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In the Galleries: Gordon Conway “Vanity Fair” cover illustration highlights shifting gender roles in World War I

By Gabrielle Inhofe

World War I played a crucial part in the transformation of gender roles.  As men left for the battlefields, women took on traditionally male occupations at home.  Buoyed by this experience and a new sense of confidence, these women started demanding more rights and independence.

 

These shifting roles were mirrored by new fashions, such as the flapper attire, which was ushered in by the rebellion of the post-war Jazz Age.  Style magazines like Vanity Fair captured these trends on its covers.

 

Gordon Conway, a Texas-born fashion designer and illustrator, was famous for her drawings of these sophisticated and independent “New Women.”  Conway launched her career at Vogue and Vanity Fair, and she was so talented that she was soon working for other publications, as well as a host of different advertising clients.  Throughout her career, she did costume design, magazine art, and poster art for film, cabaret, and theater, working in New York, London, and Paris.  She was remarkable not only for her artistic talent, but also for her ability to influence women’s desires for more cultural, sexual, and legal freedoms.

 

A Conway cover illustration for Vanity Fair is currently on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918.  The illustration features a stylish, svelte nurse with an Afghan hound.  Although the illustration was rejected for publication, it was later used by the Red Cross as a recruitment poster.

 

The Ransom Center’s Conway collection includes original art; photographs of family, friends and productions; and diaries, costumes, personal effects, datebooks, and numerous scrapbooks.

 

The World at War, 1914-1918 runs through August 3, 2014.

 

Image: Gordon Conway “Red Cross Girl” illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918.

War photography exhibition showcases images from the Ransom Center’s photography collection

By Natalie Zelt

Back in November the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath opened at its fourth and final venue, the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition, which I curated with Anne Tucker and Will Michels in my former role in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, featured over 400 photographic objects dating from 1848 to 2012, including a number of photographs from the Harry Ransom Center’s collections. Our curatorial mission was neither to tell a history of war illustrated by photography nor to present a series on singular photographers. Instead, we hoped to bring together a selection of objects that highlighted the intersections between war and photography.

 

Photographs from the Ransom Center collections were included throughout the exhibition, enriching the thematic sections that explored daily routine, shell shock, and dissemination, as well as battlefield burial and death.  The Gernsheim collection yielded a chilling 1871 print of communards in coffins, an image likely used to discourage further unrest in the streets of Paris, as well as Roger Fenton’s iconic and controversial 1855 photograph The Valley of the Shadow of Death from the Crimean War.

 

A Ransom Center fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment enabled curator Anne Tucker to spend weeks going through box after box of the Ransom Center’s prints, lantern slides, and stereographs. While in the reading room, she could compare the croppings of multiple photographs of Captain Ike Fenton and the U.S. Marines during the Korean War by David Douglas Duncan and share her findings. She also surveyed the collection of prints made at the height of the civil war in El Salvador by 30 international photographers, including Donna DeCesare and Harry Mattison.

 

The New York Journal- American photo morgue provided one of my favorite photographs in the exhibition. It is a small print from 1918 of a carrier pigeon being released from a tank on the Western Front. The image itself references one of the means of communication (pigeon transport) that is often associated with World War I, but it is also important as a photographic object because it carries the marks and highlights of an editor’s pencil, readying the print for reproduction and the image for dissemination.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Ransom Center partners with Texas Exes on World War I-themed anniversary tour

By Gabrielle Inhofe

2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a watershed event that claimed millions of lives and changed the course of the twentieth century.  The Ransom Center’s exhibit The World at War, 1914–1918 will illuminate the lived experience of the world’s first global war, and will be supplemented with a trip led by exhibition curators and historians to its key monuments and battlefields throughout Great Britain, France, and Belgium, from June 14 through June 23, 2014.  The trip is organized by the Texas Exes Flying Longhorns.  Information regarding the trip can be found on the Texas Exes alumni travel website.

 

Sites in London include the Imperial War Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Douglas Haig Memorial, 10 Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament.  Participants will also travel to Oxford to meet with scholar Dr. Jon Stallworthy, the leading scholar on the works of English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen.  The Ransom Center holds a collection of Owen’s letters.  While in London, participants will stay in the Grosvenor House, a historic 5-star hotel that is frequented by celebrities and royalty.

 

From London, the group will visit towns such as Ypres, Somme, Verdun, and Rheims, home to key battlegrounds and memorials along the Western Front.  The town of Ypres was the site of three major battles, as well as the first documented use of poison gas.  Visitors can still view Ypres’ trenches, underground bunkers, and even a church where Adolf Hitler was treated after being wounded.  Trip participants will also visit La Maison Forestière in Ors, a memorial to Wilfred Owen, and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.  France is also famed for its champagnes, and participants will enjoy a tasting, featuring classics like Veuve Cliquot and Tattinger.

 

The trip ends in Paris, home to attractions like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre-Dame.  Participants will stay in the Intercontinental LeGrand Hotel, a luxury hotel with views of the Paris Opera House.  There is an optional two-day extension of the trip here, which includes a Seine River cruise and a show at the Moulin Rouge.

 

For more information, visit their website.

 

Image: Cover of trip brochure.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Staff members view materials for an upcoming 2014 exhibition about World War I. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Staff members view materials for an upcoming 2014 exhibition about World War I. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
New members enjoy a preview of items from the fall 2014 exhibition "The Making of Gone With The Wind" with Curator of Film Steve Wilson at a curators' reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
New members enjoy a preview of items from the fall 2014 exhibition "The Making of Gone With The Wind" with Curator of Film Steve Wilson at a curators' reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator  of Photography Jessica McDonald shares materials from the upcoming fall  2013 exhibition “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital  Age” at a curator’s reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Photography Jessica McDonald shares materials from the upcoming fall 2013 exhibition “Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age” at a curator’s reception for new members. Photo by Pete Smith.

Postcards from France: Paul Fussell and the Field Service “Form-letter”

By Jean Cannon

May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.

Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.

The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.

 

In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period.  This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.

Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Related content:

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.

Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Edmund Blunden’s souvenir World War I map: St. Julien, Belgium, July 31, 1917

By Bob Taylor

Within the Ransom Center’s extensive collection of papers of British author and poet Edmund Blunden (1896–1974) is a group of printed maps. These maps came into Blunden’s possession during his service as an officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment during World War I. Most of the maps are British Ordnance Survey trench maps detailing various sectors in southwestern Belgium in the vicinity of Ypres and are what one might expect to find among the papers of an officer veteran of a conflict. One, however, differs in that it was acquired by then Lt. Blunden in the village of St. Julien under unusual circumstances.

On this map he has written “German map brought back by me from pillbox near St. Julien in the battle of July 31, 1917.”

That day was the first of the campaign known as Third Ypres or, by a name having special resonance, as Passchendaele. The village of St. Julien is about four miles northeast of Ypres on the road to Langemarck and Poelkapelle and was one of the first objectives taken by British troops in a campaign intended to build upon the success of the earlier battle of Messines Ridge, fought the previous June to the immediate south of Ypres.

As is so often the case in war, the early expectations of success eluded the planners of the offensive. Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s belief the that German army was near collapse proved illusory, and the hope of achieving a decisive breakthrough faded as the campaign wore on. Eventually the capture of the village of Passchendaele, seven miles east of Ypres, and a low ridge just beyond was settled on as a realistic culmination. When Canadian troops took the heights on November 9, 1917, the campaign came to an end, and an Allied victory was declared.

The map Blunden saved from the German bunker is a commercially published map in a scale of 1:300,000, issued by the firm of L. Ravenstein of Frankfurt am Main. Despite its title of Kriegskarte von Belgien und angrenzendem Frankreich (War Map of Belgium and Bordering Areas of France), it appears to be an undated wartime reissue of a conventional prewar political map. It has been updated by overprinting in red indicating “fremde Festungen” (foreign fortresses) and “ungefähre Frontlinie” (approximate frontlines).

The Blunden copy has further been cut into panels and mounted on cloth backing. It has one correction to the “front lines” done in graphite pencil, and, oddly for a map apparently in use in late July 1917, the area from Messines to Wytschaete taken by British forces in the struggle for Messines Ridge nearly two months earlier still appears on the map as a German salient.

Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.