As part of the ‘Forged by Fire’ project, the research team decided to commission Birmingham artist Sarah Taylor Silverwood to produce a series of stories, which will form a graphic novel describing some of the experiences of the people and professionals who experienced and treated burns historically. Sarah, who was an artist in residence at the University of Birmingham previously, had proven herself extremely capable of conveying stories like ours in the graphic novel format. However, given that we began to work with her in the early stages of the project, we felt she might begin with a more familiar burns story covered by our project, that of the RAF pilot Geoffrey Page, who was shot down above the English Channel on 12 August 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Burned by the high-octane fuel that spilled into the cockpit of his Hurricane aircraft and ignited, and rescued off the coast of Britain, Page was taken to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead (West Sussex, to the south of London), where his burns were treated by the New Zealand surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. While at East Grinstead, Page would become a founding member of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’, a social club and mutual support network of airmen injured during the Second World War. Before the conclusion of the conflict, Page succeeded in regaining full operational status and would return to the skies, and continued to fly after the war’s end. On 12 December 2017, Jonathan Reinarz met with Sarah to discuss the making of this first set of drawings.
JR: Can you describe how you went about doing the Geoffrey Page story?
STS: We went through and discussed his biography and the tale that went right back from him dreaming of going flying as a child to training, and then eventually the story about how his burn came about through an accident [in the Second World War]. We wrote that down and tried to think about some key parts of the story and what the focus would be in terms of telling it in these panels.
JR: Was this really strong imagery already appearing to you as you read through his biography?
STS: Yes, for me the strongest bits of the imagery were about being up in the sky in a plane and the pilot’s perspective you have of the ground below. So, at first it was about the rush he got from being in the sky, and his dream of that idea of being in the air, and then, in parallel to that, it was the idea of the accident and falling from the plane and then landing in the sea. The contrasts between the two of them, these two images, really stood out. But he also had a really good way of telling a story through imagery. So, a lot of the way he would describe things, for example, when he first fell into the sea, he talks about the parachute being wrapped around him like an octopus and there were quite a lot of really amazing ways he’d been able to distill some really terrifying situations with quite simple imagery to allow you to feel that experience.
JR: What are some of the challenges of working with a historical team on something like this?
STS: [laughter] I suppose we talked a lot about which source you worked with and where that information is coming from and whose story you’re telling. And also a lot of the time the things that are recorded are factual, whereas the things I found really useful came from accounts of when he was undergoing plastic surgery, he couldn’t actually see what was going on, but he remembered things like the smell of onions and he remembered the feel of molten wax burns. Those sensory things came across in his personal writing, so it was about making sure we conveyed the ‘facts’ about what actually happened, along with the personal side of it as well.
JR: What do you hope the students who read this will take from the story? It’s pretty difficult reading but it’s optimistic as well.
STS: Yes, it is. But the thing that struck me and I hope people will really think about is that this is almost in living memory. It’s really recent, but the amazing developments in plastic surgery that happened during this time dramatically changed the kinds of recoveries people would have and, from this story to some of the more recent ones we will see, it will give people an understanding of how things have changed since that time.
JR: Did you learn a bit more about the work that was done at East Grinstead [where Geoffrey Page was treated]? Do you know that all the plastic surgeons from Harold Gillies to Archie McIndoe worked very closely with artists when they were originally designing their operations?
Mollie Lentaigne – Artist East Grinstead
STS: No, that’s so interesting. What’s been really good about using drawings to represent these stories is that a few marks can represent a face, so you don’t have to get into the intricacies of trying to represent the burn, and you can tell it in a more subtle way.
JR: Can you also say something about all the hands that appear in this story?
STS: One of the key parts of the story was about when Page was holding on to the throttle of the plane, the flames burned through his hand. He wasn’t wearing any gloves and then he talks about the smell of burning flesh. And, then, hands seem to be a key part of what he documents about his recovery. He couldn’t clench his hand into a fist for some time, and when he eventually did, when he eventually had the ability for his tendons to contract, he said it felt like he was touching a rhinoceros. He suddenly had regained that sense of touch on his palm and it was not what he remembered. And, also, I think, in terms of his profession, hands are incredibly important. They were what he was using to work, to fly. He talks about Archie’s fingers giving him back the pilot’s hands. And that was really the focus of his recovery, more so than his face.
JR: So, the pilot, the surgeon and now the artist, or your hands as well.
STS: Yes, in fact, these are all probably drawings of my hands.
JR: So you were your own model there?
Over the next two years, Sarah will be illustrating other stories from the archives. Some, like the biography of Geoffrey Page, will examine the experiences of patients, while others will consider the impact of fire and burns on medical professionals and the fire services. Together, these stories will be bound into a downloadable graphic novel, which we hope instructors in schools and higher education will use to explore burn prevention and first aid, and the history of burns in British society over the last two centuries.