A textile narrative of John Edgar Bell, conscientious objector
“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
(Enscription by Henderson of York and Smith of Leicester, conscientious objectors, Richmond Castle cell, 24th June 1916).
The images in this exhibition are part of a research project exploring the influence of content, cloth and context on viewer perceptions of textiles. The textiles were developed to create a visual narrative about the experiences of John Edgar Bell, a Quaker and conscientious objector in WW1. The textile panels are based on the family at the start of the war, the imprisonment of the objector, and the hostility towards the objector’s family that continued into WW2 and beyond. The panels were located in galleries, museums, churches and corporate spaces to collate viewer responses to the work in different contexts. The images in this exhibition show inscriptions and drawings from conscientious objectors’ cells at Richmond Castle, visual work undertaken to construct the image-based narrative, and details from the textile installations.
This work relates to my current research that positions textiles within a communication paradigm. The research considers the practitioner’s role as encoder of cultural meaning through the visual image in textiles. A critical framework based in semiotics and communication theory was adopted as a generative and analytical tool in the research to explore the visual communication process. Visual paradigms were developed from which to select imagery based on specific semiotic criteria, forming visual syntagms of combined imagery on cloth to create meaning, then finally testing audience perceptions of the work and how this correlated with authorial intention.
Further details can be found in The Journal of Visual Arts Practice, 12: 2, pp.195 – 221, doi: 10.1386/jvap.12.2.195_1
The Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) license applies to the images in this exhibition.
The photographs of conscientious objectors’ cells at Richmond castle were taken with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Narration through cloth was the primary focus of the research, a reflection on family history, religious motivation and social exclusion. The recollections of John Edgar Bell’s daughter formed the first facet of background research, with a limited number of family photographs to inform the visual narrative. This was supplemented by investigation into the experiences of conscientious objectors and their families in WW1, later contacting English Heritage to arrange access to photograph the cells at Richmond Castle.
Richmond cell walls: drawings
about Richmond cell walls: drawings
The Richmond visit provided insight into the conditions of imprisonment for conscientious objectors in WW1 and WW2. Covered with drawings of family, supportive phrases and religious texts and symbols, the cell walls are testimony to the faith of the imprisoned men. Further research provided information on the experiences of individual prisoners, with drawings such as ‘N.Gaudies mother’ cross-referenced to Norman Gaudie, writer of ‘The Courage That Brings Peace’ (1922) (www.coproject.org.uk).
Richmond cell walls: writing
about Richmond cell walls: writing
It was not known where John Edgar Bell was imprisoned, but his health deteriorated and he agreed to non-combatant service in 1918. His family moved home from Denholme to Saltaire (West Yorkshire) due to abuse from the community, but this continued when his war status became known. Although he was a skilled engineer he could only get employment as a lamp lighter after the war, as no one wanted to work with a ‘conchie’.
Sketch book page and family photographs
about Sketch book page and family photographs
Family and war photographs formed the first components for visual experimentation to convey John Edgar Bell’s story. Tentative narrative relationships between photographic images and other visual signifiers such as colour and mark were explored, creating micro visual syntagms and analysing the potential meanings they might convey. Within the research two textile triptychs were developed, with responses to the first triptych informing the image content in the second set of panels.
Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (I)’
about Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (I)’
After several stages working digitally and on paper, the work progressed to textile experiments incorporating digital printing, stitch, heat transfer printing, screen printing and hand painting with reactive dyes. Specific images were incorporated alongside portrait photographs to communicate the objector’s story. The first triptych particularly featured crossed out medals to connote lack of bravery, stamps to denote the period (and suggest ‘for king and country’) and white feathers as symbols of cowardice.
Developing the second triptych backgrounds
about Developing the second triptych backgrounds
The panel backgrounds were formed from the detritus of past collecting; stained lining paper edges from old picture frames, sections of discarded fabrics, and torn fragments of aged house paint and wallpapers. The collage process enabled ‘hands on’ working with these materials, exploring spatial relationships and defining the panel dimensions. The compositions were photographed and disassembled, with individual components scanned and the backgrounds reconstructed digitally. This process echoed the early stages of the practice, where hand-generated experiments created components for later digital development.
Digital development: Richmond lock image
about Digital development: Richmond lock image
Specific imagery had to be incorporated to build a framework of visual encoding within the textiles to test at different sites. This involved considering the communicative function of individual signifiers (images, textures and colours), the readings generated when several signifiers were brought together, and the overall meaning created when groups of signifiers were combined within a composition. The lock was incorporated to connote imprisonment and a key added in later visual experiments to reinforce this reading but also suggest potential for release.
Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (II)’
about Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (II)’
Responses to the first triptych revealed that further textile qualities were needed to contrast with the two-dimensional printed cloth, so flocking and greater use of stitch and applique were trialled to give additional surface textures. Viewers’ predominantly associated the small white crosses in the first triptych with graves; so larger decorative examples were incorporated in the second triptych to connote Christianity. Redundant signifiers such as WW1 bombs and warships were also trialled.
Image of Harriet Bell (wife) with barbed wire
about Image of Harriet Bell (wife) with barbed wire
Commutation tests (Barthes, 1967) were an integral part of the design process, identifying the characteristics and differences of individual signifiers within a paradigm or syntagym and defining their significance. Applying this within the textile practice involved changing a visual signifier (e.g. image or colour) and examining if this altered the meaning of the elements it was grouped with. Existing signifiers were also rearranged into new configurations to determine if different meanings were created.
Digital development: envelope
about Digital development: envelope
Key issues in the practice were generating intertextuality between the panels to generate a holistic sense of meaning from the work, and developing intratextuality between signifiers within each panel to generate specific meanings to inform the narrative sequence. Some elements were included to communicate redundantly, such as crossed out British flags (to signify lack of patriotism), with an expectation of shared interpretations from viewers. Others, such as the envelope, were more entropic, to generate subliminal responses and associations.
‘The Ties That Bind (II)’
about ‘The Ties That Bind (II)’
Although communication intentions for the panels were specific, each image and composition was open to multiple interpretations. Readings of the textiles were inevitably informed by viewers’ personal and cultural experiences, their own memories, histories, and wider social and historical knowledge. Evidence of contextual influence on interpretations of the work also emerged at some sites, with viewers associating the images with local or regional history.
Panel one detail
about Panel one detail
140 people were surveyed about their interpretations of ‘The Ties That Bind (II)’. Shared interpretations of the triptych included war/wartime (114 responses), imprisonment (109), suffering (99) and family relationships - some in relation to war (98). 21 viewers clearly interpreted pacifist meanings from the triptych that correlated with the practitioner’s communication intention. The ship predominantly signified war to viewers, but this image was also interpreted as migration. The hands predominantly signified hope and prayer.
Panel three detail
about Panel three detail
Conscientious objectors and their families received white feathers as a symbol of cowardice, so these were included in both triptychs. One viewer particularly interpreted the family photo and feather as “carrying disgrace of white feather, suffering through loss and convictions of others, betrayal of country and church to support them”. Most viewers interpreted the feather as cowardice but there was some aberrant decoding, including “for pigeon carriers at the front line”, “elements of nature”, “symbol of peace and love” and “writing implement”.
Panel two detail
about Panel two detail
Photographs of people across the panels generated readings related to family and the impact of war, particularly loss, suffering, love, absence and separation, such as “the fragility of an individual family in a wartime situation”. The photographs led some viewers to reflect on personal experiences and family histories, one viewer responding that the woman and barbed wire reminded them of “someone I knew who was in some kind of internment camp as a child in World War Two”.
about (No caption)
International Conscientious Objectors Day is marked around the world each year on May 15th. In July 2011 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ‘states must respect the right to conscientious objection as part of their obligation to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion', bringing European law in line with international human rights standards