I get particularly excited when artists interpret history, going beyong literal documents to conveying the deeper meanings of the past. So it's very exciting that Bev Tosh has created an exhibition on war brides.
It's currently on at Otago Settler's museum, New Zealand, until August 31 2010. See an image from the exhibition (left). Right: Bev Tosh with the late war bride and writer Eswyn Lyster.
Never before 1945 had such huge numbers of women sailed on ships: bare, war-damaged troop transport ships at that; young women accompanied by babies and toddlers at that.
War brides, especially the 1945-46 tranche involves in 'Operation Diaper', are a key unacknowledged category in Britain's maritime history. Their stories are on warbride websites, alright. But they are not embedded in the wider histories of the sea, and of merchant shipping's many diverse passengers, as they should be.
This exhibition helps augment that history. Alas! I can't fly there immediately to enjoy it, especially the 'tear bottles.' But here's what James Dignan in the Otago Daily Times says about it (20.5.2010):
'In a multimedia display, photographs of war brides have been treated in numerous ways. The exhibition is bookended by two series of photographs projected on to white parachutes. These symbolise the leap into the unknown taken by the women and simultaneously reflect in their form the shapes of wedding dresses.
Between these stands a row of wooden panels, each painted with an image from a bridal photograph. These panels, which carefully use the grain of the rough timber to enhance the images, stand shoulder to shoulder, a rank of women to match the military ranks of the men.
The often fragmentary paintings speak of intrepid hope, and the images form a fine centrepiece to the exhibition.Other works displayed include a series of "tear bottles" containing individual portraits encased in vials of sea water, representing both the long journey of the women to their new homes and their shed tears. '
- And...you can see the artist and more pictures of the exhibition when it was in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2009. Go to http://members.shaw.ca/francislyster/warbride/rbcm/
In the chapter on warbrides I am just writing, for my forthcoming book (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press) I write that:'At least 180,000 British war brides sailed to start new lives.Very many were going to the US... The ships they sailed on were not only troop carriers but also some of Britain's iconic liners such as Cunard's Queen Mary, albiet still stripped of their peacetime glamour. The Queen Mary made 13 trips carrying over 12,000 war brides and their children.
Other ships were not fit for purpose - and the migrating women were often too upset and seasick to be presentable as heroines . One Welsh war bride said that by March 1946 photographers were officially banned from bride ships because earlier paparazzi had photographed the women in pretty awful conditions.'
So the lack of evidence about the truth of women's voyages makes exhibitions like this one at Otago all the valuable.