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When Kate Gritton saw this photograph, she thought the soldier in the beret was her father, but was he?

Soundings: in search of one father’s war

In March 2017, on a visit to Venice, artist Kate Gritton found herself wandering the corridors of the Jewish Museum. Turning a corner, she came face-to-face with a photograph of a group of people, one the spitting image of her father. The exhibition featured British soldiers in World War II during liberation, but as far as Kate knew, while her father had been in Italy, he hadn’t been stationed in Venice. Thus began a journey of discovery, the expression of which are the 23 paintings that form Soundings, a month-long exhibition, which opens on 29 May at the Hastings Arts Forum. Here, A. Vasudevan catches up with the artist.

“The camera cannot lie, but it can lead to mistaken identity,” Kate comments. “The photograph I saw in Venice wasn’t of my father, but it led me to research his time in Italy, from 1943 to 1945.”

This period holds particular resonance for Kate: like many of her generation, she was born while her father was away at war: she was three when they met for the first time.

Soundings represents the emotional journey that I’ve been on, looking for the story of my father’s war in Italy… It’s partly about me; it’s partly about him and the war in general. It’s about making a connection.”

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Private Ernest John Winter

Aged 23, Ernest John Winter was conscripted into the East Surrey Regiment (today part of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment), after which he volunteered to be a cook and was assigned to an artillery division, the 70th Medium Regiment, which was sent to Italy. Two things were key to keeping an army moving: the water wagons and the cooks. The cooks were always up there in the midst of things, whatever the conditions – and they were under fire, too.

“I’m sure my father witnessed horrific things,” Kate comments. Certainly, that is true: the Italian Campaign resulted in more than 700,000 casualties on both sides. Unlike many of his peers though, Ernest Winter was lucky. He survived the war to return home, in 1946, to family and friends, going on to establish a successful career as a florist in south London. He never spoke to his family of those he left behind though.

“I’m not saying he forgot about the war, but he rarely talked about it… There must have been many people who came back very badly damaged, who couldn’t make that adjustment to normal life, whereas he did… He was a happy man… I’m very fortunate in that respect.”

Even after the war, Kate’s father loved all things Italian, something he has passed onto his daughter. And although he rarely talked about his experiences, he did mention significant places, including Naples, Rome and Florence, but “not Monte Cassino” Kate says, “although he was there”. The Battle of Monte Cassino, in 1944, was one of the most important engagements of the Italian Campaign; it was also one of the longest and bloodiest.

“War is nothing if not about human sacrifice – I hate that word ‘sacrifice'”, Kate adds. “It sounds as if you’re willingly giving your life and most didn’t. War is about flesh and blood.” And much of the work in Soundings is testament to that.

The paintings here are vivid, beautiful, visceral, shocking, tender, evoking a range of emotions in the viewer. Hide, for example, depicts a piece of stretched skin with faint numbers stamped into it, map coordinates. In the war diaries, Kate says, “they talked about reaching a Hide Area, where they’d hide the trucks, troops, etc. … but the word ‘hide’ brings to mind animal skin. It kept coming back to me.” Hide (oil on canvas) is an unsettling piece, sparking thoughts of the extermination camps and the reported display and use of human skin by the Nazis.

Three Miles West of Taranto (oil on canvas; 2018) by Kate Gritton

Three Miles West of Taranto (oil on canvas; 2018) by Kate Gritton

Other works include Three Miles West of Taranto, dedicated to Private Lee, a member of the Army Catering Corp, killed in action, whose grave is at that site; Aftermath, inspired by photographs of the devastation in Monte Cassino after the engagement (both paintings, oil on canvas) and The Land also Bleeds (mixed media). “I feel the land suffers as much as the people,” Kate explains.

The paintings were never intended as a “historical documentary”. They are more a searching for her father’s “untold story” from a distance of more than 70 years.

“War ensured peace in Europe and liberty for my generation and that of my children,” Kate says. “For that I remember the cost and am profoundly grateful.”

Soundings is a reflection of all this, the exhibition, in many ways, a love letter from a daughter to her long dead father. It is also a fine tribute to Private Ernest John Winter and the men and women who sacrificed so much in World War II so that we, their descendants, can live free.

Let’s not waste that gift.

Soundings – in search of my father’s war, art by Kate Gritton. 29 May to 24 June 2018, Hastings Arts Forum, 36 Marina, St. Leonards-on-Sea, TN38 0BU. Preview: Friday 1 June 2018, 6.30-8.30pm.

Ferita I, Ferita II and Sinew (oil on canvas) by Kate Gritton

Posted 09:57 Tuesday, May 29, 2018 In: Arts News


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