Fit Bodies: Statues, Athletes and Power

Drawing over the Colour Line panel within Petrie Museum exhibition

Henry Tonks, Portrait of a Wounded Soldier before Treatment, 1917, pastel on paper, UCL Art Museum, EDC2800



Exploring Henry Tonks’ pastel of the Nigerian wounded soldier J. Williams, Gemma Romain, part of the UCL Drawing over the Colour Line research project, reflects on the experiences of colonial soldiers and on Tonks’ representation of the body in relation to ideas of race, colonialism, disability and disfigurement.



I am particularly interested in how Black people are represented within British art in the early twentieth century and my current research focuses on the inter-war period.   I am researching artwork held within the Slade School of Art collections at UCL Art Museum, exploring the work of students who drew models of African and Asian heritage. As a result of my work with the museum I came across this pastel drawn by war artist and Slade School of Fine Art lecturer Henry Tonks.  It is a portrait of the Nigerian soldier J. Williams who was injured in 1917.

During the First World War facial injuries were commonly suffered by troops, particularly injuries to the nose and jaw due to the type of head protection available to those fighting. Henry Tonks, who was a trained surgeon, worked with pioneer facial plastic surgeon Harold Gillies during and after the war by drawing surgical diagrams and also pastel artwork for the wounded soldiers’ case notes.

Henry Tonks’ drawings have been explored by art historians including Emma Chambers and Suzannah Biernoff who comment on the way in which facial disfigurement has been represented in art and the complexity of Tonks’ drawings in that they represent surgical documentation yet also are aesthetic interpretations using the fine art medium of pastels. They also importantly reflect on the public gaze and spectatorship involving war disfigurement and art, both at the time it was created and today. As Chambers has recalled, despite Tonks’ opposition to both the public gaze upon the artwork and in considering the pastel drawings as traditional artworks, he viewed the portraits and the soldiers’ disfigurement in the context of art traditions of representing classical statues –  in a letter to a friend he wrote: “I have done some … rather fine pastel fragments! One I did the other day of a young fellow with rather a classical face was exactly like a living damaged Greek head as his nose had been cut clean off just where noses of antiques generally are cut off.”

I am interested in this particular piece of artwork also for its importance in reflecting on the marginalised histories and identities of African and Asian people serving in the First World War, as well as the ways in which the African body has been exploited in the history of colonialism for doing certain types of work and labour.  J. Williams is listed in Gillies’ surgical archives as being injured on 1st September 1917 and is described as a Private in the Regiment of the Nigerian 3rds. His injuries are listed as ‘GSW Lower lip jaw chin’. In the War Office records, I have so far only found one J. Williams listed who served in Nigeria, but he served in the Royal Engineers (Inland Water Transport). As David Killingray and James Matthews have documented, Nigerians were recruited as both soldiers and as labourers such as water transporters in the Inland Water Transport, supplying the troops with goods and water in harsh conditions.

This artwork makes us think of multiple silences and experiences.  The African soldier and labourer and also the soldier facially disfigured in the war were marginalised and ignored in public displays of commemoration. In the visual display of mainstream commemoration white soldiers without facial disfigurement were generally represented within official war commemoration artwork. Despite its possibilities for exploring and bringing to the fore what was hidden from view, this portrait remains problematic.   For example,  J. Williams, and others in this series of portraits, were not necessarily posing on their own terms for a piece of artwork they wanted to create, but were taking part in a process of medical documentation.

In thinking through the notion of a ‘fit body’ in the context of this piece of art I envisage ‘fitness’ as a term which must be critiqued and historicised; this artwork reminds us that ideas of fitness are partially shaped by those in power who deem what is a fit body to be allowed within public visual culture and how fitness and the body have been constructed in relation to histories of racism, disableism, imperialism and ideas of visual beauty.

[This post originally appeared on the Petrie Museum blog here, and is a panel from their new exhibition ‘Fit Bodies: Statues, Athletes and Power’, North Cloisters, Wilkins Building, University College London, from June to September 2012].


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