K. J. Shepherdson’s Polaroid ‘lifts’ of the Broadstairs War Memorial

We held the Private View of the exhibition Remembering, We Forget last week. It was very moving to see so many people reading, examining, stepping back, leaning forward, discussing, debating and (as I often overheard) resolving to come back when it was quieter to really take a look at the thing.

I thought I would post series of brief blogs about aspects of the exhibition over the next few weeks – partly as an enticement to those who haven’t yet visited it, and partly as a kind of record. I  begin with the images of the Broadstairs War Memorial created by K. J. Shepherdson. Broadstairs Memorial 1

When the curating team decided to include these, we were struck by what I would call their insightful ambivalence. For each of these images, Shepherdson begins by taking a Polaroid photograph and then, in a delicate process, she lifts the fragile surface of the print away from its backing. In this state, the image is, in her words, ‘like a small piece of fine silk or layer of skin’. This, she carefully transfers onto watercolour paper.

The result is a fragile, evanescent, translucent film through which the rough texture of the paper can be seen. The memorial’s frieze is made of bronze which, like the stone to which it is fixed, speaks of permanence: ‘their names liveth for evermore’ is what this material says. Re-presented in Shepherdson’s work, that sense of permanence is not exactly undermined – the effect is not simply ironic– but is rather adjoined to, or simultaneous with, the fragility. The metal faces of striving soldiers come under our scrutiny and movingly regain their human frailty. We see the minute detail afresh and are reminded both of the physical reality of the men represented, and of the sculptor’s skill.

Scan 3The moustaches, the beaky noses, the eyes hidden under tin hats, the veins on the backs of their hands – these become both more and less real, closer to the men represented, and further away. Where the original frieze has sharply-defined outlines, these images are ragged around the edges, like the photographs which soldiers carried with them, like something found in the mud.

Close by, a glass case holds a copy of Charlotte Mew’s poetic response to the Cenotaph, which is so heart-breakingly confused and therefore so true. I see a line of connection between Mew’s poem and the way Shepherdson manages simultaneously to reproduce the public memorial and to re-imagine it. The jpeg files posted here don’t do justice to the nine images on the wall of the Gallery – you need to get up close to them and see the textures. The exhibition runs until December 17.

 

 

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About Andrew Palmer

I am Principal Lecturer in Modern Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. My research focusses on the poetry of the First World War.
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