Armistice 100: Hebden Bridge artists create sand portraits to mark centenary

Sand in you Eye created templates for the sand sculptures for a WW1 event on beaches around the country.
Sand in you Eye created templates for the sand sculptures for a WW1 event on beaches around the country.

A team of Hebden Bridge artists have been involved in an ambitious project creating sand portraits to mark the Armistice centenary. Chris Bond visited its studio in Calderdale.

Cragg Vale, a little village in the verdant Calder Valley, seems an unlikely place to find a business that specialises in creating intricate sand drawings – given the fact the nearest beach is probably at Southport, more than 50 miles away on the Lancashire coast.

An artist's impression of the sand portraits.

An artist's impression of the sand portraits.

But Jamie Wardley, artistic director of Sand In Your Eye studio, disagrees: “In some respects it helps because we’re in the centre of the UK and we work all over the country so it means we can get to places relatively easily.”

He and his team certainly had their work cut out at the weekend as they undertook a hugely ambitious logistics operation that saw communities up and down the country gather on beaches to remember the eight million people from Britain and the Commonwealth who served in the First World War.

The project – titled Pages of the Sea – is the culmination of a five-year programme of arts commissions, part of 14-18 NOW, marking the war’s anniversary.

For this, Wardley and a team of artists created 28 giant portraits of servicemen and women. The portraits, selected by the Imperial War Museum, measure 30 metres and will be drawn into the sand at low tide tomorrow at different locations before they are washed away.

In addition to this, members of the public were invited to create their own portraits alongside those done by the art teams, using stencils created by Sand In Your Eye.

These took place at more than 30 locations and the team were busy in their West Yorkshire studio creating the stencil shapes which depict three soldiers, a munitions lady and

a nurse.

“Some of the beaches aren’t suitable for such a big image but because it’s a nationwide project there’s a public engagement activity where people can make a drawing, basically a figure that you rake in the sand,” explains Jamie.

In total, they created 800 stencils that were packed off to the various coastal locations.

Sand In Your Eye has previously worked on a project at Arromanches beach in Normandy where they created 9,000 drawings of those who died there during the D-Day landings.

It was this project, which they did off their own back, that prompted the Imperial War Museum to get in touch.

The film maker Danny Boyle, who created the extraordinary opening spectacle for the London Olympics six years ago, is co-ordinating the new Armistice project which also involves a poem specially written by Carol Ann Duffy being handed out and read at the beaches.

For Jamie and his team, it was a high-profile project. “The portraits have to be sensitively done because some of the locations have a connection to a particular person,” he says.

“We’ve done big projects before but this is challenging because the portraits are big and we’re working in more than 30 different places using an extended team.”

Normally Jamie is one of three full-time members of the team but for this project he’s supplemented their ranks with freelancers who have come in to help.

They had to train around 40 people who, in turn, have trained their teams.

H pointed out that timing was crucial on the day. “The peculiar thing with tides is the tide in Scarborough is totally different to the one in Blackpool. So when we do a sand drawing we pick the places with the best conditions and the best viewing points.”

“The different tides mean that some teams had to start work at night. A lot of those on the West coast got up at three in the morning and went on the beach to start drawing in the dark."

A century ago after the guns finally fell silent, communities up and down the country began creating war memorials to those that didn’t return home. They were built to last and to act as a sombre reminder ‘‘lest we forget’’.

What made the sand drawings different is the fact they were ephemeral.

“One of the reasons why it’s so appropriate is you go on the sand and spend all this time and energy creating this drawing and then it gets washed away,” says Jamie.

“People often ask if that upsets me and it doesn’t. The beach is a beautiful place and you can’t improve on that beauty but we can visit it and draw a picture. I’d be disappointed if I came back the next day and it was still there. I want it to go because I want the beach to return to what it was.”

He feels this is an apt metaphor for an Armistice project. “All of us make an impression and then we’re gone and with those servicemen and women they fought in the war, or served their country, and then their lives ended, so that washing of the tide is very poignant.

“We see these grainy old photographs from the war when people looked and dressed differently, but we’re all connected to the past and when you’re on a beach with your stencil

and you’re making these figures it can really be quite moving.”