On July 14th, 1916, 2nd Lieutenant Lumley of the Royal Flying Corps graduated from Central Flying School Upavon. He was twenty-five years old. The aircraft he piloted that summer day on his inaugural graduate flight crashed on Salisbury Plain. The Crash Cards tell us simply that his plane suffered mechanical failure. Lumley survived. His leather flying gear protected his head and torso but his face was burned beyond recognition.
The severity of Lumley's burns qualified him for transfer to the facial injuries unit at Queen Mary's Hospital Sidcup under the care of Surgeon Sir Harold Gillies. Eighteen months after his accident, Lumley underwent one of Gillies' most ambitious surgeries. What remained of Henry's face was removed and replaced with a large skin graft from his chest. The surgery appeared to be a success, but less than a month after surgery, Lumley's body rejected the graft, and he died of heart failure on March 11th, 1918.
Henry was one of a surprisingly small number of men who died as a result of the facial reconstructive surgery performed by Gillies and his surgical team. The majority of the more than 5,000 men injured in the First World War who passed through Gillies' hands regained function and degrees of aesthetic resemblance to their selves prior to injury on the battlefields of Europe.
While I was making implants for patients with facial bone injuries as Artist in Residence (2000-04) in the Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery at Guy's Hospital London, my curiosity was sparked about the origins of reconstructive surgery. A vague recollection of a short film of First World War servicemen being fitted with facial prosthetics to disguise losses to their faces led me to the Gillies Archive at Queen Mary's Hospital Sidcup. A meeting with the archive curator Dr Andrew Bamji set my course for the next four years. I felt compelled to bring the stories of some of the servicemen who underwent Gillies' extraordinary surgery to as wide an audience as possible. And so 'Project Facade' was born.
Having originally trained in ceramics, the themes of my work and the materials I use now varies widely. Over the past fifteen years the use of appropriate materials to the subject has become paramount and the communication of ideas and the telling of stories is at the core of my practice.
Responding artistically to the medical records of Gillies' patients, my primary aim is to describe in simple, visual terms how Gillies moved skin from one part of the body onto the face to reconstruct missing noses, ears, eyes and jaws. This isn't about replication of injury, more about the communication of repair.
To represent skin I use the fabric of military uniforms similar to those worn by the men when they were injured. It is the most logical method of communicating the surgery. Whereas the uniform is a record of the wearer's military service, I embellish it with the physical consequences of the action the men saw. But the more I investigate the stories of the patients, the more the 'surgical explanation' has become secondary to the personal narratives.
As an artist, my initial draw to the archive material was on a visual level. Each serviceman's record contained handwritten notes, pen and ink pre-operative sketches and X-rays. Gillies was a great recorder of the work performed at the plastic surgery unit. Most notable were the sequential photographs of the patients' progress through multiple surgeries. Gillies pioneered the use of photography to document medical treatment and to augment the patient records.
My work moved direction when I read the handwritten notes describing the extreme efforts made by Gillies and his team to rebuild the men's faces. Among the medical terminology I would find the occasional emotive phrase or comment. These seemingly insignificant comments inspired me to shift the project from one which explains the surgery patients underwent, to the stories of who the patients were, how and where they were injured, and how they lived the rest of their lives. …