From a deftly shaded watercolour of a soldier’s quarters to a stark rendering of men hunkered down in the trenches, “J.M.” proves himself to be a talented, if anonymous, artist.
His First World War sketch books, bought by the University of Victoria from a private seller, are a puzzle. The artwork is the main content in a two-volume leather diary that will be a key item in an upcoming exhibit called Arts of World War 1.
This year is the centennial of the start of the war.
One of the event’s curators is Marcus Milwright from UVic’s Department of Art History & Visual Studies, who called the diary “a history mystery worthy of its own exhibition.” The amazing piece was located by one of Milwright’s research assistants in UVic’s “special collections” area.
“It’s a fantastic, two-volume collection of watercolours and pen-and-ink drawings which were produced between about 1917 and 1918,” Milwright said.
It’s not even clear when the diary came into UVic’s possession,
“It may have been in about the 1960s,” Milwright said. “Unfortunately, the records that were kept then weren’t terribly detailed.
“There isn’t really any information about the person from whom it was bought.”
The content shows that J.M. was creating his art from wartime experiences “then working them up as finished images,” Milwright said.
Most of what is known about J.M. comes from a dedication page that mentions his daughter, Adele. Milwright said he is quite certain J.M. is a man, although there is a possibility J.M. is a woman from the nursing corps.
Milwright noted that J.M. distinguishes himself from “the real artists,” which likely means he is emphasizing that he is not a bona fide war artist. “I think what he’s trying to say is that it’s a personal set of collections and it’s not official in any capacity.”
Horses are among J.M.’s favourite subjects, Milwright said.
“He has a wonderful feeling for horses.”
Milwright said he figures J.M. is either British or Canadian, but his “points of reference” seem to hint more at the former.
“He’s got a satirical image called the British Hindenburg.”
Milwright said his best guess is that J.M. is British and Adele made her way to Canada. That at least would explain why the diary ended up here, he said.
The diary contains very little writing, Milwright said.
“I think that he really expresses himself through the images.”
Milwright is eager to hear from anyone who has information about the diary, J.M. or Adele. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Arts of World War 1 is a four-month exhibit opening Nov. 7 in the Legacy Maltwood, a gallery in UVic’s William C. Mearns Centre for Learning at the McPherson Library.