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Art bringing the trenches back to life; Painter Rob Perry tells Terry Grimley about the enduring fascination of landscapes marked by the First World War.

For a month early this year, Rob Perry was given some small insight into the misery suffered by countless soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War.

The Stourbridge artist, who has perfected the art of working on location with a van specially customised to serve as a mobile studio, drew and painted at night during hostile January and February weather in what remains of the trench systems of the Somme.

'What was eerie was when I had to go back to the van, a quarter of a mile away, to pick up something,' he recalls. 'I would collect whatever it was and then make my way back to the trench by the faint light of the lamp I had left there.

'It was very disorientating and it struck me that's what it must have been like. I could almost hear the soldiers whispering to themselves. I dread to think how I would have coped with that situation.'

Perry has been drawing and painting the Western Front since 1991, working in Flanders and at Verdun as well as on the Somme. In the Somme area his work has made him something of a local celebrity, winning him the accolade of citizen of honour of the town of Albert, famous as the arrival point for British troops heading for the trenches.

Perhaps best known for his spectacular panoramas of the Black Country, Perry has a fascination with sites which represent some of the darkest episodes of the 20th century, and to which his drawings - which he times as well as dates - seem to bear witness. He has also driven his van as far as Auschwitz to record what remains there.

'My main motivation is my loathing of warfare,' he says. 'It's the ordinary people who have to pay the price. I wouldn't have minded if the Kaiser and King George had had pistols at dawn.

'It's not a morbid fascination. I've always been intrigued by mysteries of time and space. You can be in the same space but in a different time, or in the same time but a different space, but when those co-ordinates are wrong, that's when the Holocaust happens.'

The Somme battleground and its constituent places, like Thiepval, Delville Wood and Mametz, retain a powerful, sinister grip on the imagination more than 80 years after the First World War ended.

In a compelling diary of his latest expedition, published to coincide with an exhibition of the work from the Somme which has just opened at the new RBSA Gallery, Perry talks about his struggle to avoid being drawn into the cult of the Somme which continues to attract so many visitors.

'There's so much to be seen on the Somme,' he says. 'Aveluy Wood, where I was working, isn't fenced off. But some of the locals get a bit fed up with bombastic British people telling them their grandfather died for them. And you get people searching for souvenirs with metal detectors, which of course are banned.'

His own interest in the First World War goes back to childhood, when his grandmother would leaf through a big photograph album with him.

'She had relatives in the war, and a lot of friends. She had four cousins who were all killed and three brothers who all survived. One of the cousins was a very talented artist. She had a painting he'd done at the age of 16, a seascape, and he died when he was 19.

'When I was 16 my father happened to get a book out of the library for me on the First World War and I did a few drawings of British troops at Beaumont Hamel.

'Then for the next four or five years I followed up this interest and did drawings and paintings from photographs. Then I drifted off into marriage and teaching, but in 1991 I had an opportunity to go to France and felt I must have some sort of theme to pick up on. At first I thought of following the River Seine, and then it occurred to me that that was where the Western Front was.

'All the thematic strands of my work have been with me since I was 16. I'm always trying to extricate myself from the First World War, but it sucks you in. I always say it's a small part of my work, though it seems to have taken over this exhibition at the RBSA.'

Nevertheless, he is not ready to draw a line under the First World War work just yet.

'I originally intended to do one month on the Somme, one month back here and a month in Verdun. But I came back from the Somme to find a letter saying they wanted me to do the first exhibition at the new gallery at Dormston School.

'I'd like to do an exhibition that shows the different character of the Somme, Flanders and Verdun. There are a lot more remains of trenches in Verdun. It's a forested place, trees have grown up but preserve what was there and of course there were a lot of concrete forts. Flanders, the Somme and Verdun are all very different, but I would say Verdun is definitely the most sinister. It's very grim there.

'I never thought anything would make the First World War seem relatively civilised, but Auschwitz did. Auschwitz is the horror of horrors.'

By way of perhaps welcome contrast, the RBSA exhibition also includes some of Perry's most recent work - panoramas of Birmingham painted from Alpha Tower and the Rotunda.

'I'd been looking for some time for a suitable high vantage point in Birmingham, but there was nowhere from which I got a similar view to Darby's Hill in Dudley,' he says. 'So last year I got permission to do some work from Alpha Tower.'

Rob Perry's exhibition The Somme Battlefields, Winter 2000 and New Visions of Birmingham is at the RBSA Gallery, 4 Brook St, St Paul's Square, Birmingham, until May 20 (Mon-Wed, Fri 10.30am-5.30pm, Thur 10.30am-8pm, Sat 10.30am-5pm, admission free; Meet the Artist and book signing days Wednesday May10/17 and Saturday May 13/20). An Artist's Diary: Robert Perry in the Somme Battlefields, Winter 2000, is available at the exhibition, price pounds 7.50, or direct from the artist (post free) at 39 Wordsley Green, Stourbridge, West Midlands.
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Author:Grimley, Terry
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 8, 2000
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