Nat Williams, Ryan Johnston and Imants Tillers discuss the letter that changed attitudes to Australia's most famous military campaign. This talk marks 100 years since the Dardanelles Committee met in London to discuss Keith Murdoch's Gallipoli Letter, leading to the evacuation of the peninsula on 14 October 1915.
In association with the Australian War Memorial.
Audio transcript for The Gallipoli Letter: 100 Years Later
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A), Nat Williams (N), Ryan Johnston (R), Imants Tiller (I)
Location: National Library of Australia
A: Distinguished guests and dear friends, good evening and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Anne Marie Schwirtlich, the Library’s Director-General. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
A hundred years ago the Dardanelles campaign was still underway and the men of all involved nations were still enduring terrible conditions, a campaign that is now referred to simply as Gallipoli is a military campaign that rightly or wrongly is emblematic of the Australian experience of the Great War. An early example of amphibious operations and trench warfare much has been written about the campaign’s perceived failures and the inadequacies of command. Arguments abound about its role in developing a sense of nationhood and nation-building in Australia, New Zealand and modern Turkey. It was also a brutal campaign. With the campaign’s bloodiest battles already fought, the daily conditions taking their relentless toll and the approaching deadly winter set to claim even more lives Keith Murdoch highlighted the folly of the position in the now famous Gallipoli letter. The Gallipoli letter is an 8,000 word document written by Murdoch to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher in 1915 and is one of the National Library’s treasures. It is widely thought to have helped bring the Gallipoli campaign to an end. Thank you all for joining us to mark a hundred years since the Dardanelles Committee met in London to discuss Keith Murdoch’s letter to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, an event that led to the decision to evacuate the Peninsula.
This evening in association with the Australian War Memorial the Library’s own Nat Williams, who is the inaugural James and Bettison Treasures Curator, along with Ryan Johnston, Head of Art at the Australian War Memorial, and acclaimed Australian artist Imants Tillers will discuss the letter that changed attitudes to Australia’s most famous military campaign and Tillers’ most recent artistic response to it, Avenue of Remembrance which is in the Memorial’s collection. The tapestry, commissioned in 2014 through a generous donation from the Geoff and Helen Handbury Foundation in conjunction with the Australian Tapestry Workshop, is a commemorative response to the centenary of the First World War which also makes reference to the Gallipoli letter. Tillers’ poetic landscape painting is reminiscent of the wartime roads on the western front and the many avenues of remembrance planted around Australia. Layered over the top are words from the Gallipoli letter and a selection of names of the many places where Australians were buried during the First World War. So I’d like you to welcome my three speakers this evening, Nat Williams, Ryan Johnston and Imants Tillers, and the first to speak this evening is going to be Nat Williams. Welcome all.
N: I would like to acknowledge that the James and Bedison Treasures Curator position is proudly supported by Helen James whose wish it was to support a curatorship associated with the National Library’s collection and the display in the Treasures Gallery.
Well firstly I should say tonight that I’m not a military historian. There are many Australian historians of the 20th century though all of whom I’m sure have very considered opinions on the Murdoch letter and its significance. My relationship with the Murdoch letter is through the ... its display and interpretation in our Treasures Gallery where it sits and it is seen with many other objects from this rather boundless collection. The letter sits in good company with items illustrating some of the great stories from our past, the explorers, William Bligh, Thomas Baines, Burke and Wills sit alongside the convict pickpocket, George Barrington, the artist using Von Guerard’s views, the first draft of Waltzing Matilda and Patrick White’s rediscovered manuscripts and personal effect. It is a rich exhibition in which Keith Murdoch’s catalytic letter can take its rightful place.
I was asked to prepare the Library’s submission to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World program for the Gallipoli letter last year which was a rather daunting task and I must acknowledge at this point Margy Burn, who’s in the audience with us tonight, who was a great assistance with that and gave very good advice. The letter’s historic and research significance were clearly documented in that nomination which led to its inscription as item number 49 on the register at an event celebrated in March this year in Sydney. The acknowledgement of this important ... the acknowledgement of this key item from the Library’s collection by UNESCO was important. Being included on the register is the highest level of recognition for archival material and is part of UNESCO’s global effort to enhance awareness and support for the preservation of documentary heritage collections. The other UNESCO listed National Library items also in the Treasures Gallery are James Cook’s Endeavour journal and papers from Edward Koiki Mabo’s collection.
Selected pages from the Gallipoli letter have been on long-term display since the Treasures Gallery opened almost exactly four years ago and will continue to be so during the First World War centenary period. Murdoch’s letter is a document that elicits strong interest from visitors especially when I mention it on a tour of the Gallery. Comments about it have varied remarkably, I have to say. For example in relation to Rupert Murdoch’s gift of the letter to the Library with his father’s papers in 1970 a prominent visitor commented spontaneously it must be the only philanthropic thing he’s ever done. I found that a rather extreme view and I’ve also heard much more reasonably and genially responses over the letter that changed the course of the war. The truth obviously of course lies somewhere in between those positions.
Pages seven and eight of the Gallipoli letter are on display at the moment in the Gallery and are full of incident. You can visit them tonight after the conclusion here and read Murdoch’s words as dictated to a secretary in Australia House and then cabled to Prime Minister Fisher. He writes for example about British General Hamersley, that he was for two years under lock and key through lapse of memory. Not a good start, really. And then you can see on the letter how he edits that and turns it into something slightly less inflammatory. Murdoch goes on on those pages to write about the glorious 29th division, now much reduced and that the slaughter of fine youths was appalling. He continues to fling them without even the element of surprise against such trenches as the Turks make was murder, perhaps the most empathic declaration in his letter. We are very happy to have ... fortunate to have Keith Murdoch’s papers which contain the Gallipoli letter and related documents in our manuscripts collection here.
The papers are a rich source of material which has been recently mined for content for the ‘Keepsakes, Australians and the Great War’ exhibition and it also provides revealing insights into Murdoch’s newspaper career, his personal life, business and other interests and his advocacy for organisations such as the National Gallery of Victoria. Born to a Presbyterian minister father, and as a young man afflicted with a humiliating stammer and extreme shyness, he perhaps overcompensated in some respects in his interactions with other people. Clearly bright he avoided university and decided to become a journalist at an early age and progressively built a newspaper empire, the original Murdoch press. On the day of the centenary of the writing of Keith Murdoch’s Gallipoli letter I was on leave and travelling to Brisbane. I was therefore unable to talk to the media about the letter’s history and impact. In some ways I am pleased that I didn’t as I feel that the letter’s content and significance has occasionally been hijacked for partisan purposes and its legacy is not easily distilled into this fast-paced format of current media sound bites or tweets, particularly tweets.
The following day I picked up a copy of The Courier Mail and read the following on the editorial page under the headline leading the charge for truth. Murdoch’s story is one of journalism worldwide and across the ages, an overwhelming commitment to tell a story without fear or favour regardless of the obstacles or threats. As I read this 100 years after the letter’s production, I paused to review what was being asserted. I was not surprised to see something in print because the paper is after all owned by Rupert Murdoch, something would of course be mentioned on the letter’s centenary but I was slightly surprised that the letter was being so obviously used as an example of the significance of journalism to create change and potentially right wrongs. It continued, journalism, the pursuit of truth and the courage to disseminate the facts, has always mattered, the brief editorial comment had led with. Well I guess a key issue here is that while the letter was written by Murdoch, a journalist, to his friend, the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, it had been commissioned by Fisher as a report on the Dardanelles situation.
Fisher had no idea that his troops were even at Gallipoli until about two weeks after they were shipped there and that sort of seems incomprehensible to us today in the age of instant communication and of government transparency in terms of troop deployments and defence engagements. Fisher was having problems receiving realistic reports on the success or lack of success of the campaign and wondered if it was winnable and how his troops were being used. The lengthy and passionately worded report Murdoch creates for him was a journalist’s account of the grave and troubling situation which he experienced. He had visited Gallipoli briefly en route to London where he was to take up his post as Managing Editor with the United Cable Service. The tone is intimate and conveys the anger and shock that Murdoch felt in witnessing the British bungling and arrogance regarding the deployment of the Anzac troops. He had spoken to injured soldiers in Egypt and others on the Peninsula such as fellow journalist, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who were perhaps not the most unbiased source of information to write his letter upon.
As a report it hit its target though the facts are often held hostage for effect and the language is highly emotive in parts and sometimes sentimental. It was written by an ambitious young journalist, not yet 30, who could not be unaffected by the destruction of human life he saw or heard of. And he perceived the catastrophe ahead with winter looming. Considered as a piece of journalism however in some respects it fails fairly spectacularly. It’s a 25 page 8,000 word letter full of assertions, observations, slanders and strong opinion and it was never destined for publication. It was created as a personal communique between a journalist and his friend, the Prime Minister of the nation, and he felt was therefore not subject to the censorship which had been demanded by the British.
Murdoch had signed an agreement which meant he had to submit confidential material to the Chief Field Censor but felt it was not binding in his personal communication especially to his Prime Minister after all. Interestingly Murdoch had narrowly lost out in the Australian Journalists’ Association ballot to become official war correspondent to journalist, C. W. Bean, who was later critical of Murdoch’s role in drafting the letter. Bean accompanied Murdoch for some of the time he was at Gallipoli but was ill during his visit. A more orthodox journalist, Bean who was to become official historian, wrote many years later of Murdoch’s letter and its sledgehammer phrases, often massive overstatements which were typical of his writing in controversy. And he continued, but there was much truth behind them, Murdoch’s letter was I should say the main agent in bringing about Hamilton’s fall. General Sir Ian Hamilton was of course the commander in chief of the Gallipoli operations who had manifestly failed what was a poorly conceived military strategy. Churchill has a role in there as well which we won’t go into tonight.
The letter’s significance as a catalyst for changing the course of the Gallipoli campaign is probably a contentious area. Suffice to say in this brief introduction tonight that Murdoch’s letter through its subsequent and unprecedented circulation to the British War Cabinet shortly after it was cabled to Fisher was definitely an influential factor in the recall of Hamilton and may have helped consolidated the British case to withdraw.
So on this day 100 years ago the British government’s Dardanelles Committee met in London and decided to end the Gallipoli campaign. The following day Lord Kitchener wrote to General Hamilton that they wished as he said to make a change in the command which will give them an opportunity to see you which was a very polite English way of saying your time is up, come home. What I enjoy about Murdoch’s letter particularly is the language, the impact of the words and phrases which aggregate and ring in one’s memory after reading it. As a journalist Murdoch understood the power of witness and seized the opportunity to communicate with candour and bravado. He carefully crafted the letter choosing journalistic language to influence a politician who was operating at a remove and without full information on the course of the campaign.
It must have been an extremely uncomfortable letter to receive and to circulate. And the use of language and key words is something that Imants, who you’ll hear from shortly, obviously tuned into very early on in his consideration of the letter when creating his wonderful work of art, The Avenue of Remembrance, which was inspired by Murdoch’s letter. Imants’ painting has been exquisitely translated into tapestry form in Melbourne through the extraordinary skills for the Australian Tapestry Workshop weavers. If you haven’t already seen it please do s ... visit it at the War Memorial soon and admire its beauty and grandeur and reverence for those lost. When you do you’ll see a complex arrangement of text, colour and image like a huge finely detailed collage but Ryan and Imants can talk more about that shortly.
Murdoch’s letter helped create the notion of Gallipoli has a place of sacrifice and legend that persist today. In his opinion the Gallipoli campaign could not be won even though the Anzac troops were determined and dauntless men. His forcefully worded letter made the point that the noble and heroic Anzac troops had taken part in one of the most terrible chapters in our history. He referred to the offensive as a costly and bloody fiasco. He used words for maximum effect. ‘Your fears have been justified.’ ‘Disastrous underestimations.’ ‘Failed miserably.’ ‘When the life of man is at its lowest.’ ‘The look of a tortured, dumb animal.’ ‘The good human stuff that lies there buried.’ ‘A hopeless scheme.’ ‘A perilous enterprise.’ ‘Nothing more than an embarrassment.’ ‘The slaughter of fine youths was appalling, was murder.’ He understood the terrible losses were disproportionate to the modest gains achieved and sought to convey this in the letter. Australian lives were being squandered as he said.
Australia’s first venture into modern battle was disastrous, ruining many lives across more than one generation. The power of Murdoch’s carefully crafted document is that it directly connects us to an influential eyewitness account of Gallipoli, one which had an immediate impact on the course of the campaign and which helped construct a national story of loss, bravery and legend which endures to this day. Murdoch’s powerfully evoked response to his Gallipoli visit has been digitised by the Library and can be read online or in published form. And I urge you to do so this year during its centenary and read what others had to say about it as well and then make up your own minds. Thank you very much.
R: Alright good evening, I’d just like to begin by thanking Anne-Marie both for your introduction and for hosting this event here this evening, it’s always a very nice thing when the various cultural institutions in Canberra collaborate and bring our diverse perspectives and expertise to bear on Australian history. I guess I should begin by mentioning that as neither an expert on the Murdoch letter nor the artist who created the remarkable work behind you I'm resigned to the fact that I’m the least interesting person on this panel tonight and will try to scale my talk in direct proportion to do that. What I would like to do however is briefly frame the commission that Imants undertook for us within the context of the history of the Memorial’s art collection and then briefly introduce the project itself before handing over to Imants to discuss the actual work itself.
Now while it’s perhaps not as well-known as it should or could be the Memorial’s art collection contains almost 40,000 individual artworks dating from the late 19th century to the present day. The collection itself began somewhat unexpectedly when in December 1916 the Australian artist and illustrator, Will Dyson, arrived on the western front in France. At the time Dyson was based in London where along with a number of other expatriate Australian artists including Arthur Streeton he’d spent the best part of that ... of the year 1916 lobbying furiously for the Australian government to inaugurate an official war arts scheme. Both Canada and Britain had recently begun their own schemes in that same year and it had gotten to the point that Canada had even begun offering commissions to Australian artists including Streeton.
Now when the bureaucratic powers that be decided there was no need to have an Australian war arts scheme because you know Britain and Canada were already doing it, that was fine, Dyson refused to take no for an answer. Instead he took matters into his own hands, applied to volunteer with the Australian Imperial Force and took himself off to the western front without pay or any other support. He arrived in December as I said and just in time to witness one of the most unfathomably violent and bloody winters in European history.
Now the work Dyson produced in response to this was not what you would call typical war art at the time. Instead of sort of grand history paintings he produced a series of very empathic drawings of the everyday life of Australians experiencing really what to us today are ... is unimaginable horror on the western front. It was there he met Charles Bean who would also go on to become the founder of the Australian War Memorial and Bean helped get these drawings back to London in January 1917 where their significance was recognised immediately and the decision not to have an Australian official war arts scheme was quickly reversed. In May 1917 Will Dyson was retrospectively appointed Australia’s first official war artist and the Memorial’s art collection was born at the same time.
Now I tell this story not just by way of historical background but because I think it demonstrates two really crucial and often misunderstood elements about the role art plays at the Australian War Memorial. The first is that contemporary art has always and from the very beginning been central to commemorative practices in Australia at the Australian War Memorial. Contemporary art has always been absolutely crucial. And secondly it reminds us that the responsibility for complex histories of this nature is better taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and government officials and placed in the custody of artists. And I say that again fully aware of my own status in the former of those categories. So the other reason I tell this story is because these sentiments prevail today and the Memorial continues to commission contemporary artists to constantly reflect on and reconsider our histories and that was very much the motivation behind this particular commission.
I firmly believe that history can only be understood in relation to the present so it’s imperative that each generation interpret their histories anew and anew. And it’s for this reason we were so pleased when the Australian Tapestry Workshop approached us with the idea of commissioning an artist to reinterpret the historical moment that looms so large in our national present, Gallipoli. And it’s for the same reason we were so pleased and incredibly grateful when the Geoff and Helen Handbury Foundation came forward and offered to fund this project. It was an extremely generous degree of support.
So from a curatorial perspective and as someone who previous to my time at the War Memorial was certainly not of a military background or had experience within military history tackling the Gallipoli centenary in a single major commission was a challenge that offered innumerable complexity and posed many, many difficult questions. While the national and historical resonance of Gallipoli in the present is absolutely clear for example the precise reasons for this resonance are not. And I think that’s something we need to take the time to think about. And at the same time the cultural prominence of Gallipoli is also frequently contested both by those who would point out their more momentous moments in the first world war, for example the battles on the western front, that our focus on Gallipoli unfairly and unjustly excludes or by those who believe our national history or our national story and our national identity cannot be traced to battlefields regardless of their geographic locations.
And how we might ask 100 years later might we reflect upon an appallingly violent tragedy like Gallipoli but without reducing that tragedy to mere sentiment on the one hand or fetishistically isolating it from its broader historical context on the other? These were the kinds of problems and questions that confronted us while we were developing this project and it was precisely our own inability to make our way through them that made us realise it was time to give Imants Tillers a call.
Now I’m not going to pre-empt Imants by elaborating on his artistic response which you can see cycling around behind me in various actual shots and details and work in progress images apart from I think that the success of this work in so many ways is that rather than trying to resolve these various complexities, these slightly inexplicable but very powerful historical resonances, the contradictions that emerge from this narrative and the ambivalence of it. He managed to manifest that in the work itself rather than actually trying to resolve it. And the viewer presents as we can see here of a road with an obscured horizon that recedes somewhat uncertainly beneath a sun that might also be a black hole is itself I think a very rich metaphor for the very concept of history itself and that concept that underpins the stakes of remembering Gallipoli 100 years on.
So I would like to acknowledge before handing over to Imants however is also the role of the master weavers at the Australian Tapestry Workshop and the role they played in translating Imants’ painting into a tapestry and it was a very interesting process and one I was very new to. Imants’ commission was to produce a painting for us, that was then shipped from Cooma to Melbourne where five master weavers worked to translate that into a tapestry itself. And I think the technical complexity of translating this sort of very vast, incredibly complex painting at times rivalled the cultural complexity of the subject matter in Imants’ response itself. Just to give you a sense of what was involved in this the completed tapestry measures 3.3 by 2.8 metres and is one of and I think probably the largest tapestry produced in Australia in recent years.
Every single thread that you can see in there was hand-coloured with a dye that was custom-produced to precisely colour-match the colours in Imants’ painting and I should probably add at this point that the sheer number of colours and amount of detail were far more excessive than one would ever sensibly try to translate into a tapestry. This was an absolutely mammoth task. And to give a sense of that scope it took these five master weavers just under two and a half thousand hours of work to produce what you can see here today so it was I think both his ... well not both but historically, conceptually and just on a purely technical level an epic project from beginning to end.
So the work that you can see here now, and I probably should have brought an instore shot but hopefully you will have all seen this at the Memorial but if not will go and see it soon. It now hangs in our central stairwell where it provides what I like to think of as a kind of artistic spine that connects and centralises all of the various histories that are told in our galleries and that the relationship ... and that where it has this particular power where its reflection on the relationship between the past, the present and the future is able to resonate in a very powerful way beyond any particular time and place. Right so it’s on that note that I’d like to hand over to Imants to speak about the work itself, thank you.
I: Yeah, thank you for inviting me here to talk about this. Yeah, I think I’ll start by sort of elaborating on the process by which this happened and it all came out of the blue, really, I got a phone call from Ryan, I think, and he said oh the War Memorial wanted me to design an image that would be translated into a tapestry for the 100 year commemoration of Gallipoli. And I thought that was totally unexpected and he said ... I said oh well then ... I think he then said that he would like to come down with Claire Baddeley who was the Curator at the War Memorial and talk to me about it and I asked them ... asked him when they’d like to do that and he said tomorrow if possible because I think the funding for the tapestry had suddenly arrived so they did have the means to do such a project.
So that was quite shocking and so we agreed of course but I had very kind of strong emotions following the phone call because you know of course as an Australian I know the significance of Gallipoli but my own background is not Australian, my parents actually were Latvian and came to Australia as refugees post-World War Two and so I didn’t have any kind of Anzacs in my background so I thought this was quite ... it was kind of quite moving for me to be asked to do such a thing because oh well because I’d seen the whole thing of war from a different kind of context and viewpoint. I mean my ... well both my parents only came to Australia because they’d been affected by the ... oh well the events in Latvia in a ... and... which was a victim of the So ... Nazi-Soviet pact, secret pact between Hitler and Stalin whereby they carved up eastern Europe and Stalin was given ... oh well the Baltic countries which were invaded in 1940 and then a year later the Nazis came in and took over for a year ... no, for a couple of years actually and then the Soviet Union ... Stalin came in again around 1944.
And my father had actually been a sort of conscript you know conscripted soldier in the Latvian Legion at the age of 18 and my mother left Latvia in 1944 before the you know the second Soviet occupation as an 18 year old. She never saw her parents again. My father ended up in a prisoner of war camp after the war and then was released. They met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and then emigrated as refugees to Australia in 1949 so you know the sort of realities of war have been kind of imprinted on my psyche you know I think my father probably suffered from post-traumatic stress, not that it was actually identified in those days, I mean as many other people were to ... anyway they were grateful to be Australians but somehow you know the celebration of Anzac Day and Gallipoli seemed very focused on Australia whereas the wartime experience you know obviously was far broader than that. So that was partly why I felt ... I felt very moved to come from that background to be asked to you know work on this project.
So the next day when Claire and Ryan came down I had a work up on the wall in the studio which actually f ... you know forms most of the ... forms the basis of the you know what became the tapestry but it had been done for a different purpose, it was actually a painting about mourning a loss but not ... nothing to do with the war itself, it was kind of a personal loss. And in fact .. in fact I’d painted it ... oh well 12 months ... no, the loss had happened sort of 12 months earlier and so there’s very strong emotion in it including in choosing the image which was a kind of avenue you know quite calm but the ... oh well I suppose through the use of text that I chose that kind of expressed you know a sense of bereavement. And in fact text is something that I’ve used in my work for you know oh well 20 odd years so I always now seem to work with image and text.
So when Ryan and Claire came they liked the image but you know obviously there was a long way to go and they provided ... they invited me to the War Memorial and I went through some of their archives. There are a lot of paintings of Gallipoli, watercolours and other material, lot of you know there was a lot of material made available to me. One of the things that was sent to me after a while was a list of places where Australians had been buried in world war one with the numbers of you know people buried in each place. So I started thinking that that was an important element because it would also expand the work beyond the confines of just Gallipoli itself you know there were all the campaigns in France and Belgium. And so basically selected the places where most Australians were buried so it was you know of course Gallipoli, the yeah Anzac Cove and all of Gallipoli, I mean the ... where people’s remains weren’t exhumed.
Also in the Middle East there were quite a lot of place names that came up as well like Damascus and Beirut and Cairo which had a sort of resonance with the present. And then of course there were the French and Belgian names which are quite poetic and in fact in the past I have used place names when I first moved down with my family to Cooma about 20 years ago suddenly noticed the names places were called and they had quite a poetic ring to me so it was ... putting place names in a work was something that I’d already done. Yeah so then the dimensions was another issue. I had to do a sort of cartoon for the tapestry and I think usually they like to get something that’s smaller than the actual tapestry but I measured up the ... this kind of seed painting I suppose to see how it fitted within the dimensions and the width was actually exactly the width that the tapestry needed to be. The shape was different so I had to kind of expand it so I kept ... so I was able to produce a maquette that was full scale which was quite unusual but of course I had to ... in the lower part of the painting I changed the text from my existing painting into what I wanted it you know to then ... wanted it for the maquette so it would have relevance you know to Gallipoli.
Then the process you know I think after a couple of ... well it was ... my idea for it was approved. I think Ryan and Claire and the ... not the director ... Tim, Tim Sutherland came down and I showed them what I was thinking and yeah, they were very happy with it. So then we ... I could interact with the Tapestry Workshop so I had a visit a couple of months later. I mean there was a tight schedule but I think we were travelling overseas and had to then start work on it when we got back so immediately I had a visit from two or three of the ... Antonia Syme and then a couple of the weavers from the Tapestry Workshop and one of the key things for them was to dye the thread you know to match it to the painting and at first I thought they would take a few samples and ... but before the day was out they decided they wanted to take the painting there and then so I had to put it into a box and they took it away so the whole process was very ... had quite a few time issues. But I must say the process of working with the Workshop was fantastic. You know they ... it was quite amazing seeing the work emerge in a different medium. And in fact they had the work up on a wall about ... I don’t know, about 20 metres away from where they working so they were actually matching colour by eye from that distance you know which showed kind of phenomenal skill.
Also it was great watching someone else do that work. So I’d come down and I you know several months later and yes, they’d kind of worked a bit more and it was just sort of magically appearing in front of my eyes. Towards the end when they were coming to the deadline there was an issue where they didn’t think they could complete it in time without making changes to the design and one of the weavers wanted to move a couple of elements around especially around that section where it ... up there near Gall ... where it says Gallipoli because there was an overlay of three different texts and the text itself is actually very hard to weave too. So I think it was ... was it Sue? Oh Chris, yeah, yes, wanted to move the elements around but I sort of stood my ground. I said no you know that have been conceived as a totality so they did make it actually to the deadline. But I also wrote ... then when the work was finished I wrote a little text which I’ll read to you which is kind of I suppose ... oh well sums up what I was thinking.
You know it’s called Avenue of Remembrance. Alone with our destination, with our father and with our mother, the Gallipoli letter, an 8,000 word document written by Keith Murdoch during the early part of World War One is justifiably considered to be one of the National Library’s most important objects and the content of the letter is regarded as having helped bring to an end the Gallipoli campaign. In this letter Murdoch laments how young Australians knowing that they would probably die were flocking to fight on Gallipoli’s sacred soil. The passionate and urgent tone of Murdoch’s letter and sometimes even his turn of phrase, congealed incompetency, immediately struck a chord with me when I first read it. Also by coincidence it seemed to me that I had already been using similar expressions in many of my paintings over the last decade. To name a few there’s not a shred of hope, stupefied by circumstance, the appalling silence, purified by tears, a victim of what is infinitely close at hand.
These paintings were reflecting on mortality being time, loss, grieving and remembrance perhaps prompted by the death of my parents and several close friends in that passing decade. Typically these paintings combined image and text into a kind of visual spatial poem and I decided to use a similar approach to this project. Also with this tapestry design I decided to assume an exclusive focus on the tragic but nation-defining event that was Gallipoli and its geography and topography and to make reference to the whole of Australian participation in world war one. Thus the names of places where Australians were buried rather than the actual theatres of war are quoted as readymade poetic elements in my design thus familiar names such as Anzac Cove, Shrapnel Valley, Lone Pine appear alongside other Middle Eastern locales, Jerusalem, Gaza, Beirut and Al Alamein. But the majority of the resting places of our war dead are European and less familiar, French and Belgian places on what was called the western front, Ypres, Polygon Wood, Poperinge, Zonnebeke , Fromelles, Villers-Bretonneux, Peron, Fleur Bay to name just a few. In many places in the world, including Australia, there are gardens of remembrance, beautiful serene places commemorating the dead especially those killed in the wars of 1914 to ‘18 and 1939 to ‘45. There are also avenues of remembrance where each tree planted commemorates a particular unique individual who died in action. These are beautiful, sad and redemptive places. We all know that an avenue is not only a regular planting of trees along a road, it is also more abstractly a way of access or approach to something, to an idea or even a memory.
My avenue of remembrance is I hope a way or means to remember not only those young Australians who died but also the profound loss and grief experienced by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and sisters, by their friends, by their communities, by our nation. Travelling around Australia I have often noted the prominent position of war memorials within our towns and cities. In Rockhampton ... it was actually last year ... I recorded the inscription on their war memorial in the botanic gardens which I’ve included in my design. It reads, in remembrance of those who fell, unity, sacrifice, freedom. To that one might add they weep here because we surrendered our lives. Thank you.
A: Murdoch’s Gallipoli letter has impelled, triggered, caused a real variety of thought and action but this evening we’ve been privileged to hear about and to see the evocation of an exquisite work of art that has grown from those words and replicates some of those words. And so a big thank you to Nat for telling us about the letter and so vividly quoting from it, to Ryan who has talked about the genesis of the Memorial’s art collection and why this work was commissioned, and to Imants who gave us such a beautiful personal insight into the meaning of war and what he brought to the work that we’ve seen scroll in front of us.
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