About the Shrouds
Each of the 19,240 soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme are represented by a 12 inch figure, wrapped and bound in a hand-stitched shroud and arranged in rows on the ground. The purpose of this work is to physicalise the number – to illustrate the enormity of the horror which unfolded and the loss of life. It is easy to say the number but almost impossible now, 100 years on, to imagine the physical reality of the bodies and the impact that these deaths had on the friends and families of these individual soldiers or collectively, upon society as a whole.
Rob began the project on his own in December 2013, making 500 prototype figures to see what the visual impact of that would be and to see if he could get anyone to support his project.
Then in spring 2014 a chance meeting with Steve Knightley, lead singer of folk band Show of Hands, led directly to the creation of the ‘19240 Shrouds of the Somme’ project. Steve conceived of the idea of displaying these figures in his home city of Exeter and engaged the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, City Council and Exeter Foundation in the project.
In early December 2015 Rob began the arduous process of making the rest of the figures to reach his target of 19240 in time for the public display of the artworks on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st of July 2016.
During the creation process Rob referred to a list of names of all of the British soldiers who fell on the first day of battle sourced from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Each figure is associated with a name so that each soldier is individually acknowledged and remembered. Rob worked his way down the list, crossing off one name each time a soldier is created as he reflects on their individual experience. He created the figures unaided, cutting and hand-stitching their calico shrouds, covering and binding them in a ritual of creation, remembrance and personal introspection. As each soldier was wrapped they took on their own form, twisting and bending into their own unique shape – not only representing the dead – but death itself. The sight of the figures both individually and collectively presents a poignant and provocative experience for the viewer, providing a moment for reflection within themselves about the physical reality of the war, in approximately 1:6 scale.
Prior to this art project, Rob worked primarily in wood, creating intricate ‘Bough House‘ sculptures which his three young daughters refer to as ‘Fairy Houses’. These have been displayed in galleries throughout the UK and are robust enough to be used as toys or simply admired as incredibly intricate artworks.
Following a car accident in 2013, Rob injured his right arm so badly that he was unable to continue with such detailed, physical work. This incident was followed by a very dark period for Rob. He became concerned about how he could continue creatively as he adjusted to the continuous physical pain and limited mobility in his hand. During this bleak time, he thought of others who were worse off than himself – those returning from current conflicts without limbs or with mental or emotional trauma and he reflected on the impact of war both on individuals and humanity. As the centenary of the first World War approached, topical news programmes featured politicians and commentators squabbling over whether to celebrate or commemorate the event and Rob considered the importance of illustrating the true impact of the conflict. He devised a new outlet for his creativity which could be achieved within the abrupt limitations of his physical ability – embarking on the two year journey to create this large scale artwork.