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Interview with Dr. Gill Clarke on From Fields to Factories: Women’s Work on the Home Front in the First World War

5th February, 2014 - Interview with Dr. Gill Clarke

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Gill Clarke, Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester, and who is also the guest curator for the Bishop Otter Gallery’s up-and-coming exhibition, From Fields to Factories: Women’s Work on the Home Front in the First World War. I discussed this exciting new collection of artworks in greater depth in my last blog, and will continue to document the event over the next couple of months. She was kind enough to allow me to ask some questions about the new exhibition and her thoughts on curating it. Here’s the interview…

ET: What are you hoping this exhibition will communicate to the people who will come and see it?

GC: This exhibition will hopefully demonstrate to the people who come to see it the vital importance of women’s work to the war effort. Women’s work was crucial, and it would have been very hard to have had the Victory without women. This exhibition will demonstrate how different types of women experienced the war, which differed greatly depending on factors like age, class and location – for example, munitions work was very much for the working class, whereas the Land Army attracted women from the middle classes. Women took on the jobs that were traditionally for men and were usually unavailable to women, but the war effort presented them with an opportunity to take on these jobs and demonstrate what they were capable of achieving. When more men were required for the Front in 1915, there was an urgent call to women to employment to 'do their bit' for Victory. In taking on these jobs that were traditionally “men’s work”, they were able to prove their abilities and contribute to raising levels of production both in factories and fields.
The key message that I want this exhibition to communicate is the importance of women’s work in the First World War. One of the first pieces that visitors will see as they enter the exhibition is a set of lithographs, from a series 'Britain's Efforts and Ideals' which demonstrate women’s contributions to the war effort in this period. The images in this exhibition really reflect these positive ethics through demonstrating their practical contributions – working in the munitions factories, ploughing, and cleaning train carriages – a profession not previously available to women.
Something I find particularly interesting is the propagandist element of the images in this exhibition. The Land Army posters, for example, which are images that people today automatically associate with women’s contributions to the war effort, are heavily stylised. The Land Army didn’t pay very well and was extremely demanding (and dreary) work, so the posters had to make it look glamorous.

ET: What role do you think fine art will play in the centenary, and do you think it is an important medium for a contemporary audience to understand this historical period?

GC: Fine art really plays a part in the visibility of women’s work in this period. It’s a very important medium - it gives us a vivid portrayal of events as all these pictures were produced at the time. They are therefore a direct witness to events. They also give us different views of events, both in paintings and photography. Different artists would depict different opinions on women’s contributions to the war effort. Hilda Carline, one of the artists in the exhibition, who was married to Stanley Spencer whose work is being shown at the joint exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, would give a very different depiction of war life than Randolph Schwabe, for instance. Fine art gives us this versatility of opinion and view.

ET: Do you have a particular piece of artwork that you have enjoyed working with the most, or a piece you feel is particularly important?

GC: Well, the posters are obviously very important. However, the particular picture I enjoyed working with the most is The Women’s Land Army and German Prisoners, which is the main picture used on the leaflet. I wrote a biography of Schwabe, and I interviewed his daughter when I was researching for the book. Apparently the Land Army girls were given a handbook which made recruits promise not to communicate with German Prisoners of War. Schwabe interestingly kept his German name, but his brother changed his name to Sykes due to concern about the violence demonstrated against German people at the time. Jeremy Paxman did a programme very recently which talked about how German shops were frequently looted as a result of this distrust.
Other pieces in the exhibition that are really interesting are the preliminary sketches that we have for this piece The Women’s Land Army and German Prisoners, which really show the development of this piece of artwork. One of these has never been on public display before, which is very exciting!
We’ve also got work borrowed from the Imperial War Museum, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, and the Tate Gallery.

ET:How would you describe your experiences as curator of this exhibition?

GC: I’ve really enjoyed it. This is the first exhibition I have curated at the University of Chichester, and I am also Visiting Professor here. It’s been hard work, but its great fun, and the gallery team have been a pleasure to work with.

From Fields to Factories: Women’s Work on the Home Front in the First World War starts on Friday 14th February, and runs until Saturday 10th May. Admission is free. There will be a catalogue available for this exhibition priced at £10, which will include pictures, essays and biographical notes. I’ll be volunteering at the exhibition on Tuesday mornings, so feel free to come and say hello!