The shrouded figurines created by Rob Heard laid out at Bristol Cathedral (Photo: Centenary News)

'Shrouds of the Somme' - Artist's Centenary tribute in Bristol

Posted on on 19 November 2016
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As the 2016 Somme Centenary commemorations draw to a close, Centenary News finds the public deeply moved during a visit to the Shrouds of the Somme installation in Bristol.

Each of the 19,240 figurines laid out in front of Bristol Cathedral represents a soldier of the British forces killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. 

They're the work of artist Rob Heard, who spent more than two years hand stitching calico shrouds and wrapping every one of the figures, pausing for moments of reflection as he did so on the individual sacrifice of the men who died. 

The purpose is to 'physicalise the number - to illustrate the enormity of the horror which unfolded and the loss of life.'

Shrouds of the Somme is making its second appearance in western England after the initial display in Exeter in July captured widespread public imagination at commemorations marking the start of the Battle of the Somme.

Rob said he'd never expected such an intense reaction: "I was not aware that this subject 100 years can still produce such emotion. I wasn't ready for this at all," he told Centenary News.

The rows of figurines on Bristol Cathedral's College Green (above) now serve as a memorial to all those killed in the four-month offensive which came to an end 100 years ago this week.

Using lists sourced from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Rob crossed off the names of all of the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme, as he created the shrouded figures.

Each 12-inch (30 cm) figurine is differently shaped, reflecting the individuality of the man remembered.

As to the future, Rob Heard would like to take Shrouds of the Somme to other parts of the UK scarred by the losses of July-November 1916, but that inevitably depends on funding. The Bristol installation is being supported by sales of the figurines.

Even more ambitiously, he aims to complete the task with a similar tribute to the tens of thousands of missing men whose names are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

'They still remain on the battlefield where they fell to this day. If by making a shroud for each one, I can in a small way bring them home, it should be done.'

Artist Rob Heard looking over 'Shrouds of the Somme' (Photo: Centenary News) 

CN Editor Peter Alhadeff comments:
This haunting tribute to the dead of the Somme is making much the same impact as the Tower of London poppies for those who get an opportunity to see it, with far fewer resources.
Even if you've viewed the many photos circulating online, the stark physical reality of the figures, and the men and the horrific events they symbolise, still comes as a shock, no matter how many other First World War memorials you've seen.
Like the poppies, it's the visual originality of the concept that's striking, in this case to give a sense of the enormity of one of the most quoted casualty figures of the Great War.
The public appreciation for Rob Heard's work, begun as he strove to recover from a car accident in 2013, is deeply felt and openly expressed.
Speaking to the artist on Tuesday, I lost count of the number of visitors, some with tears in their eyes, who approached to offer him their personal thanks.
'Overwhelming, incomprehensible, you've just got to see it' were just some of the most frequent observations about the display and the losses it represents.

The lists of 19,240 men killed on 1 July 1916 (Photo Centenary News)

Spanning two significant dates, 'Shrouds of the Somme' opened with an Armistice Day commemoration on November 11, attended by hundreds of people. It closes with another ceremony on Friday (November 18), highlighting the much less well known last day of the Somme in 1916. More details, and a video, can be found at 19240 Shrouds of the Somme. The project is supporting the UK armed forces charity, SSAFA.

Images: Centenary News

Posted by CN Editor, reporting from Bristol