Artist’s WWI ‘Ghost Soldier’ Sculptures Are a Surprise Hit With UK Audiences, Raising Millions for Veterans

An installation of sculptural silhouettes that began in an English village church will fill great cathedrals and could head abroad.

Tommies launched at the Tower of London, courtesy of Martin Barraud.

Thousands of “ghost soldiers” will appear seated in the pews of churches and cathedrals across the UK this summer in a World War I memorial artwork that aims to raise £15 million ($20 million) to help today’s veterans. The perspex or aluminium silhouettes of single uniformed figures are called “Tommies” after the slang for ordinary British soldiers.

Standing versions of the soldiers’ silhouettes made of aluminum have begun to appear to kick-start the project and its fundraising campaign. Venues include St Pancras Station in London. In less than a week the sale of sculptures totaled more than £1.3 million ($1.8 million) as individuals and community groups rushed to place their orders.

Martin Barraud and Tommies, photograph by Claire Williamson, Little Olives Photography.

The project, which began in a village church in South East England, is the idea of the artist and photographer Martin Barraud. To mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, in 2016, he placed 51 perspex Tommies in the pews of his local Anglican church in Penshurst, Kent. They represented each of the men of the village who died in the conflict and whose names are engraved on local memorials.

This simple installation has grown into a nation-wide project—and Barraud hopes it will become international. “I’ve had calls from Canada, America, and France, and the Australian High Commissioner [to the UK] picked out a story about it,” Barraud tells artnet News. He revealed that the giant Lochnagar crater on the Somme battlefield in France will be a venue. Other sites are due to be announced in April.

The figures, which sell for between £30-£750, are being made by charities that employ ex-servicemen and women. Plaques for the names of the dead soldiers cost £10.  

Tommies and the non-profit charity Remembered organizing the project, has received high-profile support, including from the descendant of one famous soldier-politician who fought in the war: Winston Churchill. Nicholas Soames, who is Churchill’s great grandson as well as a politician and former soldier, calls Barraud’s project “an inspirational way to get the whole country involved in commemorating the centenary of the appalling sacrifices suffered in the First World War.”  

The director general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Victoria Wallace, also supports the project, saying that it is a great way to keep alive the stories of the men whose names are engraved on war memorials and on plaques “that we pass every day.”

Barraud said that the inspiration for the standing figure of a lone soldier comes from a photograph by the war photographer Horace Nicholls. He recorded the burial of the “unknown warrior” in Westminster Abbey and the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London after the war in which his eldest son died.

The project is not the only World War I art project that has gripped the British public’s imagination. An installation of ceramic poppies has been touring the country since 2015 as part of the official 14-18 Now commemorations. This year, the same organization has commissioned new works by the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, and William Kentridge. In June, US artist Duke Riley joins the festivities, reprising his popular Creative Time commission featuring trained pigeons attached with LED lights, this time as a salute to the heroism of messenger pigeons during the Great War.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics