prestigious Guards Museum at Wellington Barracks, just opposite Buckingham Palace. Our four screenprint editions were dotted around the museum on display.
Fascinating and moving speeches were made in which we heard about many of the exciting projects that are already committed to using the replica gospels in this centenary year, especially among the young to promote a passion for peace. We also said a few words about why the project grabbed our attention and how we approached it.
We were a little stunned to hear about all the people who will be receiving these little books, and that the 120,000 already available may well just be the start. To receive some of these little books for free, or with a donation, you can go here.
Three more works from An Unknown Soldier have been acquired by the Saison Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall. We are doubly thrilled by their addition to this important collection because it feels like their spiritual home. You can read more about these pieces through the project page for An Unknown Soldier here.
SGM filmed this interview with David about the four prints we made with them for the WW1 Active Service Gospel replica.
The Active Service Gospel Replica
We are very pleased to announce the publication of the ‘Active Service Gospel’, a replica of a John’s Gospel that was given to troops, and sometimes their families, during the First World War. SGM Lifewords (at the time called Scripture Gift Mission) commissioned us to create the original artwork for their commemorative project. They didn’t want to make a straight facsimile of the original, but rather a replica with a few considered changes in the spirit of the original, which would give the recipient today more of an insight into what it would have felt like to receive one a hundred years ago.
Our commission was to make four pieces of art that would be reproduced as colour plates. These screenprint editions import the legacy of the First World War into a document that lived in the trenches. The tragedy of WW1 is absent from its pages because it unfolded around them. We found the SGM story as interesting as it is moving. Their tradition of offering gospels without any social agenda attached, to anyone who wants or needs one, allowed them to mass produce words of comfort and encouragement without partiality, during a war where words had already been slain by mass-produced propaganda. A staggering 42 million Active Service Gospels were made, a testament to the demand. Some were accepted gladly, others with derision, and some with derision that became devotion. The trenches were a place where some lost faith and others found it. The story of the Active Service Gospel is a little-known history, and we are delighted to help in remembering it.
SGM also asked us to reference the Modernist artwork of the time, exploring the tension between Vorticist individualism and Futurist machine-worship. In the context of a machine war, the latter is obviously less appropriate (and less British – only Nevinson was a close disciple of the Italian movement). This was an age when Artists turned Camoufleur. Painters like Wadsworth, under Wilkinson’s lead, created vast Modernist artworks in the form of Dazzle Ships. Nash wanted to “burn their lousy souls” with desolate reportage paintings like ‘We are making a new world’. Even a regiment of Artist Rifles exchanged the gallery for the shooting-gallery and signed-up.
The Themes Behind the Prints
We began work with life-models and period uniform obtained from a costumier to make portraits of four individuals, each faced with the strains of war, moments when they would have experienced doubt or fear. We collaborated with actors, mainly, in these sessions.
We had two central themes we were meditating on. The first being that, on an international level, the war was about self-aggrandisement and vainglory, but this did not prevent the men who had enlisted performing acts of genuine humility and love, the kind of sacrifices they would have found examples of in the pages of these little gospels. St John contrasts Jesus the Christ, who serves and brings peace, with Caesar the Tyrant who’s Pax Romana is obtained through oppression of neighbouring states in warfare. It was after the First World War that Jesus’ statement “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (found in John 15:13) became current in Remembrance. When we began this project we had long considered this usage inappropriate. However, we came to realise that for powerless infantry to be able to redeem their active service by doing acts of service to each other, and sometimes even their ‘enemies’, was a powerful comfort for many of them. The way we approached all this in the prints was to employ camouflage and symbols of Pro Patria as a symbol of deception. Flat geometric planes, pleats and patterns surround and enfold the figures so that only their faces and hands testify to a human presence and will.
The second theme, or perhaps it was more of a ‘consideration’, was that the Church of England, and some other Christian groups, had been wrongly supportive of the First World War and contributed to the call-up. This is a shameful episode that confused Imperialism with Mission and searched for Just War instead of fostering Peace. This error of judgement contributed to a decline in British ecclesiastical art, perhaps the only remission being the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after World War Two and the artworks and music commissioned for it, all of which find a degree of authenticity in repentance and mourning for humanity as a whole. Most of the brilliant British artists and writers of the 1920s were Secular Humanists or Catholics who celebrated the Internationalist aspect of their Church. We wanted to join in with the spirit of Coventry in representing ecclesiastical themes in a contemporary way. Therefore, in our Nightwatchman, Aviator, Pal and Sailor you will find a nod to the hermit tempted in the wilderness, an annunciation, three disciples and a holy jester.
The Four Prints
A soldier on Night Watch is a frequent metaphor for enduring suffering and waiting for enlightenment. He is a man aware of his own weakness waiting for vindication. The moon and stars here stand for the light that the darkness cannot overcome. We were interested to find that the trenches were an extension of the human body and, like a grave stretching off into infinity, took the length of a foot, shin and arm for their makeshift construction.
Cody Kites were brought to the British Military by Wild West showman Samuel Cody, who reached the end of his life in Aldershot where the embryonic RAF (Royal Flying Corps) trained. A chain of kites lifted an officer high into the air where he could sight artillery and gather intelligence of enemy movements. The thin cables, like those often painted in gold on depictions of the annunciation, and rapid upward movement imply a religious experience. But the apparatus levitating him is man-made and looks more demonic than angelic, hinting at the particular hubris of this age and conflict.
Our depiction of a pals regiment sees a very young man meeting two friends as they embark on what they believe will be an adventure and a ‘rite of passage’ together. Their hats, that resemble halos and are circled with a thin gold band, ultimately obscure their identities, hinting that they will lose their lives and he will lose his two pals. The building he is exiting, Navarino Mansions in Hackney, is a social housing project built in the Arts and Crafts style – an architecture that collapses the ideal of a Merrie English monastery into a housing block. We have heightened this sense of overbearing Pro Patria by rationalising it into the colours of a Union Jack. This is intended to contrast with the instinct to serve and save promoted by the verse – contrasting Father God with Fatherland.
The sailor embarking on a dazzle ship is surrounded by the disorienting effect of camouflage, which in all these pictures stands for deception. Note how the same blue circles look different in tone when surrounded by white or black. The sailor has been brought here by words promoting conflict, and is now examining more words that are trying to lay claim to him. The form of his uniform extends the influence of the camouflage onto his own body, but his unkempt appearance shows that his own identity is fighting back. He signed up once, will he sign up again? This picture is about the threshold of faith.
All four screenprints are available to buy
email us here to express an interest
Active Service Gospel replica available here
10 copies for suggested donation of £6
(or free thanks to supporters of SGM)
or copy and paste this link if you can’t see the item: http://www.sgmlifewords.com/uk/resources/details/ww1-johns-gospel
It was never the plan, but having worked for more than four years now on the legacy of the First World War in our project, An Unknown Soldier, we were keen to create a considered commemoration of this Centenary year, 2014.
Grand Eagle (capitals and columns) is a civic-sized quotation from An Unknown Soldier. The main text is our soldier’s own paradoxical definition of humanity “Able damned est/ N thing worth saving/ N harvest thrives/ On our mass graving.” Beneath we have chosen an epitaph from Preparatory Oratory “MCMXIV fire guns at a useless trajectory MMXIV”, screenprinted in gold.
The enlarged capitals, as found in medieval manuscripts, spell out ANNO to remind us of the centenary year, but also suggest capital cities found on a map of the world, surrounded by fortifications in the shape of each sentence, or perhaps columns of soldiers marching towards the sump that forms the gutter of a trench, or the vanishing point of no-man’s land.
We placed a listing in Aesthetica Magazine announcing our project An Unknown Soldier. If you saw us there – welcome to our website!
You can find everything about the whole project here.
We currently have two new superb screenprints underway, which are as yet unlisted, this time also using our foil debossing press on some of the details.
The third publication of the Monday School project was an unexpected commission for new church buildings in St Peter’s Harold Wood, Monday School Illuminations. This was a new challenge, what with us not being ecclesiastical artists, but they had heard about the Monday School project and we had a starting point; this was the place I went to Sunday School in the 1980s. We returned to the Monday School Chart and took some of those images further to create a set of four silkscreen prints that tile together and work individually. We began with the monastic tradition of illuminating manuscripts, and this theme of illumination and enlightenment is central to the composition.
It is now pride of place in the church atrium, and we also produced an edition of ten in Tex Libris pistachio cloth bound portfolios with white foil blocking and ebony lining paper. They are editioned and signed.
This time, each panel juxtaposes a part of the old and new testaments that are linked thematically. So the Creation and New Creation are on the first panel, then the Fall and Noah’s Flood are the background for Judgement Day (the second coming), next Abraham and Jesus’ incarnation represent that family bloodline, but also the line of Grace, and the Law of Moses and Israel are contrasted with the Law of grace (the Apostles after Jesus’ resurrection). A single white line is emitted from Creation, connects all the panels chronologically, splitting in a prism to create the tree of life and coming full-circle to the New Creation. All the Old Testament bits are in the background, and the New Testament hangs off the tree.
Loose-leaf book of four silkscreen prints
300gsm Somerset Satin White paper
190mm x 270mm
Edition of 10
Numbered and signed
Available to buy from us here