Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Caroline Alexander explained the importance of the work of the New Zealand reconstructive surgeon, Harold Gilles. She said, “While pioneering work in skin grafting had been done in Germany and the Soviet Union, it was Gillies who refined and then mass-produced critical techniques, many of which are still important to modern plastic surgery: on a single day in early July 1916, following the first engagement of the Battle of the Somme—a day for which the London Times casualty list covered not columns, but pages—Gillies and his colleagues were sent some 2,000 patients. The clinically honest before-and-after photographs published by Gillies shortly after the war in his landmark Plastic Surgery of the Face reveal how remarkably—at times almost unimaginably—successful he and his team could be; but the gallery of seamed and shattered faces, with their brave patchwork of missing parts, also demonstrates the surgeons’ limitations. It was for those soldiers—too disfigured to qualify for before-and-after documentation—that the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department had been established.” For a soldier to arrive at the establishment of last resort, the places where masks were made, they were treated by a remarkable team of surgeons, artists and sculptors.
One of the more remarkable heroes of reconstruction of faces and minds in the years after the Great War was an American in Paris, Anna Coleman Ladd (1878-1938), who was inspired by another very interesting partner to Harold Gillies and Henry Tonks, Kathleen Scott (1878-1947). Ladd and Scott were sculptors, artists who helped the soldier before surgery or later when it was determined the surgery could do no more. Scott was the widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who had reached the South Pole in 1912, only to die there. She had studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris and just before the Great War did a series of commemorative sculptures of famous men who died tragically. Her statue of Captain Edward John Smith (1914), who went down with the Titanic in 1912 is located in Lichfield, although the Captain was born in Stoke-on-Trent. Lichfield was selected as a site for the sculpture because it was a major coaching route between London and Liverpool and was a place where Americans could come and pay their respects. She also did the memorial sculpture of Edward Wilson (1914), the South Pole exhibition’s chief science officer and her husband’s good friend who died on the return trip, along with Scott, on the return trip in 1912. The statue of Wilson, also the exhibition’s artist is located in Cheltenham, and, like the sculpture of Smith is bronze. However, these works were completed before the War and, due to the demands of the War, her final commemoration, that of her husband, had to be rendered in marble. Here, Scott in full Antarctica gear looks like a Viking and not at all modern. This sculpture is located in Christchurch, New Zealand, Scott’s jumping off place for the South Pole.
Beginning in 1920, Kathleen Scott did a series of sculptures of beautiful nude young men, with yearning and arching postures that are understandable only as her reactions to the waste and cost of the Great War. Her work is very similar to that of Anna Coleman-Ladd who also did classicizing sculptures of beautiful young men. Both of these women spent years working with soldiers without faces. Unlike Scott, who was one of the sculptors helping Gilles, Coleman-Ladd was the sculptor of last resort for those who were beyond the help of Gilles and his team.
Although posterity has not been kind to Scott, today, because of her unselfish dedication to repairing the terrifying visages of broken men who were once strong and perfect in their confident youth, we are more sympathetic to her classical studies of the male nude. She once said, “..the only thing I’ve cared about are young male objects..” Her war work, which was to make casts of the desperate faces before surgery to help Harold Gillies in planning his operation. Like Tonks, Scott was part of the “before” aspect of the transformation of the wounded face into an approximate “after,” crafted by Gillies, who modernized plastic surgery.
But there were limits to plastic surgery and some cases were beyond the combined talents of Tonks, Scott, and Gilles. Some soldiers required discrete and protective coverings—masks. The actual mask making itself took place in the “Tin Noses Shop” run by another artist, Francis Derwent Wood (1871-1926), who founded the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in 1916. Derwent Wood was, like Scott and Ladd, a classical academic artist, who regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was a full fledged Academician by 1920. After the War, he returned to teaching at the Royal College of Art, where Henry Moore was one of his students. HIs best-known post-war work as a memorial to the Machine Gun Corps (1925) at Hyde Park. Perched at the far edge of Hyde Park Corner, back turned to the busy street, the statue is nothing short of strange. Resembling Michelangelo’s David, the young man standing contrapposto on the central plinth of a tripartite base. Like David, he is completely and illogically naked. The name of the statue is Boy David and “David,” having just killed Goliath, holds a sword as tall as he is. On either side, on the other two pedestals, are two Vickers machine guns, real guns encased in bronze. The sculpture seems incongruous today,, but in its time, it is strikingly like the post war works of Scott and Coleman-Ladd: beautiful nude men, vulnerable in their youth, a nostalgic return to a generation that would never return. These young men, sculpted lovingly, are unmarked and perfect, without wounds and are immortal and untouchable, living forever.
“My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed,” Derwent Wood said. Careful to always look his patients “in the face,” Wood crafted metallic masks, based upon their pre-war appearance and by 1916 had established his own specialized unit at the 3rd London Hospital. As Alexander reported, “Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.” In fact, according to the Smithsonian article, by 1917 Derwent Wood’s work on new lightweight metallic masks drew the attention of Lancet Magazine as early as 1917, where he was quoted: “I endeavor by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded,” Wood wrote. “My cases are generally extreme cases that plastic surgery has, perforce, had to abandon; but, as in plastic surgery, the psychological effect is the same..” It is worth pausing to point out that the sculptor, like the reconstructive surgeons Jacques Joseph and Harold Gilles understood the significance of providing a man with a face. With a face, even if it was a facsimile, a man could regain his humanity.
Wood continued, “The patient acquires his old self-respect, self assurance, self-reliance,…takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance. His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.” Inspired by the efforts of Wood and Scott in conjunction with Gillies and Tonks, Anna Coleman Ladd inaugurated the Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris. Basing their work on photographs, Wood and Ladd created mask portraits, which were literally “hung” from a pair of eyeglasses. Working under the auspices of the American Red Cross, Ladd started where Scott began with a plaster cast of the disfigured face. Aesthetically, her work is considered superior to that of Wood, perhaps because she would devote a month to each mask. In Wood’s defense, he was working during the War and was probably under more pressure. Coleman-Ladd worked in 1919, somewhat less tense times, far away from the battlefields. She would take a plaster cast of the entire face, an ordeal to men who were used to ordeals. These casts were used as molds from which clay or plasticine masks were produced. The next step was the manufacture of the copper mask, which, depending upon its size could weigh between four to nine ounces. Then, like Wood, with whom she studied, Ladd would design a compensating mask that was amazingly thin and shell like, the thickness of a calling card. Made of copper, the mask was painted carefully to replicate skin tones, then eyebrows and eyelashes were replaced with real hairs. In contrast, Wood would use silver foil, as was done for the bronze statues of ancient Greece.
The result was a work of art, a face that could be presented to the world. To be sure, this face was a stilled recreation that could be a painful reminder of how mobile and full of expression the original face must have been. Ladd fabricated at least one hundred eighty five masks before she returned to America in 1920.
In 1919, The Literary Digest in June 21 published “Living Sculptures,” an interesting primary source on the artist. Discussing the work of the sculptor in France with the wounded soldiers, the unnamed author wrote, “..if the faces themselves are not exactly alive, the mutilated soldiers who wear them are, and Mrs. Ladd’s work is what will enable them to live a normal and happy life.” Most of the article is a reprint of an article written by an eyewitness in France, Grace Goulder who was with the YWCA. She explained that one has to climb two flights of stairs to get to her studio where soldiers are sitting and waiting to be helped. “One or two of them will have bandages over their faces, or horrible face mutilations. But the others will seem perfectly sound and whole. When Mrs. Ladd–Mrs. Anna Coleman Ladd she is–comes forward to greet you, she will probably be carrying what looks for all the world like a human nose or part of a man’s cheek, or maybe it will be an ear. And she handles it quite unconcernedly as she goes on talking to you. For the time she has been in Paris, she has made parts of faces for seventy-one mutilated soldiers..” Goulder quoted Coleman-Ladd as saying, “So far I have had only five American boys. I can not make masks until the wound is entirely well, and that takes some time. Also, I never get cases until the surgeons are sure they can do nothing more for them..” Coleman-Ladd compared to mental condition of the French soldiers to that of the American soldiers. “The French are very different about it,” she said, “They have become used to horrible wounds in the four years of this war–used to their own and their friends.”
The article then explained how Coleman-Ladd worked. “She first models the maimed face. Then she makes a cast of the face as it was before the wound. Most frequently she does this from a photograph. When the soldier has none, she studies what is left of the face and molds the missing features to suit the rest. The mask itself is made of thin copper. This is afterward tinted with the most delicate water-coloring, a process requiring exact and careful work, because the mask must match perfectly the skin of the face. The artificial parts are usually held in place by means of a string matching the color of the hair and worn over the back of the head. Some of the men have had frightful eye mutilations. Mrs. Ladd has fashioned new eyes for them. Her mustaches and whiskers are guaranteed to last. They can be pulled and twirled, a fact appreciated by the Frenchmen. Indeed, there is no part of the human face Mrs. Ladd as not supplied.”
These artists had their French and German counterparts whose work is less well-known and their art during these painful years was more than craft or design; their deeds were ones of love and mercy. Restoring faces meant restoring lives, allowing more than sixty thousand men in England alone to go home and “face” the world. During and after the War, an entire race of bionic men was created. Most of the designers who fashioned new arms, hands, and legs were unknown but those anonymous artists and those whose names are known contributed to the cyborg body, designed by the Great War.