In September, 1913, at the age of 15, my grandmother, Lily Wray, traveled to Accrington, England to visit her mother’s family. During the visit she was given an autograph book, signed by a dozen relatives and new friends. That book now has a place of honor in my collection of family photos and documents.
The sentiments range from silly to serious and as a whole make an interesting picture of the time, place and people – of a world that within a year would change forever with the start of the Great War. I remember asking my grandmother once what impact the war had on her generation. “It changed everything,” was her answer.
It certainly changed the lives of the people she met during that visit. I’ve researched some of the names in the autograph book – cross-referencing with the lists of killed, missing and wounded from Accrington during the War. No family was untouched. And I felt a particular sense of poignancy when I found a photo of Tom Broadley on the Accrington Pals website. He died at Ypres in August, 1917. In 1915, he signed my grandmother’s book twice and followed it up with a birthday card the next April. He was 22 when he died.
Reading through the autographs, I’ve been both intrigued and inspired. By now all the writers have died, but their words still exist. It seemed wrong to keep them isolated in a box with no audience.
In 2014 I began work on a series of digital collages that combine the autographs with vintage photos. Usually I start a piece by looking at a photo and imagining a story for the person pictured. In this case, I began with words and looked for a visual expression. I hope the writers would approve of the results. Eventually, the series expanded to include other writings found on the backs of old snapshots (both family and yard-sale acquired). You can see some of the results in the Gallery.
The autograph book meant a lot to my grandmother. She kept it safe for over eighty-five years. I don’t think she imagined it would be as special to anyone else as it was to her, but I think it’s extraordinary. Thanks, Grandma.