Letters Home: Pub art project raises a glass to the First World War dead of a Kent village

By Ross Tanner | 14 February 2014

A new art project at a pub and social club in a village in Kent offers a deceptively simple way to remember the local men who fought in the First World War


a photo of two beer galsses with inscriptions on them.
Caitlin Heffernan's Letters Home project takes a novel and artistic approach to local history and the First World War© Caitlin Heffernan. Photo Ellen Montelius
The national artistic programme responding to the First World War encompasses everything from painting exhibitions to choral orchestrations, but in rural Kent a recently launched art intervention is offering a different yet moving response to the way the war affected a single village.

Letters Home has been developed by installation artist Caitlin Heffernan and takes place in a social club and a pub. The majority of the art is encountered via the beer and wine glasses served to the customers.

The latest project commissioned by Tunbridge Wells Museum’s Hoodwink Project, which “targets” non-users of museums and art galleries by exposing them to contemporary art in unlikely places, Heffernan's starting point was the photographic war memorial to local men, at Horsmonden Social Club.

“I contacted local families who had relatives connected with the memorial and researched the archives of the Imperial War Museum, National Archives and the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Museum,” says Heffernan. “In particular I was looking for any letters, postcards or diary entries from that period and related local regiments.

“My idea was to reflect the everyday lives of so many young men going to war, both the drab, dangerous and damp conditions in the trenches, but also the food, their hopes, their relationships with their families and ultimately their sacrifice.”

After speaking to local residents and reading hundreds of poignant letters, poems and postcards, Heffernan then laser etched short excerpts – snatches of written conversations – onto the pint and wine glasses that now serve to customers on a daily basis.

At first invisible, once filled with beer or wine the texts become discernable. “The surface of the glass acts like a form of braille,” adds Heffernan, “but whether you read it at first or not, the words are there in people’s hands.”

Quotes that visitors may encounter over a pint of best bitter or a glass of house wine include a fragment from a letter informing the mother of local brothers Sidney and George Excell of their deaths in August 1916: “They both went over the parapet singing and shouting, “come on boys”.  

A photograph of a framed map
One of the wall based artworks accompanying the project© Caitlin Heffernan
Others are simple reflections of the soldier’s lot in the trenches of the Western Front, like the words of Wilfrid S Barnham, a soldier in the Royal West Kents, who wrote home in July 1915: “The rain is coming down in sheets and the dugout drips in a hundred different places. My feet are soaked through, and I feel like nothing on earth.”

The contemporary words of long-time local resident Alan Couchman conjure his father, Ted, a Horsmonden man who survived his service in the Machine Gun Corps but rarely spoke of his experience, apart to say that “he survived because he was so short; all the bullets went over his head.”

As if to emphasise the simple premise behind the work, the glasses are accompanied in both venues by beer mats which feature a design based on a silk “souvenir of France” of the type soldiers at the front sent home to loved ones. A series of small framed mixed media interventions that use Heffernan’s drawings and archive materials have also been installed in both venues.

Heffernan has a track record of creating immersive installations that use craft elements, drawing and photography, but which also reference social and personal histories to conjour a sense of place. She adds that her latest work attempts to “echo the silent faces” she encountered on the war memorial and to give a “fleeting insight into their private thoughts and messages to loved ones”.

“I hope the texts will act as prompts to reflect on the lives now gone, to share our memories and stories with each other from that period and beyond.”

The picturesque pub on the green in the sleepy Kent village would have undoubtedly served many of the men who served during 1914-18. Today a new generation is raising a glass to their memory.

Find out more about Horsmonden village at www.horsmonden.co.uk

Click on the picture below to launch a gallery of images from the Letters Home project



All photos Ellen Montelius

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