Henry Tonks; The reality of the faceless war victims.

Summer work continued exploration: Henry Tonks; The reality of the faceless war victims.

Henry Tonks was a British surgeon in his early life who always had an unwavering passion for art. Soon after qualifying to be a surgeon he began attending art lessons at Westminster School of Art in 1888 and exhibited his paintings with the New English Art Club from 1891. He struggled to find his own style after having been influenced by those such as Degas for so long, yet, when he did, changed the artistic world with a huge variety of surgical illustrations and paintings. His drawings transformed the boundaries of medicine and art so much so that we was invited to be a professor at the Slade School of Art, one of the most renowned art schools in the world.

His demeanour, and the peculiarity of his personality meant that he was a respected but extremely feared teacher. Tonks was remarkably good at what he did, renowned for teaching many of the illustrious students of a generation that were forced away to a war they hadn’t wanted to wage, had abhorred and condemned the pure carnage and painted the horrors which they witnessed and brought back the scarred canvas portraying all that was unthinkable to the parents of the soldiers back at home. Tonks was impressed with his students works, but knew that, like most artists who went away to war to record the atrocities, there was always something missing. The reality and truth was not captured to its rawest degree, and that there was still deceit, distortion and evasion on canvas.

Acrylic and watercolour, my take on one of Henry Tonks’ War portraits

Tonks took this into his own hands and travelled out to the great war to confront it. Rather than focusing on the destruction left by humans of the ravished and ruined landscape, he studied the broken people; Men without faces.

He worked together with a pioneer plastic surgeon, capturing the most feared disfigurement of the Great War; defacement leading to loss of identity. Tonks put his career on hold at the Slade, and began painting an unexpected portrait of war through the men who wore its toll on their faces which had been stripped so unfairly from them. It was only after having seen these devastating, disembodied faces that Tonks finally created his own unique and original style. Original not so much in the way which it was done, but original in the intrepid and fearless confrontation with the direct effects of war. Capturing miserable, destroyed men’s portraits when they had no face to study. What remained in most of these men were only eyes, pleading to be remembered, and accepted by their own families.

Chalk pastel pencil draft of another portrait

He began a private and secret record with the surgeon of the healing process, as the faces were restored back to a face that could be recognised as human. His works had to be kept hidden because they held too much horror within them, to much destruction that would discourage any audacious young man from joining the war, no matter how much their country was desperate for them.

Tonks’s chalk pastel drawings showed the life changing art of plastic surgery at its finest. It proved that the men could have an identity back, one very different to their previous yet still an identity all the same. They would carry smaller scars in the grooves and wrinkles in their faces where the skin grafts had been grown and pulled the remaining flaps of skin together to vaguely resemble a nose or a cheek that was no longer a gouged hole into the abyss of the consequence of war. The art of plastic surgery allowed them to be whole again; to be human again.

Tonks chalk portrait

Although, as influential as the works of Tonks are, I feel that they are still a dream far from the reality of the suffering patient. Tonks captures the grotesquely deformed faces, the wounds clear and blatantly obviously the focus of the drawings, yet he takes them only at face value. There are times when he manages to capture the screams of ‘help’ and acceptance within the eyes of the patient but more often that not I believe he misses the whole identity of the person whom he has been trying to help.

He captures the wounds exactly as they are. The first layer of destruction of a face with so much lost, but he doesn’t take into account the multiple, deeper layers behind that broken nose or obliterated eye. The psychological effects of war that are repeated day by day in the supposedly healing patients. I feel as though Tonks and the surgeon made each face their canvas, sewed, stitched and collaged skin together in a patchwork of cells onto a brain so badly damaged that they could never be fixed, no matter how hard anyone tried to raise acceptance of these men who had been turned into monsters by a war they never ever wished for.

The surgeon carried out miracles with amazing work that changed medicine as we know it, but I truly believe that it is so sad to think that society was so wrapped up in an idea of what a human should look like that they overlooked what truly matters. An identity is not who or what you are; it is the opposite. An identity is what you can’t see, it is who you are as an individual.
You do not need a face to have an identity.
You do not need a face to be a hero.


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