With Art Fund support, IWM is working with four partners to share art from our collections and explore different perspectives on the Second World War, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Art of the Second World War: Commemorating 80 years since the Battle of Britain at The Harris, Preston, brings together rarely seen art, Preston war stories, and a new sculpture by artist Anthony Padgett. Here, Anthony shares his reflections on working on the project.
I was keen to get involved as I look at wartime culture in my work as both an artist and dance teacher. My artworks include the UKs first representational sculptures of Wilfred Owen (sited in 8 locations around the UK) and of my great great uncle Humbert Wolfe (who edited the 1939 National Service Handbook). I also teach dance at wartime themed events. In addition I had just been an extra in the BBC's WWII drama "World on Fire" filmed in 2019.
Alongside the artworks in the exhibition, the Harris appealed for local people in the Preston area to share stories of their own Second World War connections. Twelve people came forward, and working with the brilliant team of curator Lindsey McCormick and assistant curator Holly Nesbitt who recorded their stories, I took portrait photographs of them with objects they chose to illustrate their family history.
In response to the exhibition I wanted to create an original way to display the photographs. I constructed canvas prints of these into a 3 metre long spitfire in the Harris gallery. The photographic poses were made to fit parts of the plane (e.g. sitting on a chair to look like the pilot). Before installing this I had fun constructing it in my bedroom, it just about fit. At the end of the exhibition, as a gesture of thanks, the local people who told their stories were offered the canvases of my art photographs. 90% took them.
Unfortunately due to Covid-19 restrictions we were unable to welcome visitors to the exhibition in person, and so we created online videos - Battle of Britain 80th Anniversary exhibition - Harris Museum and Art Gallery 2020 - 2021 and Make a Spitfire plane with Anthony Padgett. IWM Curator Paris Agar also gave a great online presentation about the exhibition and the artworks featured.
As part of an outreach for the exhibition I had proposed running dance sessions with my dance partner Stephanie Sturges in the Flag Market outside the Harris, showing people how to dance the Lambeth Walk and the Blackpool Walk wartime dances. Due to Covid restrictions it was instead filmed by the Harris and posted online. The work included consultation and extensive research into IWM's images of dancing during the Second World War.
Working for the Harris partnership with the Imperial War Museums, hearing local people's stories and exhibiting work alongside fantastic pieces of artwork from the Imperial War Museums and Harris Museum Collections was an honour and privilege. I am delighted to have been part of a project that I feel was a great example of how a national body (IWM) can share its collection at a regional museum and art gallery (The Harris), and work with an artist to engage with local people.
The exhibition commemorated the heroism and sacrifice of men and women whose families live on throughout the country. That heroism and sacrifice was recorded in the 1940s with modern art, and in 2020 was commemorated with a piece of contemporary art that recorded some of the reactions and responses of relatives of those servicemen and women.
The experience was artistically and personally enriching. It felt like we had taken part in the wartime spirit of making the most of the Covid situation and doing our best to create a great exhibition.