The Last Stand: Marc Wilson's wartime defences at Royal Armouries Fort Nelson

By Richard Moss | 03 May 2013

Exhibition Review: Marc Wilson, The Last Stand at Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson, Fareham, until October 1 2013.

a row of teeth-like obstructions across a stretch of water
Cramond Island, Firth of Forth, Scotland (2012)© Marc Wilson
The first thing that strikes you about Marc Wilson’s photographs is their eery beauty;  a quality that at first seems at odds with the dark histories that lie within them.

"I wanted to tell a story visually in the way that I do as a photographer,” explains Wilson,whose ongoing project, photographing the forgotten defensive structures of Britain and Europe, has already won him a Terry O’Neill Award.

"It’s imagery that makes you think and reflect," he adds. "As well as being about wartime defences it’s about the landscape."

Wilson has spent more than three years visiting over 140 locations to photograph some of the forgotten fortified constructions – mainly dating from World War two – which still dot the coastlines of Britain and Europe.

A selection from the final 43 images, captured after hours of walking, stalking and waiting in locations as disparate as the beaches of Northern France and the lochs of Scotland, can be seen at the large Victorian defensive structure of Fort Nelson, which today houses the Royal Armouries collection of artillery.

The former barrack room housing the collection looks out onto a fascinating complex of batteries, tunnels and a cobbled walkway which, during World War II, kept the surrounding gun batteries supplied with ammunition.

It’s an apt yet somehow conflicting setting for these dreamily ethereal landscapes, devoid of human or animal life, what Wilson terms “documentary landscapes”.

“I shoot within the landscape, documenting man’s interaction with it, usually of a subject matter within the landscape – there’s always a subject behind it," he says.

In the colour prints of blockhouses, teetering pill boxes and lonely gun batteries, the subject matter seems to emerge like a series of ghosts.

The meaning of the objects may be partially masked by a deeply artistic sense of ruin and disrepair, but it’s a quality that makes their historic background all the more enigmatic.

a photograph of a series of anti tank blocks disappearing into the distance through a forest
Lossiemouth II, Moray, Scotland. 2011© Marc Wilson
“It’s interesting if I can find imagery that people have a sense of recognition of, but still don’t really know what it’s about,” says Wilson.

“I think that’s why I tried to shoot them in the light I have chosen – without dramatic sunsets or sunrises. I’ve tried to make them soft and subtle, to draw the viewer in. It’s about a sensitive subject so I want to create images that are very powerful and moving and reflective.”

In the case of the anti-submarine defences in Scotland, the powerful objects seem to rise out of the sea like dragon's teeth, shrouded in a vaporous fog.

Further on, a block of tank traps stretches into the distance flanked by an avenue of trees within a vast forest. It’s a very isolating experience for the viewer.

“To me, it’s imagery that makes you want to think and reflect,” he explains. “It’s my way of keeping history alive. You start thinking about the subject, and you soon realise it’s a really important story to tell.

"It’s a story that needs to be told again. I think the memories of the past are starting to get lost quite easily.“  

The latter is certainly true of one his subjects, the monolithic German battery at Wissant in the Nord-De-Pas-De-Calais.

Part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall which stretched from Denmark to Spain, Wilson photographed part of it stranded on the beach in 2012, but in the past few weeks it has been completely destroyed and taken away by the French authorities.

“Some fear this may be the first of many to suffer the same fate in the coming years,” he says. “There is talk of the same in Denmark.”

The arguments for and against the preservation of these structures may be a complex one, but for the moment they are still ubiquitous, albeit for many of us still enigmatic and unknown.

Visit this exhibition and make up your own mind as to whether we should preserve these dark, enigmatic relics and keep them from harm.

The exhibition runs until October 1, as part of the Royal Armouries’ Inspired By programme - an initiative which harnesses the talents of community groups and individuals and invites them to represent the museum’s national collections in exciting and innovative ways. It then moves to the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

  • Museum entry is free and includes admission to the exhibition. For more information and opening times, visit www.royalarmouries.org
More pictures:

a photograph of a partially submerged concrete structure on a beach
Wissant I, Nord-Pas-De-Calais, France© Marc Wilson
a photo of a rocky promontory next to a loch with a pillbox on the far right
Loch Ewe, North West Highlands, Scotland. 2012© Marc Wilson
a photo of a partially submerged pill box in the sea
Findhorn, Moray, Scotland (2011)© Marc Wilson
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