Lawrence Of Arabia - Life & Legend At The Imperial War Museum

By Richard Moss | 17 November 2005
shows a pencil head and shoulder drawing of a man wearing an Arab headdress

TE Lawrence,1919 Augustus John. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Richard Moss ventured to the top floor of the Imperial War Museum in London to take in an exhibition about Lawrence of Arabia, which runs until April 17 2006.

It’s 70 years since the man we now know as Lawrence of Arabia died in a motorcycling accident. Since then, the reputation of T E Lawrence has been picked over, rubbished and rehabilitated several times, whilst current events in the Middle East have even conspired to bring him and his ideas back into the public consciousness.

The recent discovery of his proposed peace map for the Arabs, drawn up in 1919, together with his writings on how to fight and work with them, have offered a timely insight into the events unfolding in Iraq nearly 90 years later.

For most of us Lawrence remains the celluloid image created by David Lean and Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, whilst the real man remains hidden in the various stages of a remarkable life. He was after all, an academic; archaeologist; guerrilla fighter; diplomat; peacekeeper; ordinary mechanic in the RAF and an extraordinary writer.

shows a colour tinted photograph of two men in Arab headress kneeling outside a tent

TE Lawrence and Lowell Thomas, tinted photograph. © Imperial War Museum, London

It is this complex web of a life that the new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum grapples with. By taking a patient and largely chronological approach it succeeds in revealing the man behind the myth and his remarkable life.

In terms of objects the exhibition boasts an incredible haul. Everything of relevance seems to be here; his drawings and letters, his camera, his Lee Enfield rifle (with kill notches near the magazine), iconic robes, headdresses, diaries, photographs, manuscripts, political maps and even the motorcycle on which he died. But it's the meticulous way this potentially overwhwelming cache of Lawrence memorabilia has been curated that allows the real man to emerge.

After a video entrée from BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson, the exhibition begins with a marble, funerary effigy of Lawrence in robes. It’s a grand beginning, gently countered by the realisation that Lawrence of Arabia was rather short. He was about one and a half metres (five and a half feet) tall - and very self-conscious about it. This percieved lack of height was just one of the ‘stigmas’ he laboured with throughout his life.

A highlighted quote - one of a selction that run the whole gamut of Lawrence appraisals - strikes another note of caution: “An odd gnome, half cad, with a touch of genius,” noted Hon. Aubrey Herbert in a private diary entry of 1914.

shows a photograph of Arab robes with inlaid brown and gold silk

Lawrence's Arab robe in striped cream and brown silk. © Bath and North East Somerset Council Museum of Costume.

Not surprising then to discover that Lawrence was plagued by insecurities. He was also an illegitimate, albeit privileged, child - as evidenced by the family photos. On display is a blond lock of hair, his little velvet suit and other, photographic, evidence of a cosseted childhood.

It seems the young Lawrence became an inquisitive learner and later, a voracious collector. In his teens he made a tour of East Anglia to make brass rubbings. He was a dab hand at it too, judging by the large brass rubbing the IWM has acquired, and by the time he went up to Cambridge he was a confirmed antiquarian.

There his thesis on the ‘Influence of the Crusades on European Military Archaeology’, which can be seen here, was to sow the seeds of an inexorable love affair with the Middle East, leading him ultimately to his desert adventures.

His real first contact with the Arabs came during an archaeological dig at Carchemish in Syria. Here he met the young water boy Dahoum, who for Lawrence came to personify the whole of the Arab peoples. He even brought Dahoum back to Oxford, where they cut a very strange pair cycling around in their Arab robes.

shows a black and white photograph of a man on a motorbike

T E Lawrence on one of his Brough Superior motorcycles, Cranwell, 1925-26. © Imperial War Museum.

Their relationship led to persistent but unfounded rumours of homosexuality. Such accusations have dogged the Lawrence reputation ever since and the exhibition doesn’t side step the issue - but doesn't resolve it either. His rape at the hands of Turkish soldiers (the assault was recorded in Seven Pillars of Wisdom) is represented by his diary - here curiously wedged between two display cases - with the pages from the period pointedly torn out.

But in 1914 such traumatic events were still a world away and it seems any ideas of joining the military were as far away from his thoughts as they could have been. But war was looming and in February 1914 he and his colleague Leonard Woolyer were asked to cover a military mission to Sinai. The idea was to survey the desert under the guise of an archaeological expedition and see whether the Turks might launch an attack on the Suez Canal.

“We are obviously only meant as red herrings to give an archaeological colour to a political job,” wrote Lawrence in a letter home. Before long he was in Cairo, working for British Intelligence, where the Lawrence sense of inadequacy was heightened by the deaths of two brothers on the Western Front. He yearned for action.

The rest, as they say, is history. On October 23, 1916 he set off to see if Emir Feisal could lead an effective Arab revolt against the Turks. This is the point at which T E Lawrence, in effect, becomes Lawrence of Arabia.

shows a black and white portrait photograph of a man with short hair wearing a sweater and jacket

Lawrence, early 1935. © Imperial War Museum, London.

Not surprisingly this part of the exhibition is crammed full of fascinating artefacts. Here you will find the silk robes given to Lawrence by Emir Feisal and worn by him in the desert, also his head rope and headdress, his dagger and his diary.

A series of letters from Feisal to Lawrence is on display together with an array of fearsome weapons such as Turkish sabres and a Bedouin Carbine. The museum has even managed to obtain the Hejaz flag used during the Arab revolt and raised around the capture of Akaba.

As a counterpoint to these objects of war Lawrence the aesthete-Arabist emerges in the form of a pair of decorative carved doors he acquired in Jeddah and shipped back to England. Two of the books he carried throughout the Arab Revolt, Aristophanes in the original Greek and English poetry also give a clue to the kind of warrior Lawrence was. Incredibly cultured and learned but nevertheless pointedly sleeping in an Arab tent at night and adapting to the Arab ways.

Photographs from this exciting period, many of them taken by Lawrence, give some impression of the huge epic desert scene with wild tribes of horsemen, men on camels; an amazing setting for some of the extraordinary events of the time.

shows a black and white photograph of Arab horsemen in desert landscape

Feisal's army on the first stage of the march to Wejh, January 3 1917 © Imperial War Museum.

Shattered relics from the Hajaz Railway - bits of track and trains - have been found and shipped in. Lawrence loved explosions and took great relish in blowing up railways and engines - little wonder the Turks raised the white flag (and yes they have got it here) in surrender of Jerusalem.

There is also a wealth of printed material. Lawrence’s copy of the ‘27 articles’ – used and pinned up on notice boards in HQs in Basra and Baghdad today - and the infamous ‘peace map’ – his blueprint for peace in the Middle East.

Lawrence told the British cabinet at the end of the war that there was no case ‘for separating Sunni and Shia Arabs,' but his extraordinary insight was never adopted by the politicians in Whitehall; a failure that led to an increased disillusionment with his role.

The rest of the exhibition charts a rather strange life. There is some fascinating footage - the result of his chance meeting with American publicist Lowell Thomas, whose travelogues and picture shows made Lawrence world famous. There are also the subsequent attempts at seclusion.

The bohemian circle he was part of - Augustus John and others were regular visitors to his Dorset cottage - is juxtaposed by spells as an aircraftsman and private in the Tank Corps under the aliases John Hume Ross and T E Shaw. There is of course his literary output and his tragic penchant for motorbikes, with countless artefacts including his goggles and gloves and the very 'Brough Superior' he died on.

shows a black and white photograph of a man in Arab headdress and robes stood in a desert landscape

Lawrence at Rabegh, north of Jidda,1917. © Imperial War Museum.

Lawrence died in hospital on May 19 1935. He was on his way to post a parcel when his motorbike clipped the back of a delivery boy's bicycle. His last undelivered parcel of books can be seen here too.

Given the popular perception of Lawrence as the heroic figure in flowing Arab robes, his final years are a fascinating discovery. But then the exhibition ends quite aptly in familiar territory, where most of us were first introduced to Lawrence of Arabia; David Lean’s film.

Lawrence supposedly said, “I hate the idea of being celluloided,” but then again, this is the man that Lowell Thomas described as possessing, “an extraordinary ability for backing into the limelight.” Whether he would have approved of the film is anyone's guess.

So what kind of man was T E Lawrence? A man of action? A man of letters? A show-off or recluse? This thoughtful and thorough exhibition provides some of the answers and is an extraordinary three-dimensional walk through of an extraordinary life.

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