I first saw Rifleman Barnet Griew’s letters and drawings as a very young child at my grandmother Fanny’s house. The resonance of the half-remembered drawings and text from her dead brother’s letters stayed with me, re-emerging decades later when I had become an artist.
As Barney wrote in his last letter to his mother: ‘The chaps told me I was a fool to write home as often as they found it a bad policy – but I know you will understand.’ And write letters home – often three times a day – he did.
I had been working, for around a decade, on a series of abstract canvases concerned with landscape from an aerial perspective and found myself looking at maps and aerial photographs from the First World War. As I was coming to the end of this series, I remembered Uncle Barney’s drawings and sometime in 2011 I opened an old box file in my mother’s house and saw the two piles of papers, squashed together with perished rubber bands. I sat down on my living room carpet and started laying everything out in chronological order, something I repeated for my digital video, ‘Carpet Piece’, which you can see in the exhibition.
At that point, I knew very little about Barney, but as I laid out the 180 illustrated letters, photographs and photographic postcards, sent over a period of only five months, I discovered that he had lived and worked in the family furniture business very close to my studio. This building was formerly used to make the tents for the First World War, and as I subsequently discovered, overlooks the same canal where my grandmother collected the timber off the barges to send to the family furniture manufactory. It was at this point I also discovered that Barney had trained as a mapmaker and scout. This strangely mirrored what I was doing in crawling over the floor with his correspondence and also with my paintings that were about the landscape as seen from above. I remember thinking that the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was very close and that perhaps it might be possible to get funding to follow Barney’s footsteps back to the Somme and visit the locations that appeared in the photographic postcards. The project was subsequently supported by public funds from The National Lottery through Arts Council England. Continue reading »