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Read, Watch and Listen

Digital development: envelope

Key issues in the practice were generating intertextuality between the panels to generate a holistic sense of meaning from the work, and developing intratextuality between signifiers within each panel to generate specific meanings to inform the narrative sequence. Some elements were included to communicate redundantly, such as crossed out British flags (to signify lack of patriotism), with an expectation of shared interpretations from viewers. Others, such as the envelope, were more entropic, to generate subliminal responses and associations. 

Image of Harriet Bell (wife) with barbed wire

Commutation tests (Barthes, 1967) were an integral part of the design process, identifying the characteristics and differences of individual signifiers within a paradigm or syntagym and defining their significance. Applying this within the textile practice involved changing a visual signifier (e.g. image or colour) and examining if this altered the meaning of the elements it was grouped with. Existing signifiers were also rearranged into new configurations to determine if different meanings were created. 

Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (II)’

Responses to the first triptych revealed that further textile qualities were needed to contrast with the two-dimensional printed cloth, so flocking and greater use of stitch and applique were trialled to give additional surface textures. Viewers’ predominantly associated the small white crosses in the first triptych with graves; so larger decorative examples were incorporated in the second triptych to connote Christianity. Redundant signifiers such as WW1 bombs and warships were also trialled.

Digital development: Richmond lock image

Specific imagery had to be incorporated to build a framework of visual encoding within the textiles to test at different sites. This involved considering the communicative function of individual signifiers (images, textures and colours), the readings generated when several signifiers were brought together, and the overall meaning created when groups of signifiers were combined within a composition. The lock was incorporated to connote imprisonment and a key added in later visual experiments to reinforce this reading but also suggest potential for release.

Developing the second triptych backgrounds

The panel backgrounds were formed from the detritus of past collecting; stained lining paper edges from old picture frames, sections of discarded fabrics, and torn fragments of aged house paint and wallpapers. The collage process enabled ‘hands on’ working with these materials, exploring spatial relationships and defining the panel dimensions. The compositions were photographed and disassembled, with individual components scanned and the backgrounds reconstructed digitally. This process echoed the early stages of the practice, where hand-generated experiments created components for later digital development.

Textile trials for ‘The Ties That Bind (I)’

After several stages working digitally and on paper, the work progressed to textile experiments incorporating digital printing, stitch, heat transfer printing, screen printing and hand painting with reactive dyes. Specific images were incorporated alongside portrait photographs to communicate the objector’s story. The first triptych particularly featured crossed out medals to connote lack of bravery, stamps to denote the period (and suggest ‘for king and country’) and white feathers as symbols of cowardice. 

Sketch book page and family photographs

Family and war photographs formed the first components for visual experimentation to convey John Edgar Bell’s story. Tentative narrative relationships between photographic images and other visual signifiers such as colour and mark were explored, creating micro visual syntagms and analysing the potential meanings they might convey. Within the research two textile triptychs were developed, with responses to the first triptych informing the image content in the second set of panels. 

Richmond cell walls: writing

It was not known where John Edgar Bell was imprisoned, but his health deteriorated and he agreed to non-combatant service in 1918. His family moved home from Denholme to Saltaire (West Yorkshire) due to abuse from the community, but this continued when his war status became known. Although he was a skilled engineer he could only get employment as a lamp lighter after the war, as no one wanted to work with a ‘conchie’.

Richmond cell walls: drawings

The Richmond visit provided insight into the conditions of imprisonment for conscientious objectors in WW1 and WW2. Covered with drawings of family, supportive phrases and religious texts and symbols, the cell walls are testimony to the faith of the imprisoned men. Further research provided information on the experiences of individual prisoners, with drawings such as ‘N.Gaudies mother’ cross-referenced to Norman Gaudie, writer of ‘The Courage That Brings Peace’ (1922) (www.coproject.org.uk). 

Richmond Castle: conscientious objectors’ cells

Narration through cloth was the primary focus of the research, a reflection on family history, religious motivation and social exclusion. The recollections of John Edgar Bell’s daughter formed the first facet of background research, with a limited number of family photographs to inform the visual narrative. This was supplemented by investigation into the experiences of conscientious objectors and their families in WW1, later contacting English Heritage to arrange access to photograph the cells at Richmond Castle.