Behind us in the harbour
the boats are featureless, buildings merged
to one flat memory. Perhaps he wanted to erase
the heat, the flies, the specificity of pain.
Creating the Centena
I first came across Sir John Lavery’s painting Nurse Billam and Sister Currier during a workshop organised by the Women’s Work Collection at the Imperial War Museum. I was immediately struck by the fact that the painter, a well-known portraitist, had not painted his subjects’ faces with any definition. Lavery had been appointed as an official artist of the First World War and had specifically been commissioned by the newly formed Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the nascent IWM to produce a number of paintings of women in various roles for half his usual fee. I wondered, rather cynically, whether this was the reason for leaving the facial features out – it was not worth his time to put the detail in. But I also wondered whether there might have been a more interesting psychological reason for this. Perhaps he was portraying his subjects as Everywoman. Or perhaps, despite naming them, he was not interested in who they were, but only what they were, what they represented. They are not individuals, but are simply defined by their profession.
In any case, I decided to explore the subjects of the painting further and focused on Sister Currier, whose service record I was able to acquire from the National Archives. Florence May Currier in fact had a perfectly unremarkable nursing record. She was born in St George’s, Wellington, Salop (now Shropshire) on May 14th 1889, was educated at the National School, St George’s and subsequently undertook nursing training at The Royal Infirmary, Oldham, for a period of three years from May 1913. She applied to join Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserves on December 23rd 1916 and gave as her unrelated female referee on her application form the vicar’s wife from back home. She was informed that she had been accepted on January 13th 1917 and began work at the General Military Hospital, Kinmel Park, on February 24th 1917. She embarked for France on September 10th 1918. She was promoted to Sister in January 1919 and is described on the letter of recommendation thus: “Her professional ability is up to the average. Administrative capacity good. Temper good. Taste and judgment good. Energetic, reliable and punctual in all her duties. I think with experience she will make a good Sister.” After discharge, quite late in her life, she married a man named Philip Heath.
And that’s all I know about her. I still don’t know what she was like, apart from her good temper or how she coped with her wartime experiences or, indeed, what she looked like.
Lives of the First World War
You can find out more about Sister Florence Currier here at Lives of the First World War
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