AN ARTIST’S WAR

THE ART AND LETTERS OF MORRIS & ALICE MEREDITH WILLIAMS. By Phyllida Shaw. The History Press, Stroud, 2017.  256 × 258 mm. 268 pages. 318 illustrations, many in full colour. Price £30.

imageMorris Meredith Williams designed five of the stained-glass windows in All Saints’ Church, Rotherfield Peppard. His father was Rector of Rotherfield Peppard in the final decade of the 19th century. His sister, Phyllis, was churchwarden in the 1960s. This remarkable, large format, superbly illustrated tribute by Phyllida Shaw does her subjects proud. It deserves a wide readership.

If you were to look at the separate Wikipedia entries for Morris and Alice, you would find out more about Alice than Morris. Alice, who lived from 1877 to 1934, was a sculptor responsible with Morris for aspects of First World War memorials including the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. Some of that impressive work is illustrated in the book. Alice and Morris met in Paris in 1902. He was four years younger, living from 1881 to 1973. Though short of stature and with imperfect eyesight, Morris served in the First World War during which Alice lived in Peppard to be near Morris’s mother and sister. She found work at Greys Green Farm. During his war service and for some months after the end of the war, Morris drew and painted whenever the opportunity arose. He and Alice corresponded almost daily. Their correspondence survives virtually intact as do Morris’s numerous sketch books. It is this archive of invaluable material on which Phyllida Shaw has been able to base An artist’s war.

In her own writing, the author provides continuity by way of explanation and narrative but much of the book’s text relies on the reproduction of interesting passages from the correspondence of a devoted couple, mainly from Morris’s letters but sometimes from those from Alice. These are set out chronologically in the first four chapters, entitled First Impressions, Day to Day, A Change of Scene and For the Record. The remaining chapters on Memorials and An Artistic Journey rely on the author. Throughout, the artwork is beautifully displayed and printed and it is the pictorial record which dominates, providing a chilling and vivid reminder of the horrors of war and of war memorials which followed in its aftermath.

Readers of the Parish Magazine will find local references of interest. “One of the things that struck me most about the trenches……………….. every day the larks were soaring up, just as if they were on Peppard Common.” “I wish I could really describe this part of the line. Imagine Henley practically destroyed……….. .” “This morning we went over to a small valley to make a rifle range for practising. The place reminded me very much of the country around Peppard, especially Crowsley woods……….. .”

Coincidentally, publication of this beautiful book has occurred during the centenary of the First World War. It seems appropriate to conclude this review by quoting Morris Meredith Williams, the poet. Here are the first and last verses of Daybreak on the Somme:

 In the dark and the drifting rain
We strain our eyes for day
Lord, let us see the light again
We half unknowing pray
O’er ‘No man’s land’ a bullet whines
Clay turns again to clay
But for the Earth-free spirit shines
God’s everlasting day

                                                                                                                            Keith Atkinson