Waiting in Watson’s Portrait Studio, Leeds
I wait, alone.
The lilies in my hand tremble, but the studio is still.
I’ve hidden your letter in my shoe, for luck.The one with your sketch of the dress I now wear. Forty-eight hours’ leave was long enough to make me Mrs Ellis.
Creating the Centena
I knew some details of my great-grandmother’s life from my family. Gertrude Evelyn Ellis née Salter – known to everyone as Evelyn – was an artist and met her husband, Frederick Ellis while studying at Art College. But I didn’t know how artists who joined the forces in the First World War used art to communicate their experience while they served.
As part of my research I was led to UCL Art Museum and discovered an archive of a 2014 UCL Museum Studies exhibition called Voices of War: UCL in World War 1. Here, I learned that many artists who joined the army to fight during the First World War wrote letters, poetry and made art in the trenches, which was sent home. I was fascinated by trench art, where artists used objects they found around them to make beautiful things.
Art was an antidote to the reality of war and a way to express emotions and hope. It certainly was the case with my great-grandparents, separated by the First World War. My great-grandfather Fred designed artwork for textile panels that he sent home in his letters to Evelyn from his posting in France.
Evelyn then painted Fred’s designs onto fabric and these panels formed part of her wedding dress. For my great-grandparents, art was a connection that transcended the business of war and their shared love of artists in the British Arts and Craft movement, such as William Morris, was a touch-point for them.
In my centena, I wanted to capture the moment where Evelyn is waiting to pose for her wedding photograph, alone. Here she stands with all her hopes and fears for her new marriage, knowing her husband is already on his way back to fight in France. Fred was granted forty-eight hours’ leave to return to England to marry Evelyn, which was enough time for a small family celebration and their wedding night, but not for the wedding portrait which was taken in a photographic studio afterwards, following the custom of the time.
It struck me how strange it would be to represent the start of a marriage with only one half of the couple present and how Evelyn’s position mirrored that of so many new brides left at home while their husbands fought abroad. The strength of heart it required to carry the hopes and dreams for both of them must have been considerable. I hope that my centena pays tribute to the countless brave women who faced war alone, maintaining home life for the husbands they prayed would return.
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