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An Artist’s War

Phyllida Shaw
Morris and Alice Meredith Williams were a very prolific husband and wife team producing poetry, paintings and line drawings as well as sculptures. Many war memorials round the UK were designed, built by or influenced by this extremely busy pair.

Morris Williams taught drawing at Fettes College in Edinburgh prior to the First World War and he and his wife Alice were settled in Edinburgh. When war broke out Williams wrote to the Welsh Army Corps enquiring about obtaining a commission. There were a couple of factors working against Williams in that we was nearly 34 years of age and did not meet the height requirements of five foot three inches! Undeterred he persisted and finally was commissioned into the Royal Welch Regiment in 1915. Williams then went through the war variously with the 17th Bn Welsh Regiment and because of his drawing skills, attached to the Royal Engineers until his Battalion had suffered so many casualties that it was disbanded and he was permanently moved to the RE and ended the war with a camouflage unit at Wimereux, Belgium. Throughout the war Williams kept his drawing book and pencils close to hand and many of the illustrations in this book are ones that he made at the time. Alice moved to Oxfordshire when war broke out to be near to her father in law and found work on farms. In 1917 Alice was asked to design a memorial window by the officers of Morris’s Battalion in memory of Lt Col Wilkie – with the subsequent disbanding of the Regiment the window was then dedicated to all the 258 officers and men of the Battalion who had died. This was the first of many such commissions for both of them.

The book is then broken down into six Chapters. The first dealing with “First Impressions” and many sketches Morris made of his fellow officers and men, in camp, training, trenches – just about any activity that they did; a recording of their daily lives. These are accompanied by the letters he sent home to Alice. Being an officer meant he was not subject to such stringent censorship has the men. The mixture of letters telling his wife what life was like along with the sketches is very emotive stuff and really interesting reading. Williams is not shy and some of his drawings depict dead soldiers such as “A body in front of the wire”. The next Chapter is entitled “Day to Day” which shows more of the daily trudge of life in an infantry battalion. The Ration Party is a good illustration showing a squad of men burdened by sacks and tins but wearing their webbing and carrying weapons. The final painting is shown along with several of the sketches he made to plan the end product. Day to day becomes darker and more sombre as it goes on showing life ion the trenches but importantly death. There are several pictures of dead soldiers, some half buried by shells, one lying beside his dead horse.

Moving on the next chapter is “A Change of Scene” as Williams moves away from his Battalion into what are more staff jobs then an attachment as Intelligence Officer to an Artillery Battery. His battalion by now had suffered so many losses that he was requested back, but Williams, having seen enough by now saw his doctor who downgraded him due to his poor eyesight. This is well into 1917 and he is thoroughly sick of the war, and I don’t blame him! Through all this he continued with his sketches and painting and was commissioned to do several paintings for Messes in his and other Units. Many of his sketches are very detailed, showing the equipment that the Tommy had to wear and carry, including respirators. The end of the war came, but strangely this is not marked as such by Williams. He has a letter of 8th November saying they are all just waiting for the news from the delegations and the next is on 14th November saying hos strange it all is. While that was the end of his war he did not get home straight away.

The next chapter is “For the Record”. Williams, along with some other artists, were asked to stay behind to visit and paint the battlefields and he asked to go to the Loos area. They were tasked with coming up with one official major work while any others would be for him. These sketches and paintings show the battlefields before they had been tidied up. Ruined buildings run down trenches, some dead animals still on the battlefield. Williams points out that he got a completely different viewpoint of the battlefields, ones that he had previously seen mainly from a trench with the eyes level with the ground! As he puts it “Everything looks different in quite a startling way”. Many of the characters used in memorials and statues came from drawings made by Williams at this time.

The war over and Williams returns to civilian life. He got his position back at Fettes College in Edinburgh and settled back into a normal routine. Alice of course joins him and they start to receive commissions for work, very often for memorials. These could range from Statues, to friezes, to stained glass windows. Alice had been commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to make some painted plaster models of scenes around Britain showing munitions workers, farm workers a tea stall at Victoria railway station manned by WVS ladies. She also did what modellers still call dioramas or Dr Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh doctor who went to Serbia to set up hospitals and Captain Flora Sands who volunteered for the Serbian Ambulance Unit then joined the Serbian Army.

The pair cooperated on many war memorials and I am just going to deal with three of them. Firstly the Paisley War Memorial which is a magnificent Statue of a Crusader mounted, in armour, with four WW1 infantrymen at each corner. See photographs’ in the images section.

The next is the Shrine window at St John's Kirk, Perth which illustrates the text “And there was war in heaven”. It depicts the ultimate victory of Good over Evil as the Archangel Gabriel and his warrior angels destroy the dragon whose attributes are cruelty and greed.

The next and to my mind the most memorable is the frieze in the Shrine at the Scottish National War Memorial on the walls surrounding the casket. This is a magnificent work depicting servicemen from Scotland going off to war. Again see the pictures attached to this review. If you are ever in Edinburgh you can ask to go to the Scottish national War Memorial and get in to the Castle for free – you must only visit that area though and best arranged beforehand with Historic Scotland. A brilliant set of friezes designed by Alice from sketches made by Williams, a great collaboration.

Well, this has been quite a long review for a really superb book. This is art done by someone who was there and the vitality and authenticity shows through. A really good book, very informative and wonderfully displayed and laid out. The book was designed by David Grey, foreword by the renowned historian Hew Strachan, and wonderfully put together by the editor/author Phyllida Shaw. Very well worth having on you shelf if you enjoy war artists.

5/5 Mr Mushroomheads from me for this wonderful book that I am so please to have received for review.

Before we go though, just to mention that the Williams's did not just end up doing war related stuff. Morris returned to teaching and they both went on to carry out many commissions which kept them busy. The book ends with some pieces from their pre-war days and some post war.

Click on this link which takes you to Amazon where you can see many of the sketches in the book by clicking on the book icon.
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