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The Somme 19240
The Somme 19240 was a large-scale artwork representing each of the 19,240 commonwealth soldiers who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July, 1916. Each soldier is represented by a 12 inch figure, wrapped and bound in a hand-stitched shroud and arranged in rows on the ground. The purpose of the 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 our society as a whole.
Rob began the project 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. In spring 2014 Steve Knightley, lead singer of folk band Show of Hands got behind the project and suggested displaying these figures in Exeter to commemorate the anniversary of the battle. He encouraged Rob to engage the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, City Council and Exeter Foundation in supporting the project.
The Creative Process
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, provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was the first time these names had been put together. Each figure was associated with a name so that each soldier was individually acknowledged and remembered as Rob created them:
“Whilst working on the piece it became clear that it was much more than just a figurative representation of the bodies. Crafting in my small workshop in Somerset with a list of names pinned to the wall, I worked day and night, hand stitching a calico shroud for each figure as I contemplated each name, each person – all with potential unrealised. As they were wrapped, each figure bent into a distinctive shape – some with legs folded, others outstretched – each one as unique as the individual men they represent. Working in these simple conditions of reflection and repetition the figures took on their own significance. I felt individually connected to each name on the list as I crossed them off one by one, transferring this energy to each form.”
The Shrouds were displayed in Northernhay Gardens in Exeter from 1st – 7th July 2016. To mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Somme. Collections were taken and figures were sold in support of the Exeter Foundation and SSAFA.
They were then exhibited again on College Green, outside Bristol Cathedral to mark Armistice Day and the centenary of the end of the Battle of the Somme from 11th- 18th November 2016. The figures which had already been sold were represented by wooden batons. 80,000 people visited the installation over the course of the week.
Together these exhibitions raised more than £53,000 for SSAFA, The Armed Forces Charity which supports servicemen, veterans and their families. Rob also became Vice President of Devon SSAFA.
Once the project was complete Rob was inspired to keep going and represent the 72,396 British servicemen (and South African infantrymen) whose bodies were never recovered from the Battle of the Somme in a new project entitled Shrouds of the Somme. You can read more about this on the Shrouds of the Somme page.
He is also working on a project to display the Somme 19240 figures in a different format called The Brick which will fit inside a gallery or indoor exhibition space.