Artists illuminate tales from the front line

Inspiring stories of women working near the front line during the First World War are being highlighted in a moving exhibition.

A glass slide image from the archive
A glass slide image from the archive

Edinburgh researchers have been working in partnership with the City’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums to create the display.  

Field Notes: Reflections on Camp Life at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals is inspired by glass slide images and notes produced by some of the women working in medical camps.

The exhibition has been developed over the past year by two artists based at Edinburgh College of Art – Joan Smith and Susie Wilson – and archive and museum staff.

Exploring archives

The project team reviewed one hundred glass lantern slides of women who worked in France, Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Serbia as volunteer nurses, doctors, orderlies and drivers.

The slides – on show for the first time – had previously been in storage in the archive at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

The artists have used the slides as inspiration for art works to illustrate the work and environments of those women who cared for sick and wounded soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war.  

Camp life

Exhibits include a series of 15 paintings in oil and copper, as well as drawings and prints.

A box of objects reflecting the discomforts of camp life endured by the volunteers includes a print of an enemy aircraft, a bar of soap and a book filled with images of flies.

The names of the illnesses associated with the war – such as malaria, typhus and gas gangrene – are referenced in a series of printed handkerchiefs.

Acclaimed writer Maria Fusco has contributed extracts of writing exploring the history. These explore the archive and contemporary relevance of the Scottish Women’s Hospital movement.

The slides included images of wards, camps and some of the women at work in their luminous white uniforms. The artwork transfers these black and white images into a coloured representation that we hope brings the contribution of these inspiring women to life.

Joan SmithHead of Art at Edinburgh College of Art

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were formed by medical pioneer Dr Elsie Inglis – one of Edinburgh’s first women graduates and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Dr Inglis is credited with saving thousands of lives after founding 14 medical units across Europe during the First World War.

Hospital service

More than 1000 women served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital service in areas including Corsica, France, Russia, Greece and Serbia.

 With commemorations marking the end of the First World War underway, it feels a timely opportunity to open up this previously unseen and evocative collection to illuminate the war effort of the pioneering women who served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Joan and Susie have created striking and ethereal artworks - capturing the almost-ghostly quality of the lantern slides particularly well - which will leave a lasting impression on exhibition visitors.

Jacqueline Cahif College Archivist

Many of the volunteers who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital were suffragists. The exhibition also ties in with the launch of a book marking the 100th anniversary of the granting of votes for women.

The exhibition runs from 10 November until the end of March.

Surgeons' Hall Museums

School of Art