2385 Sparrows: For All the Sparrows at Sea:
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
A conversation with artist Fiona Jappy
Today the UK celebrates Remembrance Sunday. On this day we honour the fallen and remember all those who continue to serve in defence of our freedoms.
In the UK, common practice is for people wear a poppy on the days up to Remembrance Sunday, a visual sign which shows support for those who have lost their lives in conflicts around the world and those who have been killed as a result of terrorism.
However, in this interview with artist Fiona Jappy, she reminds us that remembrance is not just for one day. Fiona herself will be devoting the next 25 years to making the artwork 2385 Sparrows: For All the Sparrows at Sea - an artwork which commemorates all the men lost from just one branch of the Royal Navy - the RNPS.
Can you tell me about the inspiration for your artwork, 2385 Sparrows: For All the Sparrows at Sea?
Personal family history is the inspiration behind the artwork 2385 Sparrows: For All the Sparrows at Sea with the loss of my Grandfather during WW2 and his body never returning home.
During WW2, on December 1st, 1943, my Grandfather Alexander Jappy, Skipper, RNR, was killed through enemy action when the trawler he was serving on, HMT Avanturine, was torpedoed by an E-boat off Beachy Head. All 24 men serving aboard that trawler lost their lives but only one man’s body was found after it washed ashore. The other 23, including my Grandfather, were forever lost at sea.
These men weren’t the only ones never to make it back. During WW2, from 1939-1945, in total 2385 men from the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS) suffered the same fate. Never returning home, they have no grave but the sea.
I wanted to use my role as a visual artist to create something that would commemorate and pay remembrance to all these men forever lost at sea from the RNPS, with a significant symbol connected to them.
The sparrow was chosen for the nickname given to the men of the RNPS, nicknamed after the ‘Sparrow’s Nest’, the name given to the headquarters of the RNPS – HMS Europa in Lowestoft. Thus all those who passed through HMS Europa were sparrows from the nest, and these 2385 men unfortunately never made it back there.
What did the Royal Naval Patrol Service do?
The RNPS was a branch of the Royal Navy active during WW1 and WW2. Fighting in all theatres of the war, from Britain's coastal defence to the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Far East, the small ships the men served on were given the duties of mine-sweeping and anti-submarine operations and convoy work.
The RNPS might not necessarily be well known by many people, but many men ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country during WW2, and the Patrol Service lost more vessels than any other branch of the Royal Navy.
How long has it taken to make the work?
This project first started at the end of 2017 with the initial idea I had and it is a planned 25 year project. 2385 sparrows will be made, one to represent each man lost at sea, and each sparrow is individually hand-built and hand-painted. To date 165 sparrows have been made and 16 sparrows have been fully painted.
25 years sounds like a really long time but with also continuing to create paintings, drawings, and prints, and each sparrow being uniquely handmade, this gives me the time to create them.
In 25 years, in 2043, it will also be the 100 year anniversary of my Grandfather’s passing.
The project did see a delay during 2018 with the diagnosis of my mum having stage 4 lung cancer and her subsequent death, from which I had to take some time out from my studio.
The first complete 16 sparrows were only just publicly launched on November 1st this year, so even though this project saw its beginnings at the end of 2017, it is still very early doors for it.
The making and the painting stage of each sparrow takes a minimum of 25 hours to complete. However, you also have to add in time for the initial clay sculpture to harden, the time for the bisque firing, and the drying time for the final coat of varnish. So overall it is quite a slow process.
How are the individual birds made?
They are all handmade using clay. I initially made a few different clay sparrows, each of the sparrows being made in two halves, with each design being slightly different from each other. Plaster moulds were then made from these birds and these moulds are used to create my sparrows for the project.
Clay is pushed into the moulds, with the two halves of each sparrow being removed once the clay starts to shrink from the edges. The two halves of a design are fitted together, with scoring and slip, and with me handworking them together. Sometimes I add more clay to certain areas, and the parts of the birds such as the eyes and the wings are also hand-carved. This results in every single clay sparrow having its own individual character. Once made the birds have to dry out before being bisque fired in a kiln. They are then hand-painted with acrylic paint and finally coated with varnish. Each sparrow is being painted with its own unique design and so no two birds made will ever be identical.
What is some of the feedback you have had?
Even though this project is still in its early stages feedback received has been positive. People have been captivated by the sparrows design and the poignant meaning behind the birds.
How will you spend this Remembrance Sunday?
Remembrance Sunday will be a quiet day spent with my father and commemorating all those who have given service to their country and all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
There is a WW2 tribute event taking place on Saturday 9th which we intend on going to. It is in Buckie where my Grandfather was from and where my father grew up. A local church (Buckie North Church) is featuring a display of poppies and memorabilia with tributes to locals who fell during the conflict. My Grandfather’s name features on a war memorial in the church but I have never seen it.
As we will be in Buckie on Saturday, instead of on Remembrance Sunday, we will be visiting the cemetery then to plant remembrance crosses for my Grandfather and my mother, who herself served in the Woman’s Royal Army Corps for six years.
Is there anything you would change about this artwork if you had unlimited time, resources, studio space and financial support?
The only aspect of this project I would change is the kiln accessibility I currently have as I’m using clay. Up to now I have been using the kilns at my local community centre but unfortunately they are no longer working. I’ve still to hear if they will be fixed so to have no concerns about being able to fire my work would be absolutely fantastic. I have wonderful friends who have offered to fire my work if I am stuck, but if I had my own kiln then I would have the freedom to be able to carry out bisque firings which best suited my project.
Thank you Fiona for taking the time to explain and share your artwork with us. We give you and your family our very best wishes on this day, and bow our heads in deep respect to all the people who gave (or continue to offer) their life or health, family and friends for our own freedoms.
All images on this page are use with permission from artist Fiona Jappy, and are protected under copyright laws.
For more information about Fiona's work here
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