Posted on August 22, 2014

Yesterday, the book A Nurse at the Front, edited by Ruth Cowen, arrived in the post. The book collates diary entries and various images of Deal born front line nurse Edith Appleton.

Nursing continues to stir the mind.

First time visiting the Florence Nightingale Museum near Waterloo, deftly tucked underneath St Thomas’s Hospital. The journey through her life is punctuated by the sounds of tweeting birds, scuttling rats(?) and spy-holes into the past. At the back of the museum a small annex of records in a modest exhibition titled The Hospital in the Oatfield – The Art of Nursing in the First World War. Alongside letters and notes from serving nurses, a remarkable series of field paintings, a recent Museum acquisition, by Victor Tardieu in 1915. Capturing a rare sense of interior and security, with layers of patterned fabrics, picked flowers in vases and foregrounded domestic objects reveal a tranquil reality under temporary, provisional tent architectures charting a tender record of time on the front line. The titles of each painting, for example; Soldier on an iron bed, facing his comrades; Boy asleep in tent, with beside locker; A table with equipment, and two soldiers propped up in iron beds; and Two men propped up in bed, posing for the artist, depict a military tautness that in some ways belies the impressionistic softness and humanism of the view. Each similarly proportioned to slip into a bag once completed, seen from afar these representations float, up close a viscous light and bright air in a vibrant landscape simply absorb.

“The emphasis of Tardieu’s paintings is a healing environment that the nurses had created in order to help the men recuperate from the horror of the front line”

One of the marked aspects of these vignettes has been proximity and perspective. In times of urgency, the need to optimise space for occupation weights material economy and physical closeness – a situation replicated across many front line and home front hospitals. Looking closely at the rudimentary furniture, low tables and iron beds, soldiers would have been lower to the ground. With nurses stooping down to aide them, this perspective as a patient in a low tent would have gestured the eye to the horizon beyond. On the home front, the perspective would have perhaps been skyward.

Same beds: different architecture.

Speaking to the Museum Director afterwards, the paintings will go on tour to Dunrobin Castle, Scotland, probably for six months May – Oct 1915. They will then return to the museum for permanent display.