Far East Prisoner of War Art Inspires Ceramics Project

Tiles from the VGM. University of Liverpool.

By Kellie Calvert BA

In November 2019 I was in the final year of my Design degree at Liverpool Hope University and specialising in ceramics when I visited the Victoria Gallery & Museum (VG&M) to take photographs of the beautiful Victorian tiles.

As I went inside the gallery I saw a poster for the “Secret Art of Survival” exhibition on the first floor, so I went straight up. The exhibition featured secret artwork created by British Far East prisoners of war (FEPOW) in captivity during WW2. With over 100 artworks and artefacts displayed, it was by far the most inspirational visit I’d made during the year.

Documenting camp life was strictly forbidden by the Japanese and the men knew they would be punished. FEPOW used art as a form of therapy, escapism, whilst living in horrendous conditions, with illness, malnutrition and death all around. Some of the artwork was quite chilling to look at, showing the reality of camp life. Amongst these works was a beautiful, colourful, delicate, embroidered panel in a frame. Gunner Jack Chalker (one of the few well-known FEPOW artists) created this piece whilst laid up in a jungle hospital camp in Thailand in 1943. Another patient taught him needlework skills.

In 1943, inspired by the beauty and colours in the jungle, Chalker created this tropical fantasy scene with silk threads. This one piece drew me back to the exhibition four times. I carried out further research on Jack Chalker, I absolutely loved his artwork. The fact that something beautiful was created during such a tough time in Jack’s life made me want to celebrate this piece even more so.

I predominantly work in blue and white and I use the willow pattern often in my work. I love a piece to have a narrative, and there were lots of themes to choose from and be inspired by in this exhibition. Combining elements from this exhibition with iconic images from Liverpool, my hometown, I came up with designs that felt like I was keeping this history alive.

Taking the classic willow pattern elements – a pagoda (or tea house), two men crossing a bridge, the apple and willow trees, birds in flight – I then replaced them with new images I found through further research of FEPOW history and art. For example, the two turtle doves: I like the idea of combining Jack’s tropical bird and a Liver bird, symbolising freedom; and I used barbed wire instead of the usual ornate plate edge design motifs.

Right: Kellie’s FEPOW art-inspired design, depicting on the left riverbank, Jack Chalker’s cholera tent at Hintok camp in Thailand, 1943; with Will Wilder’s bridge over the lake leading to, on the right bank, the Japanese Shinto Shrine, Singapore 1942. Above the bridge a Liver bird meets Chalker’s tropical bird (©courtesy K. Calvert)

Right:  Liverpool-inspired plate design with on the left the Chinatown gateway, the new Mersey Gateway bridge linking to the bandstand in Sefton Park, with a Mersey Ferry plying the River Mersey; in the sky, the two Liver birds (©courtesy K.Calvert)

Right: close-up of one of the decorative tiles at VG&M  Left: FEPOW club logo. The clubs’ motto was “To Keep Going the Spirit that Kept us Going”

My final project was initially going to be about Victorian tiles. Thanks to this exhibition I decided to change direction to create plates inspired by these FEPOW artworks. I found out that the original tile that I went to photograph, “the torch”, is very like the flaming torch logo used by FEPOW clubs post-war.

I call that fate!

I keep telling myself during the current coronavirus pandemic, that in circumstances like FEPOW experienced all those years ago, art was their form of survival. It got them through tough times. I am taking the same approach and using art inspired by this exhibition for my own survival. Even though the galleries are closed now, you can still do a 360° tour of ‘Secret Art of Survival’, on You Tube and on the Captive Memories website!

Kellie Calvert, BA First Class Hons
Liverpool Hope University