Olivia Lomenech Gill exhibition

Category: Art

The centre-piece of a major new exhibition at Marlborough College’s Mount House Gallery is the striking image – Standing To – commissioned by Michael Morpurgo from Olivia Lomenech Gill to publicise the concert version of his famous book, play and film War Horse.

This exhibition shows Gill and the sculptor Charles Poulsen commemorating war - each in their own way, sometimes directly and sometimes much more obliquely.

The exhibition’s title comes from the poem To Germany by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who, like Siegfried Sassoon, had so recently been a schoolboy at Marlborough College.  Sorley was killed on 15 October 1915:

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder.


For Olivia Lomenech Gill this exhibition is a bit of homecoming.  She was a Marlborough College sixth former (1990-1992) and held her first solo exhibition at Mount House in 1995.

She trained in drama before turning to art with a course in etching at the Camberwell College of Arts.  Olivia now lives with her French husband, two young children and a very small baby in the north of Northumberland.

The commission from Michael Morpurgo came after Olivia had illustrated the anthology-cum-story he wrote with his wife Clare.  It is called Where My Wellies Take Me….  As Michael Morpurgo explained: “The first moment we set eyes on the work of Olivia Lomenech Gill we knew there was something very fresh and unique abut her painting.   What interested us at once was how all her pictures told a story…Here was a new voice ready to sing.”

She did her research for Standing To at Woolwich with the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery – known colloquially as ‘The Troop’.  Her model was The Troop’s horse Austin who has since been retired from the service. They showed her original harness and accoutrements from the days of the First World War and she watched the horses at work: “I needed that research to make the image as authentic as possible.”

There are several versions of this arresting image – including a very fine miniature bronze. The main Standing To image is a large and coloured etching with chine colle (a kind of collage technique) and hand colouring.

Also exhibited is a page of one of Olivia’s King’s Troop sketchbooks – a lightning sketch that captures the essence of how we remember this well-known army unit.  And it makes one eager to see more of the sketchbook.

The War Horse commission led to an interest in other aspects of that war.  We see farm horses before they were sent to war. And we see the effects of war on the home front: “What people went to war to protect – peace and home life.”

There is an evocative drawing of two young children standing on a beach staring out to sea – they are trailing First World War toys symbolising the three armed services.  Are they staring out to sea – or simply staring out to see?  What can they see?  That is Olivia’s question and we can supply our own imagined answers.

War in Olivia’s art is not a fixed concept.  She exhibits a long yet small-scale almost film-strip etching of Mother Courage in No Man’s Land.  There is Brecht’s extraordinary female figure hauling her laden cart.  Is she protesting about war, is she fleeing war or is she trying to find another way to profit from war?  It is full of intriguing narrative detail.

Then, in the gallery’s second room, we suddenly move from the suffering of war to the suffering of what passes now for peace: Lampedusa is a large work in oil and mixed media on aluminium.  It shows the flimsy craft in which migrants mainly from Africa try and make safe landfall at Europe’s southerly port: Lampedusa.  And the pressed shirt one migrant hopes will impress an employer when he gets to Europe.

Lampedusa is an important work made six years ago – inspired by Caroline Moorehead’s book Human Cargo  – which has now been made terrifyingly relevant by the headlines of sunk boats, drowned men, women and children and the apparent decision not to go rescuing these people of the peace because it encourages their fellow would-be migrants.  Putting the headlines aside, this work speaks volumes about the current state of our world.

The sculptor Charles Poulsen lives with his wife (a textile artist) in Scotland, just over the border from Olivia – and she asked him to join this exhibition. He is exhibiting fifteen works in lead, wood and concrete placed around the College grounds and in the Chapel.

One small concrete maquette is in the gallery’s front window.  I mentioned to Charles that it seems directly linked to the First Word War – resembling a pile of carefully rolled blankets perhaps placed in a trench outside the entrance to underground sleeping quarters.

He recognised that association, but was quite firm about the more abstract nature of his work: “There’s never a direct connection in my works. I’m not interested in talking about a specific war.”

Yet elements of war are there. In the College’s main quadrangle – the Court – there is a real hint of what war does to nature.

A tree trunk is turned into the lead of bullets and the inside of the trunk is rifled.  It is placed on a representation of an artillery base-plate. This piece - called 'Machinator' - is based on the howitzer on the Royal Horse Artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Over the Rembrance Sunday weekend students dressed this sculpture with poppies.

Overlooking the Marlborough Mound is Twin III.  This is a trunk of a spruce tree - with the stumps of sawn off branches left as if as defensive spikes - covered in welded sheet lead. It too might be an artillery piece resting on a gun carriage.  And as the spruce tree used to grow and change its shape, so this sculpture has moveable parts that can change its shape too.

These double meanings and puns are also present in Charles Poulsen’s work in lead called hush – four panels, one for each letter of the word – giant…italic…lower-case…letters.  This can be seen in the Chapel entrance – below the memorials to past Marlburians including Charles Hamilton Sorley.  A place for quiet contemplation – and lead, after all, is used to baffle sound.

A percentage of the sales from the exhibition is being donated to Médecin sans Frontières.  And all the proceeds from a ‘blind auction’ of sixteen small works connected to the First World War which were drawn by under-nine year-olds from a local Northumbrian school, will also be given to MSF.  Bids for these can be left at the Gallery or e-mailed to Olivia (her e-mail address is on the display.)

Review by Tony Millett, Marlborough News Online

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