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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about the artwork she created to illustrate Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.


Published in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death on the Western Front, Pennies on My Eyes is a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry illustrated by Reading-based artists. Here, Jenny Halstead writes about the influences for the artwork she created to illustrate the poem ‘Disabled’ (on page 25 of the book).


Artwork by Jenny Halstead illustrating Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

The dominant images in my mind were of soldiers marching, whether walking or standing still bewildered, others unable to stand because badly wounded. These were the ‘lucky’ ones who had survived being blown to pieces after going up the line to the front.

In my career as a medical artist I studied the work of Henry Tonks, who trained as a surgeon before re-training in fine art. During WWI he worked with the pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, and made a large number of drawings and paintings of injured and facially disfigured soldiers, before and during the process of facial reconstruction, injuries caused mainly by raising their heads above the line of the trench. These pastels are largely housed in the Royal College of Surgeons.

I visited the Imperial War Museum, and particularly remember shaky black-and-white newsreel footage: soldiers coming over a rise, one by one passing guns over their shoulders, looking exhausted but nevertheless smiling, if only for the sake of the camera.

The crutches reminded me of a visit to the British Rail Works in Swindon in 1975. My late husband, a palaeontologist had identified a massive 9 metre short necked Plesiosaur found in the works floor while they were digging. So the following year we were invited to their Open Day. They proudly exhibited the shiny new 125 train alongside the amazing 130-150 million year fossil. But at the back of the foundry was an extensive display of WW1 prostheses made in the yard by railwaymen using metal and steel from the trains and leather and padding from the upholstered seating. An efficient use of re-cycled materials.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022


Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

Jenny Halstead is a long-standing member of the Reading Guild of Artists and founder of the Whiteknights Studio Trail.

Also by Jenny Halstead: An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden (2013), Silchester: Life on the Dig (2015, with Michael Fulford), The Art & History of Whiteknights (2020, Editor).

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