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Booker-winning author Pat Barker to talk at new exhibition

Pat Barker is to read from her work at an exhibition focusing on wartime disfigurement

Artist Julia Midgley
Artist Julia Midgley

Durham author Pat Barker, who won the Booker Prize in 1995, will be reading from her work and talking about art and disfigurement to mark the opening of a new exhibition.

It features drawings by Julia Midgley showing medical practices in the modern military.

“I am a printmaker and artist who specialises in drawing,” she states on her website. “Reportage and documentary drawing projects occupy much of my time.

“Currently I am working on a World War One centenary project, War, Art and Surgery, which documents the preparation of military medical personnel pre-deployment and the rehabilitation of servicemen and women post-surgery.”

The artist was inspired by the work of Henry Tonks who painted portraits of First World War soldiers who had suffered terrible facial injuries.

Plane Surgery by Julia Midgley
Plane Surgery by Julia Midgley
 

Pat Barker, too, is interested in the work of Tonks.

The First World War was the backdrop to her renowned Regeneration trilogy – the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, landed her the Booker – and also of her more recent novels, Life Class, published in 2007, and Toby’s Room (2012).

In these two books Henry Tonks features as a real-life character amid the author’s fictional protagonists.

In 2012 a rare exhibition of Tonks’s before-and-after portraits was mounted at the DLI Museum & Durham Art Gallery.

It was small but unforgettable, showing the brilliant portraits but also including the stories of the men who had undergone surgery.

Tonks (1862 - 1937) was a surgeon who became an artist, teaching at the Slade School of Art in London until the First World War threw up an unusual challenge.

“I am doing a number of pastel heads of wounded soldiers who have had their faces knocked about,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.

“A very good surgeon called Gillies is undertaking what is known as the plastic surgery necessary.

Prosthetic Leg by Julia Midgley
Prosthetic Leg by Julia Midgley
 

“It is a chamber of horrors but I am quite content to draw them, as it is excellent practice.”

That was New Zealander Harold (later Sir Harold) Gillies, a pioneer of plastic surgery who set up a unit where more than 11,000 operations were performed on more than 5,000 men who had suffered facial injuries, usually from gunshot.

The Tonks portraits which featured in that Durham exhibition, About Face, are held in safekeeping by the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

They may have been done for practice but they serve as a poignant reminder of the great strides taken in surgical techniques at a time of conflict.

Julia Midgley’s drawings also take us to places the public would not usually see. They show surgery being carried out in the back of military aircraft, soldiers with prosthetic legs and medical equipment.

Inspired by the work of Tonks, Julia initially decided to make a series of drawings of facial reconstructive surgery.

But her remit quickly broadened to include the extensive medical training undertaken by members of the military before leaving for a conflict zone and also the rehabilitation which is part of the treatment for the wide variety of injuries sustained in modern combat.

Red Cross by Julia Midgley
Red Cross by Julia Midgley

The artist spent time at various military medical facilities where she watched surgeons at work and patients at different stages of their recovery.

Because of the need to work in a discreet manner and often in a confined space, notably in a Hercules aircraft as surgeons and nurses took part in medical training, a pencil proved to be the best tool for the job.

“I drew the activities observed at first hand and worked rapidly to capture events as they unfolded,” she explained.

Pat Barker will read from her work at 6pm on Thursday and be joined by consultant neurophysiologist Jonathan Cole, author of a book called The Invisible Smile: Living Without Facial Expression.

The pair will lead what is expected to be a lively discussion arising out of the pictures on display.

War, Art and Surgery, organised in partnership with the Hunterian Museum and supported by Arts Council England and the Sir James Knott Charitable Trust, runs until September 21.

To book a place at Thursday’s event at the DLI Museum and Durham Arts Gallery, Aykley Heads, which starts at 6pm, tel. 03000 266 590.

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