A ‘daring’ rediscovery

Up and down the land, museums and archives hold millions of objects in their collections. Of those objects, only a few are ever displayed. The rest lie quietly in museum boxes awaiting rediscovery.

Recently, Dr James Gerrard of Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, borrowed a box of Roman pottery from the Great North Museum. In this box were a few dozen sherds of shiny red pottery known as samian or terra sigillata (Form 36). Much to James’s surprise, one of the fragments had the name ‘AVDAX’ scratched on it.

Sherd with inscription

Sherd with inscription

‘Audax’ is a Roman personal name and Dr Roger Tomlin, a leading expert in Roman inscriptions from Oxford University’s Wolfson College, thinks that it might be the name of a Roman soldier meaning ‘bold’ or ‘daring’.  Other people called Audax are known from Roman Britain, but it’s lovely to rediscover this Roman soldier from the depths of the Museum’s collections.

 

 

 

Label attached to the pottery

Label attached to the pottery

 

We’re not entirely sure where the sherd was found. An old label with the piece of pottery hints that it might have been found at Corbridge. Certainly other finds from the Corbridge excavations made their way into the GNM’s collections, so this wouldn’t be surprising.

Paul Nash: Art of the Second World War

Battle of Britain (Art.IWM ART LD 1550) . Copyright: © IWM. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20102

‘Battle of Britain’ 1941 by Paul Nash 1889-1946 (Art.IWM ART LD 1550) Photo © IWM. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20102

This epic painting, The Battle of Britain, is one of Paul Nash’s best-known compositions. Over several months in the summer and autumn of 1940, the RAF fought the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe in the skies above the south coast of England. In Nash’s massive picture, the white contrails of the British planes describe elegant arcs against the lovely blue sky. These are flanked by trails of black smoke from downed planes. It’s only after a while that we notice the packs of approaching aircraft, tiny in the sky on the right. From a great height, we look down on barrage balloons and planes, with a mighty river far below. By suppressing detail in the landscape, Nash has given it a quality of timelessness, expressing his deep feeling for Britain’s countryside and ancient heritage. (Nash’s high viewpoint was imaginary, as his severe asthma meant that he was unable to go up in a plane.)

The Laing’s current Paul Nash exhibition, touring from Tate, is a unique opportunity to see Nash’s masterpiece in the context of paintings from the whole of his career. This is the only exhibition venue to include the picture, as it became available for loan only just before our showing of the exhibition.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash, (c) Tate

‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’ 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

The Battle of Britain is on show beside Totes Meer (Dead Sea), another large painting from the Second World War. Nash had been fascinated by aeroplanes and flight since childhood, and he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Commission to paint a series of large pictures on the theme of aerial combat. Totes Meer was inspired by the huge dump of crashed planes awaiting recycling at Cowley, near Oxford, where Nash was living at this time. A third picture from this period, The Battle of Germany, a more abstract composition, is also in the exhibition. The trio make a fascinating comparison of different strands in Nash’s artistic range.

'Flight of the Magnolia' by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

‘Flight of the Magnolia’ by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

During the war, attacks from the air became an increasing threat. Nash described how he scanned the skies for parachute raids: “I strained my eyes always to see that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers.” This idea was one element behind his picture Flight of the Magnolia, painted in 1944, in the later stages of the war. In a complex piece of imagery, Nash added features inspired by seeing a magnolia blossom and an unusual cloud during a visit to a friend. The picture was linked to Nash’s own feelings of mortality. He went on to say, “death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly”. Nash was in very poor health at the time, and he died two years later from heart failure resulting from his severe asthma.

Introductory talks are available for groups – to check availability and cost for your group, please contact info@laingartgallery.org.uk. Special rates are available for further education groups.

A previous blog looks at Paul Nash’s experiences as an Official War Artist in the First World War. A second blog, Paul Nash, a Romantic Surrealist explores the important surrealist strand of his art.

The Paul Nash Exhibition Guidebook £24.99 is available from the Laing Art Gallery shop and online.

The exhibition is organised by Tate Britain in association with the Laing Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

An 18th century Jamaican journey with the remarkable Mr Sloane – a guest blog by volunteer Angela Kirk

Hello, my name is Angela and I am studying for an MSc in Information Science at Northumbria University. I also volunteer at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library with its fabulous collection of books on natural history, local history, ancient history and so much more. It has been a great joy to have the opportunity to read some of these great and unique pieces of literature. Here I wish to share with you my experience of Hans Sloane’s ‘A History of Jamaica’ Volume I (1707) & Volume II (1725).


Hans Sloane (1660-1753) went to Jamaica in 1687-1689 as doctor to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  The Duke may have unfortunately died during Sloane’s time there but the resulting History of Jamaica is a triumph. The two volumes are majestic books filled with vibrant narrative on life in late 17th century Jamaica alongside stunning illustrations of the fauna and flora of the island.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane

Volume I gives the reader, as the title suggests, a history of Jamaica from Christopher Columbus onwards followed by a detailed description of the island as Sloane finds it.  We learn that the population of Jamaica is diverse – English, Spanish, both rich and poor, and African and Native American slaves. Sloane neither condones nor condemns the practice of slavery, detailing it as something that simply exists. This attitude extends to the detailed and distressing descriptions of the horrific punishments meted out to slaves.  To the 21st century reader this attitude can seem callous, but Sloane is only being a man of his time.

What is perceptible is Sloane’s genuine respect for different cultures. He believes the African and Native American way of life is much healthier than that of Europeans and far better suited to the Jamaican climate. Examples given are the use of hammocks for resting, night time camp fires and daily herbal baths.  He also praises the lack of avarice in these communities, feeling the English would benefit greatly from adopting this attitude.  Sloane’s interest in the culture even extends to transcribing songs into sheet music.

The rest of Volume I includes a section on local diseases and cures, not surprising, considering Sloane’s medical background. A segment on local recipes describes the modern day Jamaican favourite Jerk Chicken. In Sloane’s time, we learn, this was prepared to take on hunting expeditions.  The final, and largest, part of the book is devoted to descriptions and illustrations of Jamaican plants and mammals in fantastic detail. The pictures are beautiful.

Cacao plant

Cacao plant

Volume II arrives 18 years after Volume I. The introduction is an entertaining read seeing Sloane tackle his literary critics. He dismisses complaints about mistakes in Volume I saying it was the effect of the climate. With regard to the length of time that elapsed between the volumes, Sloane declares that he has been far too busy practicing medicine and dealing with his affairs.  In response to the notion that he was critical of Jamaica, Sloane firmly declares that in Jamaica he is very much ‘at home’.

In term of content, the second volume concentrates on geology, insects, fish, birds and trees. Convivially written, there is much to learn. The Coconut Tree has a ‘good and wholesome nut’ sustaining a great many Jamaicans. Sloane unwittingly advocates the vegan diet, believing coconut milk is as good as ‘ordinary milk’ and a key ingredient for a marvellous cheesecake.

Chocolate drink label

Chocolate drink label

Sloane is credited with inventing hot chocolate.  He is certainly fond of the chocolate drink he encounters in Jamaica though it takes him a year to be able to stomach it. We learn how chocolate is used among the different communities on the island.  Africans use chocolate to wean their babies. The Native Americans prefer their chocolate with pepper. The Spanish meanwhile add chilli and have become addicts consuming between five to six cups a day.  Sloane warns us that ‘those accustomed to it (chocolate) cannot be without it’.

The book concludes with an amusing description of Sloane’s voyage home to England and his attempt to bring back specimens from Jamaica. Things do not go to plan. His crocodile dies while his pet snake is shot dead in a panic by one of the crew. Sloane however did manage to arrive home with his non-living artefacts and as a result we have the British Museum after he bequeathed his collection to the nation on his death.

Hans Sloane snake

A History of Jamaica gives the reader an entertaining insight into a very different world. Sloane must have put a great deal of time, love and effort into creating these works. Delving into these massive volumes does not disappoint and it feels a great privilege.


The Great North Museum Hancock Library can be found on the second floor of the Great North Museum.  It is home to the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Newcastle University’s Cowen Library. For more information please visit https://greatnorthmuseum.org.uk/collections/library-and-archives

Women in pictures – Part IV: The Second World War by Janette Bell

Welcome to the final part of my blog in which I’ve been celebrating North East women by sharing some photos from TWAM’s collection.  To end with, I’ve chosen some images from the Second World War, showing a few of the experiences women had during this dramatic period.

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In the summer of 1939, conflict became increasingly inevitable.  For many families, one of the earliest impacts was a painful farewell as children were evacuated.  The authorities feared that war would lead to immediate bombing raids, and so on 1 September, two days before war was declared, the first planned evacuation of children began in the largest movement of people ever seen in Britain.  Clutching their small possessions, children were marshalled onto trains to unknown destinations and uncertain futures.  When the first months of war remained quiet on the home front many were brought back home, but further evacuation drives would take place in the summer and autumn of 1940, following the German invasion of France in May-June and the beginning of the Blitz in September.

Female evacuees snapped at Barrington Street, South Shields by a Northern Press photographer

Female evacuees snapped at Barrington Street, South Shields by a Northern Press photographer

As in the First World War, women’s labour was going to be essential to the national effort.  In the Great War, uniformed services for women had remained voluntary.  This time, it soon became obvious that volunteers alone would not be sufficient to meet the country’s needs and in December 1941 women found themselves subject to conscription for the first time.  This affected childless widows and single women, at first aged 20 to 30, but later extended to 19 to 43.  They were offered a choice of the armed forces, industry or Land Army.

Most women opting for the forces went into the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), the largest women’s force.  This meant taking on a non-fighting role in a military unit. Women in the ATS might carry out administrative work, thus releasing men to fight, or they might operate anti-aircraft guns, be a driver or mechanic, or work in an early RADAR station.

ATS girls preparing to work with AA Guns, 1941 [LD & NH Regimental History collection]

ATS girls preparing to work with AA Guns, 1941 [LD & NH Regimental History collection]

Life in the ATS was an experience they would never forget, and often forged lifelong friendships.  Rita Holmes, a Fencehouses girl conscripted into the ATS in 1942, described her experiences to TWAM in 2009 – being posted to different bases around the country, learning to march, PE before breakfast and terrible food, dances where girls were very much in demand as there were always more men on base than women, and being constantly in uniform, even off duty.  “It was a bit of a shock”, Rita recalls, “but looking back it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed”.

"Sergeant Sally", Quin's bedding factory, January 1945

“Sergeant Sally”, Quin’s bedding factory, January 1945

If you opted to work in industry, you could find yourself working in a factory that had been turned over to war work.  The photo left shows a young woman in military gear making a spring at Quin’s factory, Benfield Road, Newcastle.  Quin’s was a bedding factory taken over by the Ministry of Supply to make springs for guns and tanks instead of for mattresses.

 

 

 

Women shipyard workers pictured at a wartime launch

Women shipyard workers pictured at a wartime launch

Married women with families were not conscripted, but all women between 18 and 60 had to register for war work.  They might work in industry at a site close to home, or they might opt for civil defence.  The ARP and Fire Services recruited both male and female volunteers, while the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence carried out welfare tasks such as running rest centres and mobile canteen services, providing temporary accommodation for bombed out families, doing salvage work and encouraging efforts to save and re-use resources.

Newcastle Civil Defence volunteers preparing a meal in a camp kitchen

Newcastle Civil Defence volunteers preparing a meal in a camp kitchen

 

WRVS volunteers, South Shields 1945

WRVS volunteers, South Shields 1945

Everything was in short supply, including material for clothes.  Fashion reflected this, with short, straight skirts for women and single-breasted suits and no turn-ups for men. Women doing practical jobs often wore trousers.  It was a point of honour for women to look their best despite the difficulties and bright red lipstick, well styled hair and legs coloured with gravy browning (to mimic scarce tights) were the order of the day.  In the last months of the war a large ‘Victory Roll’ curl at the front of the hair became the style of the moment.

Vogue knitting pattern book, 1945

Vogue knitting pattern book, 1945

Everyone was knitting, either for the services or for themselves – wool was also rationed, so often women recycled the yarn from an old garment to make something new.   This Vogue knitting pattern book from 1945 shows the straight skirts and military-style shoulders popular at the time and promises “over 40 coupon-value designs” inside.

 

 

 

 

Photographer Amy Flagg of Westhoe Village

Photographer Amy Flagg of Westhoe Village

 

North East towns suffered considerably from air raids because of their vital industrial sites, and many families suffered through loss of life, injury, or loss of home.  An account of how one town suffered was created by photographer Amy Flagg (1893-1965), a local woman from Westoe Village.  Throughout the war, Flagg recorded local bomb damage and its aftermath in South Shields in a series of three booklets titled “Humanity and Courage, a Pictorial Record of Air Raid Damage in the County Borough of South Shields”.        

Finally in 1945 came peace.  As after the Great War, out came the bunting and the festivities began.  It would be a long time before life was truly back to normal (rationing, for instance, did not end completely until 1954), but after years of war things could begin to settle down once more.  Better things were on the horizon – 1948 would see the introduction of the National Health Service, and the 1950s and 1960s would bring new opportunities and freedoms.

I’m going to end on a photo from just after the war, perhaps heralding the shape of things to come.  Wright & Weire was a radio components firm which moved to South Shields in 1945.  This shot of the factory floor in 1947 is an early illustration of how many women would come to earn their living in the second half of the 20th century.  But that would be another story!

Factory floor, Wright & Weire, South Shields 1947

Factory floor, Wright & Weire, South Shields 1947

If you’d like to see more photos from our collection, many can be viewed online using TWAM’s collections search engine.  To find more pictures of people, try typing ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ into the Theme box and see what comes up!

 

 

Women in Pictures – Part III: Between the wars by Janette Bell

For some time now I’ve been a volunteer in TWAM’s Documentation Team at Discovery.  I’ve been working with the TWAM online photo collection, and along the way I’ve found some great images of women I wanted to share.  Earlier this year I posted blogs featuring women before and during the Great War.  This time, I’d like to explore the period between the wars and next week I’ll be posting some photos taken during the Second World War.

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Gloucester Road Victory Tea, 4 August 1919

Gloucester Road Victory Tea, 4 August 1919

Peace at last!  After years of terrible, attritional war and the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men, the Great War was over.  Out came the bunting, and up and down the country neighbours celebrated with Victory parties.  Women created food and fancy dress costumes out of whatever they could find, and looked forward to a return to normal life.

Women’s Suffrage organisations had been extremely active between 1900 and 1914, but during the war most of these groups had suspended their activity and supported the national effort.  Now they were able to take up their arguments again.  This, along with the visible contribution of women’s war work, helped to influence two important pieces of legislation in 1918.

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson

Firstly, women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification gained the vote (it wasn’t until 1928 that all women over 21 would be able to vote).  Secondly, women also gained the right to be elected into Parliament for the first time.  This led to the north east seeing its first female MP step onto the stage: the Right Hon Ellen Wilkinson, who took Middlesbrough East for Labour in 1924.  A few years later she would become MP for Jarrow.  Remember that name, we’ll be coming back to her later.

 

 

 

 

For many ordinary women, war had brought great change – the Parliament website reports that in 1914, 24% of employed people were women but by 1918 this had risen to 37 per cent.  Many had worked in environments they would never have dreamed of.  This didn’t lead to an immediate overhaul of the workplace – the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act 1919 meant that most women workers in engineering firms had to give up their jobs again, for instance.  But a wider range of occupations started to become available to women.

Employees at the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s printing works in Pelaw. Circa 1920s.

Employees at the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s printing works in Pelaw. Circa 1920s.

Image 4 jpeg - TWCMS_1997_240

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women’s dress reflected greater confidence and also the lighter mood in the country.  Corsets went out, giving a more comfortable and relaxed look.  Shorter skirts and dropped waists came into fashion and beading became popular on evening dresses.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of a new entertainment medium – radio.  Public broadcasting began in 1922, and in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s radio ownership boomed.  People could now listen to live plays, music and comedy in their own homes.  Cinema was also on the up.  Purpose built ‘picture houses’ had begun to appear in 1910 and by 1914 most towns had one, but after the First World War a new wave of bigger and more luxurious cinemas started to appear, where for a few pennies people could escape for an afternoon or evening to a more glamorous world.  And of course there was still time to enjoy more traditional pastimes, such as a walk in the park or a day at the seaside.

Nunsmoor Park, Gateshead, c. 1920-1930

Nunsmoor Park, Newcastle, c. 1920-1930

A day at the beach, c. 1920-1930

A day at the beach, c. 1920-1930

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But for most people in our area, life between the wars was still not easy.  The Twenties had begun with a short post-war boom, but soon the economy was struggling and the decade drew to a close in bleak uncertainty following the 1929 Wall Street Crash.  The 1930s brought deep economic depression, with the industrial north one of the worst hit regions, suffering c. 70% unemployment.   Jarrow was hit particularly hard with local industry suffering blow after blow and by 1936 most of the town’s men were unemployed.  The community was campaigning for a new steelworks to create jobs, and Ellen Wilkinson (remember her?) was at the heart of this campaign.

Nicknamed ‘Red Ellen’ for both her red hair and her politics, Ellen Cicely Wilkinson (1891 – 1947) came to the North East as M.P. for Middlesbrough East in 1924, then in 1935 became M.P. for Jarrow.  In October 1936 she was a crucial figure in organising the Jarrow Crusade, a ‘hunger march’ of 200 local men who walked 300 miles from Jarrow to London to present a petition for assistance to Parliament.

Wilkinson in action at a rally

Wilkinson in action at a rally

The Jarrow Crusade was not the first, or even the largest, hunger march of the era, but was distinguished by its respectability and cross party appeal and gathered wide sympathy en route.  Although no immediate improvements were brought about by the Crusade, it became an enduring symbol of working class dignity and suffering.  Wilkinson’s book ‘The Town That Was Murdered’ (1939) is her account of the event.

In the late 1930s, continuing social hardship across Europe created an opening for far right organisations to take hold and prosper, a development that would eventually lead to the Second World War.  Next week, in the final part of this blog, I’ll be delving into some of TWAM’s photos showing women’s experiences during the 1939-45 war.

If you’d like to see more photos from our collection, many can be viewed online using TWAM’s collections search engine.  To find more pictures of people, try typing ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ into the Theme box and see what comes up!