Long before the carnage of modern wars, there was a clash of civilizations in which mangled armies were left to die in appalling conditions, into which an extraordinary woman waded and challenged military traditions to provide better aid for wounded soldiers. That’s the background to a recent piece of art restoration and detective work.
Hearing about the Combat Paper project, a close acquaintance of Vietnam veteran Walt Nygard gave him a weathered copper plate etching found during upgrading an old building. The faintly visible scene focused on a figure in a long dress bent over someone in a bed, surrounded by gaunt faces of what seemed to be Scottish soldiers in 19th century British uniforms.
“Florence Nightingale,” Nygard surmised, as several war veterans inspected the ancient relic during a Combat Paper workshop the other day at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey studio in Branchburg, NJ. “Crimean War,” interjected another vet. “Looks like a Scottish kilt,” said a third, pointing to a faint tartan swatch in the postcard-size etching.
“Let’s see if these smudges can be cleaned off,” said a fourth vet, as an impromptu work team gathered around, offering advice on cleaning the tarnished metal and preparing it for transferring an inked image to a piece of Combat Paper made of military uniforms from recent wars. The crew of art restorers included veterans of US wars in Southeast Asia, Somalia and Iraq. Their common bond was striving to improve upon ways of assisting military veterans cope with war’s imprint on their lives.
“Wow, look at that!” said one of the vets, as the inked image virtually leaped from the paper it was printed on: Florence Nightingale at work in a roomful of severely wounded soldiers. The viewers were pulled into the long ago war in Crimea, circa 1854.
A quick Internet query filled in much of the history: “… nothing could have prepared Nightingale and her nurses for what they saw when they arrived at Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople. … More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle,” according to Biography.com. “The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly set to work….
“Based on her observations in the Crimea, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, an 830-page report analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals operating under poor conditions. The book would spark a total restructuring of the War Office's administrative department, including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army.” However, the bio notes, “Nightingale had contracted ‘Crimean fever’ and would never fully recover. By the time she was 38 years old, she was homebound and bedridden, and would be so for the remainder of her life. Fiercely determined, and dedicated as ever to improving health care and alleviating patients’ suffering, Nightingale continued her work from her bed.”
Decades later, around 1930, American artist Robert Riggs—who’d served with a Red Cross unit in World War 1—created a stunning lithograph illustration of Florence Nightingale ministering to wounded soldiers, the very image on the copper plate that found its way to a Combat Paper workshop.