Catalogue: War, Art and Surgery: The Work of Henry Tonks & Julia Midgley

Sam Alberti, Issue 115/01, 02.01.2015
Sam Alberti hopes that this catalogue shows the quiet heroism of the service people facing long roads to recovery
Edited by Sam Alberti, Royal College of Surgeons of England, £30, ISBN 978-1904096238

In 1916, the surgeon Harold Gillies asked artist Henry Tonks to draw diagrams of complex procedures required to rebuild the faces of soldiers wounded in the trenches. Tonks had trained as a surgeon but left medicine to teach at the Slade School of Art.

After volunteering in 1914, he was sent to Aldershot, where Gillies had set up a pioneering plastic-surgery unit. As well as the diagrams, Tonks began a series of portraits in pastel of British and Dominion personnel before and after their operations, first at Aldershot and later at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup.

Then and now

Of the portraits that survive, 69 reside at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) and three at the UCL Art Museum. Knowing how popular they have been in loans and publications, we knew we wanted to display them together for the first time to commemorate the first world war in its centenary year.

The RCS’s brief was to explore the role of surgery in society. Reportage artist Julia Midgley was therefore pushing at an open door when she approached us with the gem of an idea that would  “doff its cap to Tonks”.

With support from Arts Council England and other funders, she set out to sketch the rehabilitation and reconstruction of recently wounded service personnel.

The Ministry of Defence and the Army Medical Services were supportive. Soon after beginning the work at military medical sites including the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, Midgley shifted her original focus from facial injuries to limb loss, which is more characteristic of the injuries sustained from improvised explosive devices in modern conflict.

She drew surgeons in training at the RCS and elsewhere as well as the patients, nurses and physiotherapists.

The complementary bodies of work by Tonks and Midgley form the core of the exhibition at the RCS’s Hunterian Museum.

As ever, only a fraction of the information relating to the work can be seen in the exhibition and we had the opportunity to reflect in more detail in the catalogue. Art historians Suzannah Biernoff and Emma Chambers contributed eloquent commentaries, as did military clinicians Peter Buxton and Clare Walton.

We then set about gathering as much information as we could about those represented. So abundant were details on some patients from the Sidcup case files that we included five foldout pages in the volume.

Art and military medicine

The end product is an exploration of the artistic representation of military medicine during the first world war and today. What we also hope is evident is the quiet heroism of the servicemen and women facing long and difficult roads to recovery.

Sam Alberti is the director of museums and archives at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh.

War, Art and Surgery is at the Hunterian Museum, London, until 14 February