Carving a Mark: Portraying Disability in Public Sculpture

by Islay Shelbourne

The men outside Manchester Piccadilly Station shuffle forward. Their eyes are hidden under heavy bandages. The leader is on crutches, those following behind rest a hand wrapped with gauze on the shoulder of the man in front. As onlookers stop and pause the men trudge onward to a destination they will never reach. 

Just over 100 years ago, the sight of wounded soldiers returning from the Front would not be unusual at any one of Britain’s main railway termini. Now though, the soldiers moving towards rehabilitative care are bronze, their journey forever memorialised in a statue, erected in 2018, titled ‘Victory Over Blindness’. Commissioned by charity Blind Veterans UK, the statue is lauded as the only First World War memorial to depict ‘a disabled service person’

The statue of ‘Victory over Blindness’, BBC News,

The seven soldiers, blinded by ‘shot, shell or gas’,  were unveiled as part of centenary commemorations on the 16th October 2018. Their sculptor, Johanna Domke-Guyot , designed the statue to be life-size and at street level to allow the public, including those with disabilities, to touch and interact with the statue

Bringing the statue into the public thoroughfare moves the commemorative narrative of the war from an easily glorified position upon a plinth to one in which disability is faced head on. However, despite pioneering the inclusion of disability within the memorial narrative of the war, the statue also engenders debate around how disability should be portrayed in public sculpture. 

Domke-Guyot’s blinded soldiers find themselves fitting the sanitised expectations of a society conditioned to view wartime blindness as a product of gas, hidden from public view by bandages and gauze.  These expectations have been nurtured by images of gas blindness in popular culture, from Singer Sergeant’s Gassed in 1919 to contemporary depictions such as in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film War Horse. However, they have also been generated by the absence of those with a loss of sight caused by facial disfigurement visible within post-war society. 

Gassed, John Singer Sergeant, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460),

The facially disfigured existed within a blurred space during and after the war. The use of masks, such as those manufactured by the ‘Tin Nose Shop’ (actually the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department under sculptor Francis Derwent Wood) allowed soldiers blinded by head or eye injuries to both exist and not exist as a disabled and disfigured body.  The public would not see their disfigurements whilst the masks were worn, and so the disfigured face would be sanitised from the point of injury. As David Friend identifies in his article on the ‘Tin Nose Shop’, the negative stigma associated with facial disfigurement restricted the lives of those disabled by it, for which the masks offered some relief. This stigma, however, also makes it hard to consider an alternative statue for blinded soldiers in which facial disfigurement is offered as a visible cause of blindness, for it brings to light wider issues of stigmatised disability in popular culture. 

The ethical debate following the video game Bioshock’s use of WW1 facial reconstruction photographs as design inspiration for their villain characters highlighted the risks of vilifying the facially disfigured as monstrous should they be depicted in their disfigured state. However, the displaying of ‘different’ bodies is emphasised by Rosemarie Garland-Thomas as being imperative if a visual reimagining of disability is to take place within the public sphere.

Garland-Thomas cites Nancy Eiesland’s belief in the importance of a ‘cultural “resymbolization” of disability, with a shift in how it is imagined by the public being necessary for ‘real social change to occur’. This was certainly the view of Alison Lapper who, in 2005, became the muse of sculptor Marc Quinn in a 12-ton statue erected in Trafalgar Square titled Alison Lapper Pregnant

Alison Lapper Pregnant, Fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square, London / CC BY-SA 2.0, Brian Robert Marshall, 

Lapper, herself a disabled artist, hoped that the statue of her pregnant, disabled body would place ‘disability and femininity and motherhood on the map…[and]… challenge people’s perceptions’. And challenge it did. Responses were polarising in either their love for a statue which ‘glowed like a beacon’ for a world’s ‘Everywoman’, or their insistence that the statue ‘captures much of what is rotten in the heart of new Britain’. The negative criticism is particularly telling. In decrying the statue as evidence that public society values people for their appearance rather than their actions, writer Brendan O’Neil identifies a sentiment Katherine Ott encounters in her study of 19th and early 20th century exhibition of bodies: those displayed had to be ‘unique in some way’

O’Neil pioneers the inclusion of statues deserved by the merit of an individual rather than the situation of their birth, seeing the latter as setting a dangerous precedent for a return to a time in which people viewed the disabled as something to ‘gawp and gossip about’. Interestingly, he makes no mention of Nelson, a man who is elevated above Trafalgar Square by reason of merit but is also depicted as a disabled body with the loss of one arm highlighted in an empty sleeve. Perhaps Domke-Guyot’s decision to present her disabled soldiers at crowd level eliminates the gawking tendencies witnessed with the very publicly pedestalled Alison Lapper Pregnant, while Nelson’s disability is above the public gaze and so goes unnoticed. 

Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London, Redcoat ,23/10/07,,_Nelson%27s_Column.JPG

O’Neil’s criticisms highlight the importance of destigmatised representation of disability, a discussion in which Garland-Thomas also engages. Drawing on 19th century advertisements featuring disabled bodies, Garland-Thomas identifies the danger of disability being portrayed only within the paternalistic, medicalised frame of curable disablement. This ‘ideology of cure’ places the disabled beyond the frame of ‘normalcy’ or accommodation within society. Despite representing disabled bodies in the public sphere, solely medicalised depictions of disability serve only to enforce stigma surrounding the incurable disabled body. 

Viewing ‘Victory over Blindness’ through this discoursal lens generates new concerns over the sanitisation of wartime blindness. The soldiers are depicted in the wartime triage process, walking towards rehabilitative care and as such the potential of a ‘cure’. Here again the sanitisation of potentially disfiguring facial injuries serves to cloud analysis of the work.

Domke-Guyot emphasises the importance of retaining the dignity of those she is representing, rationalising her choice to leave the severity of her blinded soldiers’ wounds to the audience’s imagination by suggesting that ‘sometimes the hidden says more’. However this also serves to make the soldier’s disability speculative, with the audience having only the sponsorship from a charity of blind veterans as evidence that the statue soldiers would not find a cure at the end of their march. 

Perhaps though the severity of the injury is not important.  ‘Victory Over Blindness’’ depiction of disabled soldiers has made great strides to reimagine disability within popular narratives of WW1. If, as Eiesland claims, such reimagining is required to effect social change, the small steps of the bronze soldiers may well make larger strides in the depiction of disability in both sculpture and society.  

About the Author:


Islay is currently in her second year of an MRes at the Institute of Historical Research. Her thesis draws upon environmental, medical and animal history methodologies in order to explore the role of nature within historical understandings of viruses and viral pandemics. After completing her MRes, she hopes to pursue a PhD in order to question how human-environment relations influenced scientific and cultural understandings of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. More broadly, Islay is interested in animal-human interactions within science and medicine, with her undergraduate dissertation, completed at Queen Mary, University of London in 2019, exploring the paralleled commodification of human and equine bodies within the work of the Army Veterinary Corps on the Western Front. When she isn’t buried under mountains of books, Islay can be found volunteering with the Imperial War Museum or taking long walks in local woodland. 

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