POLITICS

B.C. university tries to solve mystery of WWI artist soldier with initials JM

10/01/2014 03:14 EDT | Updated 12/01/2014 05:59 EST
VANCOUVER - The University of Victoria is trying to unravel a mystery about an unknown First World War soldier whose sketches from the front lines depict the horrors of battle, cutting humour about senior officers and the suffering endured by horses.

Two volumes of images by the soldier, known only as JM, ended up at the university's library as far back as the 1960s.

They reveal he had a daughter, Adele M, whose identity is also part of the puzzle that is tied to few clues and a deep desire to know whose hands painted and drew the images of a dark and troubling time in history.

Marcus Milwright of the department of art history and visual studies saw the volumes about six months ago when he was researching a First World War art exhibit to run at the university from Nov. 7 to March 3.

So far, Milwright and his colleagues have pored through a database of British army records as they try to piece together the puzzle of the soldier whose professional-quality art was created mostly in Belgium and France in 1917 and 1918, with one image from 1920.

"We're trying to take the M and add letters on to it to see if it comes up with more results but that's going to be a long process," Milwright said Wednesday. "If we could jog somebody's memory about JM or Adele that would make things much easier."

For Milwright, the endeavour is worth the work because the images are such an extraordinary and touching record by someone living through war.

"It's not just warfare," he said. "We see all sorts of other images of people, of civilians, as well as soldiers, prisoners of war, French, German, people from Belgium as well as British. And there are some very moving images of horses as well and the suffering they went through in the war."

Among the darkness, JM found humour portrayed in his captions.

"There's an image of two soldiers marching off towards the battle field. They're saying, `Are we downhearted? No.' And there's somebody coming back, who's injured, saying 'Well, you soon will be.'"

In another image, JM dealt with the emotional distance he perceived between senior officers and soldiers suffering in battle.

It shows soldiers being bombarded in a trench phoning headquarters. The facing image depicts officers playing cards and seemingly taking the call with a lack of concern.

"JM has all the hallmarks of a professional painter or illustrator because these are works that are very accomplished in terms of their draftsmanship and painting," Milwright said.

His next step is to try and find clues to JM's identity through periodicals and other illustrated works from the war era.

Lara Wilson, director of special collections at the UVic library, said there is no information on how the two volumes, which contain more than 60 images each, were acquired.

JM may have decided to omit his full name because of his satiric commentary about war, she said. His message seemed to be: "Obviously, it's horrific. What had Europe gotten itself into?"

His dedication to Adele M, in the first volume, reads: "To my daughter Adele. These sketches are not artistic productions but nor are they to be regarded as such. If there is any interest attached to them it may be because they are not only drawn in France and Belgium but most of them in the forward areas. The gruesome incidents I have omitted as such are better executed by real artists at the real base."

A mixture of colour and black and white sketches are included in the second volume, along with one image, called Gas in the Lines, showing horses in distress.