Go back to article: Prosthetic limbs on display: from maker to user

'War, Art and Surgery'

At the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) we planned to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by displaying the College’s holdings of First World War pastel portraits of plastic surgery patients by surgeon-artist Henry Tonks. Keen to represent the contemporary alongside them, we welcomed an approach by Julia Midgley, a reportage artist whose work from a previous medical residency already featured in the RCS collections. ‘Conscious of the flow of injured servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan’, she had been inspired by Tonks’ work to compile a twenty-first century equivalent (Midgley, 2014, p 238). This also chimed with our efforts to address issues around difference and disfigurement (RCS, 2007; Gosling, 2012), and to incorporate disability into museum practice as a matter of course (RCS, 2012).

Accordingly, with the support of military clinicians and the Ministry of Defence, Midgley gained access to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, at Headley Court in Surrey. Over two years she worked with healthcare professionals and recovering service personnel to represent the long and challenging process of rehabilitation (see Figure 4). The soldiers in recovery were referred to by the clinicians as ‘patients’ rather than service users or clients, and they identified themselves as such. In response to Midgley’s request to sketch, made via their clinicians, they responded positively. Royal Air Force doctor Clare Walton was in command at Headley Court at the time. She recalled: ‘It is not always easy to predict how patients will react to such personal requests but in this case they also loved the idea. The drawing sessions were unobtrusive and sympathetic. All the patients who volunteered were soon fully engaged and enjoying the experience’ (Walton, 2014, p 317). Midgley’s artistic process involved close proximity – a common feature of both reportage and medical art – and together with her sitters’ curiosity this engendered dialogue. Her work reflected ‘the intimacy afforded me as I worked among and alongside patients and their medical staff during rehabilitation and training’ (Midgley, 2014, p 264). Although she noted names and ranks when possible, she did not formally record these exchanges. She later reflected, ‘the soldiers [were] very private and I didn't wish to intrude on their concentration nor on their privacy. Nor did I wish their staff to think I was probing where I shouldn’t.’[2]

Figure 4

Sketch in watercolour of leg amputees undergoing rehabilitation

'Physio; 1.30 pm', Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, Headley Court, 10 July 2013. Two views of the same patient as he works in the physiotherapy department. Soluble ink and wash on paper, 28 x 38 cm. WAS 108

Midgley produced 155 drawings, including surgeons in training at Strensall Camp near York, at the RCS, and at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. She engaged with and represented clinicians (Walton, 2014) including prosthetists (see Midgley, 2014, pp 233, 296–297). The final exhibition included historical and contemporary military medical equipment. We also wanted to connect this technical-clinical story with patient perspectives on their rehabilitation and the relationship with healthcare professionals. In the 62 Headley Court artworks, 57 different personnel in rehabilitation are represented (some of them multiple times as Midgley followed their experience), of whom 19 are named.

We planned to juxtapose this series with 72 Henry Tonks pieces. We set out to gather as much information as we could about the two groups of patients, past and present. For the former we went to the case files, the First World War records, and to existing historical work (Bamji, 2017), and gathered the most comprehensive public account of those patients to date. Ironically, it proved far more difficult to find information from the living personnel. As far as appropriate we tried via the medical services and social media to elicit testimony from the men and women Midgley sketched, but to little avail. Only three responded: two head injury patients (Sapper Manoa Madraitabua and John Dawson of the Grenadier Guards) and one prosthetic user, Andy Reid.

After triggering an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, Reid had endured limb loss and spent months at Headley Court (Reid, 2013). He was thoughtful in his response to Figure 5 when he returned to the RCS to participate in a documentary (Foxtrot Films, 2015):

I visited Headley Court many times during the rehabilitation following my injuries from an Improvised Explosive Device in 2009. This picture is of one of my last visits to Headley Court – I left the army in 2012. It was an exciting time, but I was also reflecting on sad times.

I thought it strange when Julia asked if she could sketch me during my prosthesis fitting – a random lady wants to draw a picture – a bit of an intrusion on what is quite an intimate process. But so many people come and go when you’re at Headley Court that I said it didn’t bother me. In the army you don’t get much personal space.

In this picture I was just going to get up and walk out of the room – I was about to attach the other prosthetic, as there’s no point in wearing one leg. I don’t wear that electric arm very often, because it’s heavy. Julia’s picture looks to me a bit unfinished; and without my leg on I look a bit unfinished too.

I think the more people know about rehabilitation the better. Soldiers’ deaths are in the news, but not what happens to those of us recovering from injuries (quoted in Midgley, 2014, p 187).

Figure 5

Sketch in watercolour of a double leg amputee with prosthetics

'Andy Reid – Plaster Room', Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, Headley Court, 14 June 2012. Andy Reid – outpatient – attends his appointment as part of his continuous rehabilitation programme. Pencil on paper acrylic and wash on paper, 42 x 30 cm.  WAS 062

The interpretation of Tonks’ work in the exhibition War, Art and Surgery was full of personal detail, albeit with few direct quotes from the soldiers. The labels next to Midgley’s work, by contrast, were brief, and the contemporary material displayed was dominated by a surgical narrative.

There were several reasons for this. Many of the personnel had demobilised in the interim; they were no longer part of the military-medical system and were busy getting on with their lives. We cannot know whether they were happy to be framed as ‘patients’ during the rehabilitation, and then in the exhibition next to the First World War patients – but their silence indicated they may no longer have seen themselves in this light. Arguably, part of the function of Headley Court was to effect a change from amputation patient to prosthetic user. The approach soliciting feedback then came from the museum team, employees of a Royal College rather than the artist they had warmed to. In retrospect, curators could have worked more closely with Midgley and her sitters in situ while she was drawing. We could have involved elements of co-curation in the exhibition itself (Boon, 2011), as the Science Museum would go on to do with veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder in the last section of the Wounded exhibition (Freeth, 2016). Nevertheless, at the RCS we were pleased to have represented their experience in the gallery alongside the advances in medical care and the accomplishments of surgeons. But aside from Reid’s eloquence, these prosthetic users are represented with silent dignity.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170806/002