I’m delighted to welcome to my blog today author Mary Horlock. Mary’s debut novel, The Book of Lies, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, but she has chosen five photos here which have some bearing on her book, Joseph Gray’s Camouflage, a memoir about her great-grandfather, a war artist. It’s a most interesting story …
This is a photograph of my great grandfather, Joseph Gray, taken in around 1916. He was working for the Dundee Courier as an illustrator when the First World War broke out, and he joined the Black Watch with a group of journalist friends. They called themselves the ‘fighter-writers’ and planned to record the War as they fought it, though was hardly the ‘great adventure’ they expected. Joe was in the battles of Festubert, Neuve Chapelle and Loos and after reading his accounts I’m amazed, not just that this photograph survived, but that he did.
This photograph I found only recently after I’d started researching Joe’s career. It’s from the archives of the publishers D.C. Thomson and shows Joe at work on one of his first major war paintings after Armistice. The painting is called ‘After Neuve Chapelle’. Joe painted the men of his battalion, the friends what had died fighting beside him. ‘As they went, one by one,’ he wrote, ‘all in their early twenties – I remember the conviction that I formed that it was ridiculous and absurd to assume that because their bodies were shattered and finished, that they were finished too.’ I think his paintings were his way of keeping them, or at least their memory, alive.
I love this photograph. It shows my grandmother, Maureen Barclay, standing in front of the finished painting, which still hangs at the McManus Gallery in Dundee. She was Joe’s only daughter and we took her back to Scotland aged 95. ‘I used to bring my friends here after school to see it,’ she said. She had all her four daughters with her, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It was her last trip, her last little holiday, which makes this photo bittersweet. But it was also so important, because it gave her a kind of closure.
This photograph was another surprise find. It was taken by the portrait painter Tom Van Oss, at York aerodrome in 1941. In the Second World War my great grandfather found a whole new career as a camouflage officer – one of many artists, designers, film directors and architects whose talents were put to work hiding vital sites from the Luftwaffe. So Joseph Gray spent one war representing reality, and the next war disguising it. He is pictured here with Kenneth Dalgliesh, an architect in peacetime and another veteran of the last war who had lost an arm at Arras.
I started writing Joe’s story after my grandmother moved into a care home. I’d visit her every week, taking my youngest daughter Clem, and this is the only photograph I have of us there, together. Clem would steal all the pink wafers off the tea trolley and generally make trouble. But then Clem fell terribly ill. I stayed in hospital with her and all visits stopped. It was worst time, but when Clem was able to come home, my grandmother sent her something: a plastic bag crammed full of pink wafers! She had collected two biscuits off the trolley every week and kept them in her bottom drawer, saying: ‘Clem will be wanting these.’ She always found new ways to show us how much she cared.
Thank you for sharing your pictures with us, Mary. It’s a fascinating insight into a clearly fascinating man. And what an amazing picture! You must be very proud of Joseph.
I was born in Australia but grew up on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. After studying History of Art at Cambridge University, I went to work at Christies the Auctioneers, in the Modern and Impressionist Paintings Department, where I spent a lot of time in a basement cataloguing the most amazing works of art. After that I joined the Tate as a curator, organising a wide-ranging exhibitions at both Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool, and also for a time overseeing the Turner Prize for Contemporary Art.
I always loved writing and for a long time I thought I would only write about art and artists. But then I started to write a story about someone trying to leave the art world and I realised that person was me!
My first novel ‘The Book of Lies was published by Canongate in the UK and long listed for the Guardian First Book Award, and in March of this year I published a memoir called ‘Joseph Grays Camouflage’, through Unbound. ‘Joseph Gray’s Camouflage’ charts the life (or lives) of my great grandfather, a war artist in the First World War who turned his obsession with recording reality to a specialism in camouflage for service in the Second. It’s a book which combines my interest in art with my love of story-telling, and in lots of ways explains the path I have so far taken.
The Book of Lies. Click here to buy.
Joseph Gray’s Camouflage: A Memoir of Art, Love and Deception. Click here to buy.