Exhibition shows the “poor ruined faces of England”BMJ 2002; 325 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7373.1132/a (Published 16 November 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1132
An exhibition of the work of war artist Henry Tonks shows some of the horrific injuries sustained by soldiers in the first world war.
His drawings, which supplemented the photographic records on the soldiers' medical files, showed the combatants' faces before and after surgery. Tonks, who taught at the Slade School of Art from 1892 to 1930, was particularly well qualified to record the injuries, because he had trained as a surgeon before becoming a painter.
At the outbreak of the first world war he had offered his medical expertise to the war effort and had worked at a Red Cross clearing station in France. But in January 1916 he took up a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was attached to the Cambridge Hospital at Aldershot for two years.
He recorded the plastic surgery carried out by Harold Gillies, whom he thought a “very good surgeon.” His portraits became celebrated while he was working at the hospital and were displayed on the walls at Aldershot, despite his disapproval. He wrote to a friend: “The poor ruined faces of England I still portray and … I notice that the tedious visitor from various countries is generally taken to see them.” He was reluctant to display them as war art.
The picture on the left shows a soldier from Nigeria who was wounded in September 1917 by a gunshot that destroyed his lower lip and chin and carried away the floor of his mouth. The picture on the right shows a soldier who was wounded in Mesopotamia by a bullet that perforated the bone above the eye then carried on through the lower jaw and left side of the lower lip.
“Henry Tonks: Art and Surgery” is in the Strang Print Room, University College London, and is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons until March 2003 (tel 020 7679 2540).
Log in using your username and password
Log in through your institution
Register for a free trial to thebmj.com to receive unlimited access to all content on thebmj.com for 14 days.
Sign up for a free trial