“Trenches, Rats, and Watercolors” by Geoff Watkinson

My internship duties in the Fine and Decorative Arts Department of the British National Army Museum included organizing and documenting collections of photographs and rearranging shelves of original 17th and 18th century diaries from Brits who had explored the Middle East. The men who had produced these artifacts had lived exhilarating lives, even if they had mostly faded into obscurity. To make the job at least somewhat meaningful, I told myself that it was my responsibility to keep these individuals alive by capturing their work in a spreadsheet.

I was 20-years old, living in the Kensington neighborhood of London with 15 students from my American college in a fifth floor flat. I traveled extensively to western Europe, addicted to the excitement of a world I hadn’t seen. During free days, I explored the city, and most nights I went to pubs and clubs until the early morning, waking up a few hours later for my internship. 

The monotony of the museum job convinced me to never work in a museum again, but I was glad I had learned that. I had no idea what I wanted, but I had a growing list of things that I didn’t want. Occasionally, however, during my duties at the museum I would stumble upon something interesting.

I documented a series of “watercolours and drawings in a graphic cartoon style” that focused on the western front of World War I by Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly, a British soldier who worked steadily on his teaching and artistic career after the war: “he published several books of bird paintings before being recalled to the army in 1939…” He taught at the Rugby [School] until 1966, while also curating national museum galleries. He even designed posters for London Transport and the Underground from 1927 until 1960.

I handled Talbot Kelly’s 30 portfolio-sized watercolors without gloves. No one wore gloves. To the Brits, artifacts less than two or 300 years old weren’t so ancient. Talbot Kelly used bright colors, especially yellows, greens, and oranges. His images seemed to flutter, as if he’d painted beyond where the end of a man’s face should have been or beyond the border of a tank, so that each object bled into the other. They presented a beautiful amalgamation of violence that was uncomfortably human. Men wore gas masks. Green tanks rolled in no-man’s-land. An orange sun dropped behind the bleak brown battlefield of Verdun.

I put the information into an Excel Spreadsheet, including transcription of the notes Talbot Kelly had made on the back of each sketch. He’d produced most of the watercolors when he got a rest from the front, a place where he undoubtedly slogged around in muddy trenches, killed rats, and took trips over the top to try to kill a man in another trench a thousand feet away. I wondered if he had killed anyone on the same day that he’d created a painting. The museum had purchased the collection for somewhere around £30,000. Once I was done with the documentation, the collection was shipped out to one of the dozens of storage warehouses around the outskirts of London. Museums have lots of stuff, and they must put it somewhere. Less than one percent of a typical museum’s holdings are on exhibit. To my knowledge, Talbot Kelly’s collection never saw an exhibit floor. Although I wasn’t supposed to, I photographed every one of them.

I hold onto those photos as if they are my private collection, for my eyes only. Fifteen years later, and I wonder if those watercolors are still boxed away in a warehouse on the outskirts of London, the museum deciding to exhibit other pieces of art over Talbot Kelly’s—the history that we see chosen by a select few who run the museums and galleries around the world.

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, ‘Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays,’ is due out in early 2022 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

Trenches, Rats, and Watercolors was previously published in the Montana Mouthful

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