I have been working on this portrait for far too long and I had dearly wished to have had it completed for the 100th Anniversary of his death, at the Battle of Arras, on the 9th April, 1917. My only excuse is that life got in the way, as it does…
The portrait is part of my series of portraits of First World War poets who died during the war: Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and finally Edward Thomas. I work by spending a lot of time reading and researching about the person first, as I like my portraits to have biographical elements in them, so that you ‘read’ the picture – not just ‘look’.
The beginning of my Edward Thomas portrait and research material.
I write copious notes whilst researching, noting influences, interests, where the subject lived, loves, past times etc. I also spend a lot of time reading their poetry, to help me develop an idea of who the person really was and what I feel would be important in the portrait.
With Edward Thomas, it was his love of the countryside, how it influenced his writing, for a long time writing prose and being a major author of books about England. Later, through the encouragement of his great friend, the American Poet, Robert Frost, he turned to writing poetry.
Stage 2 of Edward Thomas portrait, with the map of the Battle of Arras on the day that he died, stitched in the background.
This love of the English countryside and what it meant to Thomas, was one of the reasons he choose, finally, to sign up to fight in the First World War. He didn’t need to, he was older (39 when he died), but through his poems – three of which I have stitched sections into his portrait – go someway to explain why he decided to go (first and last verse below):
An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:
For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.
This poem was written on the day he decided to sign up, much to his wife Helen’s great distress.
Edward Thomas portrait, detail of ‘tea’ painting into the areas of ‘fields’.
As you can see from the photos above, my portrait of Thomas, has the battle plans stitched representing the Battle of Arras on the 9th April, 1917. The different vertical lines, show the different stages: red dotted line is the front line, then there is (difficult to see in the photos) the blue, green, brown and black lines. There are also the infrastructure elements of the area, including the roads, railway lines and settlements.
I thought, once laid out and stitched onto the portraits background, the lines from the map resembled the layout of English patchwork fields as seen from the sky, which is how I developed the imagery. Linking back to Thomas’s love of the countryside.
Edward Thomas, portrait detail of the compass.
As part of the map design, I decided to use a large compass, symbolising Thomas’s own inner moral compass but also reflecting upon his writing before the war Also linked to the compass imagery: he helped train fellow soldiers to read maps, he ‘read’ the aerial photographs and his last post was on the Observation Post, where he died.
Working on the portrait at the BBC 3 Free Thinking Festival this year.
Besides sewing partial sections of Thomas’s three poems: For These, The Sun Used to Shine and There Was A Time; I have also stitched a small section of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 73, as Thomas was re-reading his poetry and had a small book of them, which his wife had given him, in his pocket when he died.
Edward Thomas portrait, detail of the poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ – a poem about his walks with Robert Frost.
I have also included abstract representations of some of the flowers he loved and wrote about, including tansy and old man’s beard. These his wife took to his grave to plant, with cuttings from their garden.
Edward Thomas, portrait detail showing embroidered abstractions of the tansy flower.
This portrait holds many elements and reflections upon Thomas’s complex character. Hopefully it will intrigue and inspire the viewer to read and find out more about one of our much loved writers of the 20th Century.
Finished portrait of Edward Thomas, stretched, pinned and ready for the framers.