Exhibit of the Week: Wilfred Owen bust and Clarke charms

Artist Anthony Padgett with the Wilfred Owen bust.
Artist Anthony Padgett with the Wilfred Owen bust.

We’ve not long commemorated Remembrance Sunday, when those killed in combat are remembered at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

November 11 also marks the date the Armistice was signed in 1918, bringing an end to the First World War. Sadly, one of our best-known and best-loved war poets, Wilfred Owen, died exactly one week before the Armistice, almost to the hour, on November 4, 1918.

A dried caul purchased in Scarborough as an amulet against death by drowning, 1917.

A dried caul purchased in Scarborough as an amulet against death by drowning, 1917.

On the 99th anniversary of his death Scarborough Museums Trust unveiled its recently acquired bust of Wilfred Owen at Scarborough Art Gallery. The sculpture was accepted on behalf of the town as a donation from the artist, Anthony Padgett. It is one of a series offered to various sites connected with the poet’s life and untimely death, including Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where he recuperated from ‘shell shock’ and met Siegfried Sassoon, and Ors in France, his final resting place.

Wilfred’s connection with Scarborough is an important one both for the town and for his development as a poet. He wrote, rewrote and drafted many poems while here and received advice and constructive criticism from friends such as Sassoon and Robert Graves.

Owen arrived in Scarborough in November 1917 as an officer with the Manchester Regiment and was billeted at the Clarence Gardens Hotel, now known as the Clifton Hotel, North Bay. He stayed there until March 1918 and then returned to the area in June of the same year to prepare for redeployment to France. During the second visit he was based at Burniston Barracks, which once stood on Burniston Road but has now been replaced by a modern housing estate.

Consequently, in the final year of his life, Owen spent a significant amount of time in Scarborough, on active service, even though he was almost certainly still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It had not been the practice to send men suffering from ‘shell shock’ back to the Front but after a German counter-offensive in 1918 the British Forces were in desperate need of men on the ground, so soldiers like Wilfred were redeployed.

A First World War soldiers mascot worn to bring him luck, alongside Clarkes original label.

A First World War soldiers mascot worn to bring him luck, alongside Clarkes original label.

Disgust at the futility of the War and the tremendous loss of life is conveyed through Owen’s poems but there is also a great empathy for the men he led and served alongside.

The fear and anxiety felt by Allied, German and Russian soldiers is illustrated through other items in the Scarborough Collections. Some of the charms collected by local naturalist and folklorist, William James Clarke, date from the First World War and a common theme is protection from danger. A particularly poignant example is the vocal organ of a wild duck carried by a private of the Royal Field Artillery to protect himself from deafness caused as a result of ‘shell shock’. Another is listed as a ‘Sacred Cross’, which apparently every Russian soldier engaged in the War carried to protect himself from danger. A certain German soldier must have been especially anxious about being taken prisoner as he kept a waterworn pebble of turquoise with him as a protective charm against capture by the enemy.

A popular form of protection favoured by British servicemen was the mascot, either worn or carried, of which there are various types among the Clarke charms. They include woollen figure brooches, a metal impish pendant, a miniature padlock, a metal ‘King Edward’s Hand’ pendant, a New Moon and ‘touchwood’ pendant and Chinese ‘silent monkey’ figurines. Some of these protective charms have been borrowed from the natural world but others are man-made. Certain pieces were even sold to soldiers or their loved ones; clearly there were individuals aiming to profit from people’s deepest fears during a time of great crisis.

One such item is the caul – the membrane covering the head – of a newborn baby boy. This had been commonly carried by mariners during the early 1800s as protection against drowning. However, Clarke records a resurgence in their popularity during the First World War due to the immense fear of the German U-boat; new technology that killed by stealth and induced panic in servicemen with 
cause to travel at sea. As a result, the pre-war cost of two shillings per caul rocketed to £2 10s, such was the 
demand.

The final year of First World War centenary commemorations, together with Wilfred Owen’s time in Scarborough, will be marked by an exhibition held at Scarborough Art Gallery next year. “They will not dream of us poor lads…”: Wilfred Owen in Scarborough, will run from Saturday April 7 until Sunday September 2. It will explore Wilfred’s connection with the town, how his time here influenced his work and the relationships he forged during the war years.

The Wilfred Owen bust and Clarke Charms are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.