Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

Earlier this winter, Somerset House on the south side of the Strand in central London hosted an exhibition celebrating Snoopy and the enduring power of Peanuts. As most people are aware, Peanuts is a long-running cartoon strip that features the iconic deuteragonist beagle Snoopy who has become as easily recognised as the protagonist, Charlie Brown. The successful exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! took visitors on a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the Peanuts franchise from its early beginnings until the present day. Most importantly, the man behind the illustrations, Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000), was brought to the forefront through the presentation of seventy years worth of work.

Since the creation of Peanuts in 1950, the comic strip has continuously entertained and inspired others, touching over 355 million people in a whole variety of ways. Through his drawings, Schulz tackled recurring themes that many can relate to, such as anxiety, love and failure, as well as issues along the lines of racism, war and feminism. With a total of 17,897 hand-drawn strips, Peanuts was published in over 2600 newspapers throughout 75 different countries. The strips have also been translated into 21 languages, making them one of the most widely accessible art forms in the world.

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Charles M. Schulz in 1956, drawing Charlie Brown

Most of Schulz’s inspiration came from his own life, particularly his childhood growing up as an only child in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles Monroe Schulz was born on 26th November 1922 to immigrant parents Carl Schulz and Dena Halverson. His German father was a barber, a profession Schulz appropriates for the father of his character Charlie Brown. Like Charlie in the comic strips, Charles was a shy, introverted child who felt out of place around his Norwegian mother’s family who were a boisterous and occasionally violent crowd.

“When I was small, I believed that my face was so bland that people would not recognise me if they saw me some place other than where they normal would. I thought my ordinary appearance was a perfect disguise.”
– Charles M. Schulz, 1975

“Sparky”, as he was nicknamed at only two days old, after a racehorse in the Barney Google comic strip that his father enjoyed, grew up to love comics, regularly reading them with his father on a Sunday morning. Sparky grew up with cartoons such as Mickey Mouse and Popeye and decided from the age of six that he wanted to become a comic strip artist. For a child that believed he was nothing special, this aspiration gave him a purpose in life.

Just as Sparky would go on to base the “bland” faced Charlie Brown upon himself, he also used his family pet as a model for another famous character. At thirteen years old, Charles and the Schulz family became the owners of a mixed breed dog called Spike. Being mischievous and rather intelligent, Spike kept the family entertained with his tricks and ability to eat everything and anything. Later, Schulz used Spike as the model for his character Snoopy who shares the same markings as his beloved pet. Although Schulz designated Snoopy a Beagle, this was due to the amusement the sound of the word brought him rather than the drawing being an accurate representation of the breed.

Schulz chose the name “Snoopy” because his mother, who died prematurely from cervical cancer, once said she would name her next dog, if she ever had one, Snoopy. Spike, however, was used as the name of Snoopy’s moustachioed brother who was introduced to the comic strip in 1975.

Schulz drew throughout his childhood without any form of training until his final year of high school when he applied for a correspondence course run by Art Instruction. These lessons Schulz completed at home, sending in assignments that racked up a cost of $170, which his father struggled to pay. His comic strip career could not start off straight away, however, because, in February 1943, Schulz was drafted into the US Army, a traumatic experience which coincided with the death of his mother.

After the Second World War, during which he was stationed in France and Germany, Schulz began working for Art Instruction, whilst trying to sell his cartoons. He eventually sold his first series of one-panel cartoons in 1948 to the Saturday Evening Post. He then focused on developing a cartoon revolving around the lives of children, which he titled Li’l Folks. When he sent these to the United Features Syndicate in New York on the very slim chance they would be accepted, he received a response asking him to create more. Unfortunately, he needed to change the name because Li’l Folks had already been copyrighted. Thus, Peanuts was born, despite Schulz’s dislike of the name: “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance, ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.” Yet, as the exhibition proved, Peanuts was by no means insignificant.

Although colour would be added later once Peanuts had become more commercialised, Schulz produced his comic strips by creating quick, simple line drawings with different sized dip nib pens, such as the Esterbrook Radio 914, which due to its flexibility, was able to produce both thick and thin lines. With these economical pens, Schulz was able to produce simplistic cartoons that seemed to vibrate with life. Carefully placed marks easily altered a character’s emotions and various lines effectively represented action.

Whilst the characters’ appearance helped to tell the brief story, speech bubbles let the readers know exactly what is occurring in the strip. Just as he did in the illustrations, Schulz used different line thicknesses to denote a large range of emotions and tone of voice. The thicker and darker the line, the more frustrated the character was. Schulz also used this technique to represent other sounds, such as the letter “Z” for snoring. Quiet sounds were written with a thin nib, whereas loud noises were shown in BIG, BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS.

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Charlie Brown

Peanuts consisted of many characters, which were added to over time. The main character, as already mentioned, is Charlie Brown, who has been hailed as one of the best comic strip characters of all time. Slightly based on his creator, Charlie has a gentle, loveable personality with a whole host of insecurities. Whilst he is intelligent, he has the tendency to overthink and procrastinate.

Schulz’s aim was for Charlie Brown to be seen as an “everyman” or a “loser” who experiences disappointment after disappointment. He never wins at baseball games, his friends often ostracise him and he is convinced he is a worthless person. Whilst this may sound rather depressing, his vulnerability reminds everyone that we are small and alone in the universe; we are human.

“Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers because he’s a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning. Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.”
Charles M. Schulz on Charlie Brown

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Charlie Brown often worries about letting people down and will often go along with his friends’ ideas even if he ends up being ridiculed. For example, every year his friend Lucy promises to hold an (American) football in place so that he can run up and kick it. Every year, Lucy removes the ball at the last minute causing Charlie to trip over. This became a running joke throughout the series and likens Charlie Brown to the mythological figure Sisyphus who was doomed to repeat the same trivial task of pushing a boulder up a mountain for it to only roll back down to the bottom.

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Lucy van Pelt

“Lucy comes from that part of me that’s capable of saying mean and sarcastic things, which is not a good trait to have, so Lucy gives me a good outlet. But each character has a weakness and Lucy’s weakness is Schroeder.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Lucy van Pelt

Lucy van Pelt is probably the most major female character in the Peanuts series. Described as the Ying to Charlie Brown’s Yang, Lucy is a bossy, crabby, selfish girl, prone to tantrums. Although she appears in a whole host of comic strip scenarios, she is particularly known for Lucy’s Psychiatry Booth in which she offers poor advice in exchange for five cents. Lucy’s booth is a parody of the lemonade stand that children operated in their front gardens in many American towns. It also recalls the peanut stand that Charlie Brown had in Li’l Folks, which undoubtedly gave Peanuts its name.

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The inclusion of the psychiatry booth was Schulz’s way of mocking the “shrink culture” that was prevalent at the time, in which many Americans thought it was fashionable to see a psychiatrist. Lucy’s unhelpful answers reflect the trivial matters people discussed with their shrink, however, she could, on occasion, be more insightful.

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Schroeder

Lucy’s one weakness is her love for Schroeder who is nearly always drawn sitting at his toy-size piano. Lucy often tries to talk to him, admitting her unrequited love, however, Schroeder is always too absorbed in his music.

“I kind of like Schroeder. He’s fairly down to earth, but he has his problems too. He has to play on the painted black piano keys, and he thinks Beethoven was the first President of the United States.”

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Schroeder is usually an impassive character, only angered when someone insults his playing or his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven. In most strips involving Schroeder and his piano, the music notation of Beethoven’s Second Symphony are drawn on staves above his head. As a way of poking fun at Schroeder’s total preoccupation with music, Schulz occasionally depicted the staves as a physical object that could bend, stretch or even interact with the other characters.

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Linus van Pelt

Whilst Charlie Brown may overthink things and have many insecurities, there is no one more anxious than Lucy’s younger brother Linus. Often depicted with a blanket, Schulz popularised the term “safety blanket” as an object of comfort that helps people deal with their insecurities. Linus commonly appeared with his thumb in his mouth, another typical soothing technique of the anxious.

“Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity”
– Charles M. Schulz on Linus van Pelt

Much to Linus’ horror, his sister is forever trying to “cure” him of his blanket habit. Without the security of his blanket, Linus feels extremely paranoid and is frequently depicted as a shaking, worried, sweating figure. A running gag in the comic strip involves his sister, or sometimes friends, stealing his blanket and turning it into something else.

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November 9, 1971

Over time, more characters were added to comic strips, for instance, Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who appeared in 1959. The tomboy Peppermint Patty arrived in 1966 and was a key character when Schulz tackled themes of feminism. Although Schulz’s cartoon strips were meant to be a bit of fun, they often reflected current events. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Schulz introduced his first black character, Franklin. Regrettably, this caused a lot of antagonism and Peanuts lost many readers, however, Schulz stuck to his guns and Franklin remained a regular feature.

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Snoopy

When it came to current events, Schulz often used his canine character Snoopy to reflect the issues in the comic strip.

“Snoopy’s whole personality is a little bittersweet. But he’s a very strong character. He can win or lose, be a disaster, a hero, or anything, and yet it all works out. I like the fact that when he’s in real trouble, he can retreat into a fantasy and thereby escape.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Snoopy

Snoopy had many strips devoted to his own adventures, during which he was able to speak English and thus be understood by readers. Snoopy had a wild imagination and often assumed fictional roles. His main alter-ego was the World War One Flying Ace who first appeared in 1965 shortly after the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Initially, it was not Schulz’s intention to use Snoopy’s war antics as an allegory for Vietnam, instead, it was a way of expressing the horrors he had witnessed during his time in the US Army. By turning Snoopy into a World War One character, no one could accuse Schulz of mimicking the combats in progress at that present time.

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Woodstock

For the most part, Snoopy’s comic strips involve everyday things, such as eating – he was particularly partial to root beer and pizza – sleeping, doing “dog things” and playing with his friend Woodstock.

“Woodstock knows that he is very small and inconsequential indeed. It’s a problem we all have. The universe boggles us…Woodstock is a lighthearted expression of that idea.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Woodstock

Woodstock is a tiny yellow bird of undisclosed breed who debuted in 1966. Being so tiny, Snoopy almost becomes Woodstock’s guardian, particularly since he cannot fly very well. Woodstock often joins in Snoopy’s fantasy games, however, is very easy to upset, which more often than not results in arguments. Nonetheless, the pair always hugs and makes up, their latest disagreement quickly forgiven and forgotten.

Although Woodstock sometimes appears in comic strips with human characters, no one but Snoopy can understand what he is saying. On the occasions that Woodstock talks, his words are represented as short lines resembling chicken scratches. The reader only knows what Woodstock has said by Snoopy’s response.

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Snoopy & Woodstock ”Peanuts” Strip Hand Drawn by Charles Schulz

As years went by, Peanuts became more commercialised with figurines, badges, t-shirts and toys appearing with the faces of the well-known characters. Unsurprisingly, the most popular character was the happy, fun-loving Snoopy. In the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, a disillusioned young group of Americans voted for Snoopy as their “write-in candidate”. This resulted in the production of banners, flags, badges and so forth featuring the beloved character and the words “Snoopy for President.” Since then, legislation has been issued making it illegal to nominate fictional characters.

In 1969, Snoopy became the safety mascot for the Apollo 10 mission, whose job was to skim the moon’s surface to within 50,000 feet and “snoop around” in order to find a suitable place for Apollo 11’s historic moon landing. Due to this, Schulz drew a corresponding storyline in which Snoopy on his kennel raced the neighbour’s cat to become the first animal on the moon. A large number of plastic Snoopy dolls dressed as an astronaut were produced in honour of Snoopy being made a mascot by NASA.

The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! turned what at first appears to be an innocent, amusing comic strip, into something meaningful and important. Over time, Peanuts developed into something more than a strip on the “funnies” page in newspapers. It dealt with everything from irrational fears and childhood dread to war, racism and feminism.

Peanuts opened the minds of adults, causing them to see the world from a child’s perspective. The fears and misunderstandings of events, such as the Cold War, shone through, as did the range of confusing human emotions people experience every day.

Ironically, Schulz’s form of popular culture introduced readers to high brow forms of art. Oftentimes, people first came across names of books or types of classical music while reading a Peanuts strip. Schulz also included references to other artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, of whom Snoopy was a fan.

Personally, until I visited the exhibition at Somerset House, I was only vaguely aware of the Peanuts characters and, as far as I can recall, had never seen any of the comic strips or television episodes that evolved from them. By being introduced to Charles M. Schulz’s background, the individual characters, the methods of production and the themes involved, it is clear that Peanuts is much more than a comic strip. With simple but clever illustrations plus huge and relevant ideas, Charles M. Schulz is someone who deserves recognition for his work and Peanuts deserves a permanent place in the world.

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Of a Life/Time

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Imagine it’s early January 2019 and you are walking the back streets of Marylebone, wrapped up against the chill of the winter air. Chances are you will find yourself turning into Chiltern Street, a street full of character and red-bricked buildings. Full of specialist shops, Chiltern Street was voted “London’s Coolest Street” by the magazine Condé Nast Traveler due to its timeless quality and historical atmosphere.

Despite the selection of premium niche retailers, your eyes are instantly drawn to a small bright red shop front with a bold sign that boasts “Barber Shop”. Complete with a bench against the front window, and striped barber’s pole, it almost feels as though you have travelled back in time, however, if you wanted to get your hair cut, you are about to be disappointed.

The old barber shop is now the location of The Gallery of Everything, opened in 2009 by curator director James Brett. The gallery belongs to the critically acclaimed touring installation The Museum of Everything founded the same year, which is the leading advocate for non-academic and private art-making, collaborating with a whole host of contemporary artists, curators, writers and institutions. The gallery is the museum’s personal space to display works by masters and newly discovered creators of all backgrounds.

“Our aim is to challenge institutions which, often unintentionally, deny wall-space to people of colour, vulnerable adults, untrained artists and other so-called minorities. Look at many of the most important museums in the world, from the Whitney to Tate Modern, you will find their definitions of art are much narrower and more restrictive than you imagine. What we lobby for is not simply equality, but change. We are not here to read art history, we are here to write it.”

Walking past the gallery during the first weeks of the year, you would have seen a brightly coloured tapestry featuring images of people and writing in Russian. This was just one of many contemporary tapestries created by the octogenarian Olga Frantskevich that featured in an exhibition titled Of a Life/Time, which ran between 25th November 2018 and 27th January 2019. Using her artwork as a discourse of memory, this was Frantskevich’s first exhibition outside of the eastern bloc.

Frantskevich has sewn all her life and recalls being taught by her grandmother at an early age. Sewing gave Frantskevich a creative outlet at a time that paper was not readily available and, therefore, drawing out of the question. Whilst working on a farm to earn some money to help support her mother and younger siblings, Frantskevich would practice her embroidery on pieces of sackcloth she found discarded about the place.

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Swans

Although the majority of Frantskevich’s tapestries have been produced within the last decade, they recall her personal life and memories of a childhood traumatised by war. Born in 1937 in Vitebsk in northeast Belarus, a country that was ruled by the USSR throughout the twentieth century until receiving independence in the 1990s, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war living under German occupation during WWII until she was seven years old. Her embroidered autobiography summarises the things she and her neighbours went through, including being challenged by soldiers, losing loved ones, celebrating their freedom and welcoming home the war heroes.

Occupation of Belarus (or Byelorussia as it was then called) began on 22nd of June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union by German troops. At the time, Frantskevich was four years old and the occupation would not end until she was seven. During the war, the Nazis destroyed over 5,295 Belarusian settlements, in the process killing most, if not all, the inhabitants. Some towns and cities were deliberately attacked and burnt down, whereas others were bombed by planes flying overhead, just like many areas throughout Europe. A number of villages, for instance, Khatyn in central Belarus, were massacred by police battalions, resulting in the death of all 156 inhabitants. Although German occupation only lasted for three years, it is believed an estimated 2,230,000 people were killed in total.

Frantskevich embroidered her memory of bomb attacks in one of her tapestries. Women and children can be seen fleeing from burning buildings, their arms raised in panic whilst forbidding, grey aeroplanes fly overhead. Since the majority of men were in the army, women were left to fend for themselves during these attacks, often finding themselves homeless after their houses had been destroyed. They could not even find shelter in nearby forests due to soldiers and attack dogs patrolling the area.

During the early days of the German occupation, a resistance Soviet partisan movement began, engaging in guerilla warfare against the invaders. They used the woods and swamps as places to hide and plan their next attacks, hence Nazi soldiers began to keep a close eye on the Belarussian woodlands, as shown in a couple of Frantskevich’s tapestries. The partisans were responsible for the heavy damage to German supply lines and communications. They disrupted railways and bridges, intercepted telegrams and attacked depots in order to block or hinder the enemy. On occasion, the partisans ambushed and captured Axis soldiers (Germans, Italians and Japanese). Due to the amount of sabotage, the Germans ended up withdrawing many of their forces from the front line.

Many of Frantskevich’s memories of the war period are actually recollections of stories told by her aunt who was a nurse during the war. Frantskevich dedicated her piece called The Final Offensive to her aunt – her mother’s sister – Olga Yakovlevna Ginko, and her uncle Nikolai Dmitrievich. Frantskevich’s uncle was a soldier during the war, however, he was wounded in battle. As a result, he lost the use of one of his hands and could no longer serve in the army. Nonetheless, he continued to fight for his country by assisting the partisans for the remainder of the war.

Frantskevich’s aunt spoke of the wounded soldiers, those who lost their limbs, those she nursed and those she could not save. She spoke of things she saw, things no one should ever witness, and Frantskevich, many decades later, translated them onto tapestry. With precise embroidery, the horrors of war are vividly shown, complete with bloodstains and flames. Although Frantskevich never witnessed the combat first hand, her aunt’s haunting tales have stayed with her all her life.

What Frantskevich experienced herself was the poverty and hunger of the people left behind while their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were out fighting. At this time in history, women were not seen as equal to men and had not been allowed certain “male” careers. The war, however, took many men away from their jobs and women had to fill their places.

Frantskevich captions one of her works with “My mother was given 300 grams of bread for all the work that she did.” Under the Nazi regime, some workers were paid with food rather than money, however, the amount was paltry. Three-hundred grams of bread does not last long, particularly in large families, and who knew how long it would be until the next payment?

A number of Frantskevich’s tapestries set in 1945 are titled Widows of Russia and focus on women whose husbands have been killed or are missing. Rather than showing a group of weeping ladies, Frantskevich reveals the determination these people had to keep going. One image shows women working hard in a field doing the work their husbands once did. The caption reads, “With love in their hearts, the faithful wait. Perhaps their husbands are alive, perhaps one day they will come home.” The one-line heartbreaking story, however, that accompanies the piece indicates, “It is already autumn, still they wait.”

Another tapestry shows the widows cooking potatoes in a pot over a fire. Whether this in some way indicates their financial or home situation is unknown, however, the most important part is the embroidered text at the bottom of the 142 cm length of cloth: “They hide love in their hearts. Their silent song is weeping.” A different tapestry, featuring the women seated around a table spread of potatoes and bread has a similar caption: “They keep love hidden in their hearts, but their songs are not silent, they are weeping.”

The widows shown in Frantskevich’s work have united in their grief. They may have lost a husband but they still have each other. Life must continue, upon which these women are endeavouring to focus. Frantskevich was obviously too young to have a husband, however, she did lose her father in the war, so she understood the feeling of grief.

Victory Day occurred on 9th May 1945 beginning with the Soviet Union following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender in the early hours of the morning. Since Belarus gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the 9th May has become a non-working day with a ceremony on Victory Square in Minsk to commemorate the ending on the war. In Frantskevich’s tapestry The Hero, she shows their village accordion player, Leonid, still in uniform, delivering the news that the war had been won. A similar piece, Victory Day, contains two fictional people who represent that “when they heard that the war was over, people met and sang and cried with joy.”

The joy people felt can be seen in The Champions in which three soldiers are dancing in celebration. This particular scene represents the liberation of the burnt-out village of Sarya after the soldiers had cleared the area of mines, making it safe for the villagers to return home – or, at least, what remained of home. The middle soldier wears a women’s headscarf, although he is clearly a man. The silly behaviour emphasises the happiness of the soldiers who then invited the village-folk to share a meal and celebrate together.

The end of the war meant the return of loved ones, those who had survived the fighting and lived to tell the tale. Hello, Mamma! shows a returning son greeting his mother much to her delight. It may have been months, even years since they had last seen each other and they have been reunited at last. Scenes like this were common all over the world as the soldiers gradually made their way home to their families. Life, however, could not return to the way things were before. Places had changed, people had changed and the echoes of war were not easily eradicated.

Although most men returned to their day jobs, others were in no physical and mental shape to be able to do so. The Hero Returns shows the fate of one of the soldiers who, despite being lucky to survive, has returned home an amputee. He can no longer work on the farm as he once did, therefore, the women who took on the jobs of men during the war were required to continue.

For Frantskevich, her family life could not return to the way things were before the war. In the years after Victory Day, she remembers visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where she laid down flowers in memory of her father who had no grave of his own.

Nonetheless, Frantskevich’s post-war childhood was not all doom and gloom. One tapestry shows a scene from 1951 when she was in the seventh grade at school. Apparently, there were only nine children in her class, however, that did not stop them from joining in state celebrations, such as May Day on the first of the month. Frantskevich remembers designing the posters for the school, state farm and rallies with slogans, such as, “We celebrate May Day.”

Not all of Frantskevich’s embroidery shown at The Gallery of Everything was about the war. A few small pieces were intended for pillow or cushion cases, such as Autumn with birds and rowan-berries that are frequently seen in Belarus at that time of year. Two other cases feature two pigs and are both titled I Love You. Whether the animals represent specific people is unknown but the idea is clear. In one, the pigs express their love for each other by sharing gifts of vegetables. In the other, they display the same sentiment by giving flowers.

The display of Olga Frantskevich’s work at The Gallery of Everything unfortunately finished at the end of January, however, her work is held in several museums in Russia, including Muzey Balashikhskiy and the Muzey Russkogo Lubka i Naivnogo Iskusstva. Although the style of her tapestries may not appeal to all, it is amazing how easily she captures her memories and history of the war in the former USSR. History books tend to focus on the facts, usually directed at those who played significant parts in the making of history. Frantskevich, however, gives the lesser known perspective of the common people, those who were oppressed by the Germans; lost their homes and their fathers and husbands; those whose lives were changed forever.

Another factor that makes Frantskevich’s work so remarkable is that it is all hand-woven, a time-consuming task that is even more extraordinary for someone in their eighties. Where some artists may sketch their memories, Frantskevich embroiders hers instead, resulting in some bright, precise designs that perfectly portray the thoughts, pictures and memories in her head. Thanks to The Gallery of Everything, the people of London were able to experience and admire these phenomenal works.

The Gallery of Everything is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 11am until 6:30pm. It is also open on Sundays at 2pm until 6pm. A number of exhibitions run throughout the year, details of which can be found on their website: www.gallevery.com

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.

The Order of St John

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell has been a London landmark for many centuries. From medieval priory to Georgian coffee house and Victorian pub, the building is now a museum exploring the history of a military order of ancient origins from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its present day role with the St John Ambulance Service. Combining historic weapons, medals, hospital equipment, art and a cannon given by Henry VIII, the Museum of the Order of St John spans 900 years of history and a fascinating story.

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The St John Ambulance logo of a white eight-pointed cross on a black background is recognised around the world where it appears on the sides of ambulances and on the uniforms of its volunteers. Although the charity has only been around since 1877, the symbol dates back almost 1000 years. The Brother Knights in the ancient hospital in Jerusalem were also recognised by the symbol on their robes.

 

The History of the Order of St John began shortly before Pope Urban II (d.1099) declared a crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslim Arabs who had been in control since AD 638. In 1080, a hospital was established in the city by a group of monks under the instructions of Brother Gerard (c.1040-1120) who would shortly become the founder of Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), which was officially recognised by the Church in 1113.

The purpose of the hospital was to care for the many pilgrims who had become ill on their travels to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers, as they were then recognised, took in people of all faiths and race, treating everyone equally. It was only after the fighting in the Crusades that the hospital workers became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

From the description of the hospital provided by the museum, the Hospitallers/Knights were ahead of their time in terms of care and treatments. Brother Gerard combined traditional Muslim practices with those used in the western world in order to improve medical care. He was also concerned with healthy eating, emphasising the importance of fresh fruit as an aid to recovery.

During the 11th and 12th century, only rich people could afford to sleep in a bed, however, Brother Gerard insisted each patient should have a bed “as long and as broad as is convenient and each should have a coverlet and its own sheet.” The wards were also well-aired and clean and workers, both male and female, were encouraged to pray for the speedy recovery of the sick.

In some ways, the hospital was a combination of a hostel and a hospice with clothing, shoes and money provided to those who needed it as well as beds. The Hospitallers also looked after orphaned children and provided an ambulance service for the injured. Typically, the hospital could house 1000 people but at times of need could find space for double the number.

 

Unfortunately, the antagonism between Christians and Muslims, in general, meant the hospital in Jerusalem could not last forever, especially after Emperor Saladin (1138-93) led a Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. Jerusalem was captured in 1187 and the Knight Templars moved their Order and hospital to Acre in the north of Israel. Yet, by 1291, Muslim forces had succeeded in recapturing the entire Holy Land, forcing the Order of St John to seek refuge in Europe.

The Order briefly moved to Cyprus before settling on Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, in 1309. Another hospital was set up and the Knights remained here for 213 years until the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), conquered the island. The Museum owns a copy of the Rhodes Missal, an illuminated manuscript printed in 1504 that contains the services for a Roman Catholic Mass. In another display case, the Museum shows two handwritten letters from brothers Rostand and Claude de Merles to their father whilst on their journey to Rhodes to join the Knights.

 

Forced out of Rhodes in 1532, the Knights were, temporarily, without a home. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-58) offered to rent them the island of Malta, which they eventually settled on in 1530. Again, they quickly set up a hospital for “pilgrims and to all the sick that happened to come to Malta from all parts of the world.” Once fully established, the knights began to build a fortified city, now the capital of Malta, Valetta.

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Jean Parisot de la Valette

The capital city was named after the military commander Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). Born into a noble family in south-west France, Valette joined the Order of St John at the age of 20, thus being present at the Great Seige of Rhodes. Later in his career, he became the Master of the Galleys then, in 1557, the Grand Master.

During his time as a knight, Valette was captured by Muslim pirates and forced to be a galley slave for a year. Although slaves were required to row for 12 hours a day on very little provisions, Valette beat the odds by living three times as long as most slaves before his rescue.

The city named after the military commander was where many of the knights were housed on the island. It was also the location of the Order’s religious centre, the Church of St John the Baptist.

The Order of St John remained on the island of Malta until the 18th century, when, as fate would have it, their home was once again invaded. On this occasion, it was General Napoleon Bonaparte who ousted the knights from their location, thus ending their rule over the Mediterranean.

 

Although patients of all faiths were treated at the hospital, the Hospitallers like to treat each individual as though he or she were Christ, the Son of God. Only the best possible supplies were used including silver plates and decorated medicine containers, which can be seen on display in the museum. Many other items belonging to the Knights are also preserved in glass cases to offer insight into their lives.

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The Cardsharps – Caravaggio

As well as objects, there are a few paintings, such as panoramas of Jerusalem, however, one artwork initially appears out of place. This is The Cardsharps by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the painting does not add any further insight into the lives of the Knights Templar, Caravaggio was a Knight of the Order. Accused of murder in 1606, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he was made a Knight; unfortunately, he later upset another member of the Order causing him to flee back to Italy.

 

Down the road from the museum is the remainder of the Order of St John’s English priory. In 1144, the Order was gifted 10 acres in Clerkenwell to establish its religious community. The English Knights of the Order of St John remained at St John’s Gate until 1540, when Henry VIII abolished all monastic orders. Since then, the church has changed many times, particularly after extensive damage by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Although the church was rebuilt in 1958, the majority of the original architecture has been lost. Nonetheless, the Order of St John Museum offers guided tours of the church and crypt on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When not open for tours, a small gallery and garden are available to the public.

 

The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem lives on in the St John Ambulance Association set up in 1877. The founders wanted to reflect the Order’s ethos of caring for the sick and revolutionising health care. First Aid classes were given to the public, which encouraged a large number of “ordinary” people to sign up to become part of a trained St John Ambulance Brigade. By training volunteers, more people were on hand to help the injured and the sick, thus saving more lives that could have perished whilst waiting for a doctor.

The Brigade also provided medical resources during the wars of the 20th century, the first being the South African War (1899-1902). Over 2000 members of St John enlisted, with the army’s medical staff, the medical orderlies making up approximately 25% of the volunteers. Later, during the First World War (1914-18) St John, along with the British Red Cross organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which provided nurses, ambulances and hospital supplies for wounded soldiers. A similar feat occurred during the Second World War (1939-45) in which they also provided food parcels, clothing and provisions for prisoners-of-war, particularly those stranded on the Channel Islands.

 

The museum has a number of resources, photographs and medals belonging to past members of St John Ambulance. These include examples of old medical objects, such as a triangular bandage, tourniquet and first aid kits. Interestingly, the majority of the photographs are of women of whom 100,000 had served in VADs by the time the Armistice was called in 1918. One of these volunteers was Veronica Nisbet who joined the John Ambulance Brigade in 1915 when she was 28-years-old.

As part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook from the years 1916-19 can be viewed by the public. The museum details a little of her life but her incredible story is best viewed through the photographs in the online version of her scrapbook. As a VAD Nurse, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, nursing and hygiene in order to volunteer during the First World War. After enlisting to work abroad, Veronica was sent to the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, the largest of the British voluntary hospitals. Veronica’s scrapbook shows pictures of the insides of the hospital, which could contain 750 patients at a time, and the nurses’ accommodation. There are also photographs of other St John Ambulance Brigade members and the activities provided to entertain the injured soldiers.

Throughout WWI, the Hospital Étaples cared for over 35,000 patients and was run by 241 members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Despite the expert care, the building was constructed from several wooden huts, which was not the best conditions for patients recovering from serious injuries. Nonetheless, many soldiers survived due to the medical aid they received from the volunteers. Unfortunately, in 1918, the hospital was struck by a bomb on two occasions, the first killing five members of staff and the second a further eleven. The building was too damaged for the hospital to continue, however, the staff moved what they could to the coastal town of Trouville where they operated for the remainder of the war.

 

St John Ambulance is still going strong today and has members of all ages and backgrounds. The association has spread throughout the world with divisions being formed in other countries. Its primary aim is to be the difference between a life lost and a life saved and has been a valuable service to the modern world.

Since the association’s conception, branches have been formed to include younger people with the leading First Aid training provider. St John Ambulance First Aiders support local communities and emergency services and is determined to work with schools and develop youth programmes. As early as 1922, the St John Cadets was founded for teenagers to attend and get involved with all their great work. This also provided training for the future, either within St John or in other medical professions. Eventually, in 1987, a group for younger children was formed. The St John Badgers cater for 6 to 10-year-olds, providing them with basic first aid knowledge and the chance to earn badges to sew onto their uniforms. Finally, in 1989, LINKS units were opened at universities to provide opportunities for students to be part of a unique team of lifesavers. In total, over half of St John members are under the age of 25.

St John Ambulance relies mostly on volunteers and donations in order to keep running its expert service. To help with funding, the St John Fellowship was formed on St John’s Day 1983, which raises a generous amount of money every year. Supporters help to set up and run exhibitions, displays, concerts and competitions as well as assist at many national events.

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The Museum of the Order of St John is an excellent place to visit in London for those wishing to learn more about the original Knights of St John and the St John Ambulance. A concise timeline helps to make sense of the mass of objects displayed within the gatehouse that date back several centuries and the information about St John Ambulance is very fitting with the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It is also reassuring to know there are so many kind and caring people in the world, despite the many conflicts.

For children, some of the details may be beyond their comprehension, however, the museum provides a fun sticker trail with simple questions to keep youngsters entertained. There are also colouring sheets and simple, child-friendly first aid tips to take away.

The museum is free to enter, however, a donation of £5 is recommended for the tour of the church and priory. The museum receives no government funding, and needs continued financial help to maintain the historically important buildings and collections.

Echoes Across the Century

It is impossible to determine which war has been the worst since it is all relative depending on who you are and what country you come from. However, the First World War (1914-1918) is arguably the most devastating the world has seen to date. Millions across the globe were killed, leaving umpteen children fatherless and significantly increasing the population of widows.

Britain was one of the most affected countries by the First World War, wreaking havoc on all of society and severely disrupting day to day life. It is difficult to imagine what the country would have been like during the war years, and the people today who were around at the time were only children.

Echoes Across the Century is an art instalment at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, which explores the impact World War One had on the British population. Different perspectives are included with a focus on soldiers, the families left behind, and those supplying arms to the Western Front.

Inspired by the personal stories recorded in diaries and letters, and historical objects from the period, children from a variety of schools ageing between 10 and 16, produced artwork expressing their interpretation of the turmoil experienced by their ancestors.

The other purpose of this exhibition is a commemorative act to acknowledge the centenary of the First World War, providing a place of remembrance where visitors can reflect on the excessive number of lives lost. Not only does it open eyes to the horrors of war, it shows the determination of a society to keep on going and survive their inflicted struggle.

Set out to resemble wooden barracks and trenches, complete with sandbags and relevant sound effects, the exhibition begins with displays of items and photographs preserved from the First World War. This helps to set the scene, evoking a sense of the lifestyle and experience of those around at that time. Alongside these examples is an arrangement of artwork inspired by the war, which is later replicated by the children as part of their own wartime project.

The artist, Jane Churchill, was heavily involved with the building of the exhibition and is responsible for the artwork at the commencement of the show. Inspired by the 1917-18 diaries of Jessie Ellman, Jane Churchill used the story of her Great Uncle Lieutenant William Goss Hicks (Ellman’s lover), who died during the First World War, as the foundation of her installations.

After Will’s death, Jessie Ellman created a “boxed world” titled Scene in which all the people are missing. Using an open box, Jessie used a variety of media to build up a scene to represent the loss of her lover. Borrowing this technique, Jane Churchill has produced a variety of boxed worlds, which, titled Collection of Dreams, show scenes representing the feelings of the women who watched their men leave for war never to return.

As visitors make their way around the exhibition, it becomes clear that there is some significance in the painted, paper moths pinned onto walls like scientific specimens. Cut out from paper that had been marbled with different coloured paint, these delicate moths are rather beautiful – the children must have thought so too because many of them have attempted their own versions. However, it is not until the end of the exhibition that an explanation is available. The moths are part of an installation by Jane Churchill titled Degrees of Separation, which, again, was in memoriam of William Goss Hicks. W. G. Hicks died at Sevenoakes alongside his comrades, therefore Jane has created 262 moths, one to represent each man who perished alongside her Great Uncle.

Jane Churchill invited over 240 students from London schools to contribute to the exhibition. Evidently, they were inspired by Jane’s own work with many choosing to replicate the moths and boxed worlds. However, a good number of the young artists came up with their own, unique ideas, largely inspired by artefacts salvaged from soldiers’ pockets after their deaths.

Most of the children will not have a personal connection to the war, so stories and the opportunity to handle wartime objects were the only means of evoking any emotion. A few of the students have studied the correspondence between families, friends, and lovers during the first world war, and have written their own, imagining themselves in that position. It is interesting to see how insightful these children are, despite their significantly contrasting lives.

Naturally, it cannot be expected for a few hundred children to produce aesthetically pleasing, art gallery-worthy artwork, however, their imperfections make them highly suitable for this exhibition. The unsteady hand of the painters and unskilled constructions help to capture the distress and uncertainty of the war era and almost look as if this juvenile style has been used on purpose.

There are eleven sections to the exhibition, which required the children to study different areas of wartime life. Like Jane, some have focused on the fates of the soldiers and the people they left behind, whereas others have been inspired by propaganda, munitions works and popular pastimes (e.g. playing cards).

Despite being mostly developed by children, Echoes Across the Century is as much informative as it is visually interesting. They have successfully conjured up an accurate atmosphere, which for youngsters with no experience of war, could not have been easy. This exhibition is not something you expect to see when visiting the Guildhall Art Gallery and is a stark contrast to the paintings on the floors above.

With only a month remaining, it is worth visiting and appreciating this unique exhibition. It is something that hopefully the children and schools involved with be proud of for years to come.