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Trench Art

Trench art flourished during WW1 and items were made by soldiers to pass the time...

15/11/2023     Blog

The Gallery has been very busy this week with three auctions and lots of deliveries from deceased estates. The valuers have been sorting and cataloguing items for our forthcoming sales and in particular our next military sale.

These sales include a wide range of items from medals, uniforms, helmets, weapons and my favourite trench art and prisoner of war artefacts.

Trench art flourished during WW1 and items were made by soldiers to pass the time when they were not on the front line or when convalescing in hospital. Pieces were also made by prisoners of war and even civilians.  Items such as shell cases, cap badges and even bullets were repurposed. Carved wooden items and embroidered works were also a popular theme. These items were often traded by prisoners of war for food, money or cigarettes. Civilians would often collect debris from battlefields to transform into souvenirs. This industry continued after the war with the trench art objects being sold as souvenirs to the visitors of the battlefields and cemeteries.

We often have pieces of trench art in our auctions and here are few examples.

Perhaps the most common item is decorated shell cases often engraved with a battle scene or soldier with an inscription. These designs were made using a stencil which was transferred to the shell case using iodine and then a nail was used to engrave the design into the metal. Shell cases were also used to make functional and decorative objects such as jugs, tobacco jars and the like.

Crucifixes were made using bullets and cap badge as a base, model planes, miniature furniture and carved walking sticks with elaborate handles are other examples of what the soldiers made.

I am always drawn to the embroidered pieces. The soldiers used whatever was available and even used leaves to make embroidered pictures or cut out the centres to make picture frames. Another skill they enjoyed was beadwork making belts and even snake ornaments.

The most sought after pieces are the prisoner of war model ships which were made from scraps of wood and left over mutton or beef bones. They were made French prisoners during the First Coalition and the Napoleonic wars in the period 1792-1815. The prisoners were interned on de- rigged war ships called Hulks which were anchored off the south coast of England or in prisons. The prisoners made ships and small objects and were allowed to sell their wares at local markets to supplement their meagre food rations.

A few years ago Sheffield Auction Gallery had the pleasure of selling a  66 gun prisoner of war ship. It was housed in a hand made case constructed from straw. It was complete with rigging, anchors, cannons and fitted interior. Today these are really sought after by collectors and can fetch anything from £10,000 to £30,000 depending on their size, complexity and condition.