War told in art and letters

The iconic painting The Communication Trench, which has been made into posters by graphic designer David Grey, of Kimmerston Design.
The iconic painting The Communication Trench, which has been made into posters by graphic designer David Grey, of Kimmerston Design.

An iconic painting – The Communication Trench – has pride of place on the cover of a new book celebrating the art and letters of Morris Meredith Williams and his wife Alice.

The painting evokes the endurance and spirit of the many millions of British ‘Tommies’ who fought and died in the trenches on the Western Front in the Great War.

A version of the painting on canvas has wide recognition in North Tyneside because it was bought in 2013 by local graphic designer David Grey, of Kimmerston Design, who has designed many posters and publications for the Tynemouth and subsequently Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project.

David kindly allowed an image of the picture to feature on the front cover of the commemorative booklet that the project distributed free to every school pupil in North Tyneside in 2014, thanks to the generous sponsorship of many local individuals and businesses.

An earlier version of the painting on hessian that had lain hidden for many decades in a store at Fettes College, Edinburgh – the premier public school in Scotland where Morris Williams taught art – has now been restored and exhibited prominently in the college. It was bought by the school and displayed in memory of a former head boy Lt. Patrick Blair, who was killed in action in 1915.

The painting is one of many that Williams made from a vast number of sketches contained in the 15 sketchbooks he filled during his service in France between 1916 -19.

Now his great niece Phyllida Shaw, in collaboration with David Grey, has painstakingly edited the previously unpublished sketches and letters that Morris Williams exchanged with his wife Alice throughout the war.

Many of the sketches were used by Alice, a sculptor in bronze, in executing several war memorials. Of particular note are the bronze friezes in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle that recognise the contribution of all Scottish and affiliated units, including the Tyneside Scottish battalions within the Northumberland Fusiliers.

The end result is a book of stunning quality, which contains almost the entire contents of the 15 sketchbooks and images of the many scenes subsequently turned into paintings by Morris Williams. In addition, it features detailed imagery showing the creation of the many sculptures that Alice created from the sketches.

To mark the publication of this exceptional work, a series of three talks has been organised by the project, at which the author Phyllida Shaw and designer David Grey will relate the bringing to public attention this trove of outstanding work, which hitherto has not been widely known.

The first talk is on June 20, at 2pm, at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre, Clifford’s Fort, and is followed by a repeat talk at 7.30pm on the same day at the Low Lights Tavern, Brewhouse Bank, Fish Quay. On Wednesday, June 21, at 1pm, the talk will be given at The Literary and Philosophical Society Library, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle, NE1 1SE.

Volunteers are welcome to join the project. To find out more contact tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into the workroom at Linskill. The project workroom (Room B9) at Linskill Community Centre, North Shields is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday.