University of Victoria Art History and Visual Studies Prof. Marcus Milwright displays the first page of a two-volume diary

First World War sketches a mystery

UVic experts are hoping history buffs can help them discover a mystery WWI cartoonist

Experts at the University of Victoria are hoping history buffs can help them discover the mystery author of a two-volume leather diary that depicts intimate sketches from the front lines of the First World War.

The diary, which was first documented in the university’s archives in the 1970s, includes only the initials “J.M.” and a dedication that reads: “To my daughter Adele.” But it’s only now researchers are reaching out to the public in hopes of discovering its origin.

“There’s an image that dates to 1920, so we know J.M. survived the war,” said Marcus Milwright, UVic art history and visual studies professor.

Milwright is co-curating the Arts of World War I exhibit opening Nov. 7 at the university’s library, and said he knew there was one item in the Special Collections and University Archives collections he “just had to use. But there’s only one problem: I have no idea who it actually belonged to.”

The diary contains approximately 130 sketches and drawings ranging from caricatures to sombre images of trench art. The varied scenery implies J.M. was likely a soldier, possibly an officer, as one sketch depicts officers reclining in a train where lower ranked soldiers would likely not have had access.

“There’s a very detailed sketch in the first volume of an officer’s quarters, called the Little Grey Home in the Wet,” said Lara Wilson, director of UVic Special Collections.

Another clue to J.M.’s identity are watercolour paintings of the Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery emblems, which are both British Army units.

“The images are primarily from France and Belgium, and specifically in the areas of Ypres and Menin,” Wilson said.

The images are striking both for their quality and their variety, she said. There are grim, realistic sketches of bodies strewn across fields with burning farmhouses in the background.

Other images depict caricatures of senior officers or the everyday happenings of soldiers in the trenches.

“I think J.M.  is somebody who’s trying to get across different aspects of war,” Milwright said.

“There’s what you might expect – images of death and destruction – but he’s also trying to get across some of the humour and absurdity of warfare as well. There are some caricatures that aren’t unkind, but he does reserve his most biting images when it comes to senior figures of authority. I do get the sense he was not particularly impressed by the people at the top.”

Wilson has no record of where the diary came from, only that it was purchased from a private seller. UVic Libraries has been trying for to solve the mystery for years as well, and experts hope the First World War centennial will spark new leads.

Milwright’s theory is it was sold by a family member, possibly through an estate sale following the death of J.M.’s daughter.

“I think this was an educated person,” Wilson said. “Somebody with some training, who would have had access to these materials.”

Arts of World War I runs Nov. 7 to March 3 at the UVic Library exhibition space and is open to the public. The sketches can also be viewed online at bit.ly/1yzCLAv.

Anyone with information about the identiy of J.M. or Adele M. or the origin of the diary is asked to contact Milwright at mmilwrig@uvic.ca.

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