About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 29 September 2012

Trench Art but not Trench Art

I recently acquired from my (very) friendly local antiques dealer this curious object, which looked immediately like a piece of First World War trench art. All the parts were there – the brass cylinder shape of the shell, the rim round the base, with what appeared to be notches milled by hand, and most of all the lid made from a penny with the head of King George V, which opened to reveal the date 1915. But why was the penny so worn? Why did the decorative crest not have any apparent military reference? And what would the patent numbers on the base reveal?


USA patent 2146896 can be found easily on http://www.google.com/patents?id=RH5DAAAAEBAJ&pg=PA1&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false The patent for the Gas Burner Igniter was issued to J H G Horstmann on 14 February 1939, for a hand-held tool to light a gas fire or cooker, with a brass casing at the base to hold a battery which gives a charge to ignite gas fed in through a nozzle. John Hermann Gustav Horstmann was one of the family of Horstmanns whose engineering company based in Bath developed from a clock-making business in the mid-nineteenth century into a major engineering concern producing cars, gas-flow controllers and central heating systems.

So, not First World War trench art, and a clear explanation for the worn condition of the penny. But then, more intriguing, why such a strong visual reference to trench art? Could this be Second World War trench art, with a knowing reference to the earlier conflict in the selection of a 1915 penny? But what of the crest, not as far as I have been able to find out, having any military reference? All rather mystifying, unless it is thought of as an example of how trench art became embraced within the general culture of folk-art, with skills acquired during the First World War being maintained and practised until after the Second World War, in much the same way that new words and words shared between classes of people in the First World War became common usage, and were adapted, retained or abandoned during and after the Second World War.

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