JM sketchbook origins an unsolved First World War mystery

University of Victoria researchers are appealing to the public to help identify the artist whose moving and heart-rending First World War sketches ended up in the school's archives.

"JM" dedicated the sketchbooks to his daughter, Adele, but that's all that is known about the soldier

Caricatures and scenes from the First World War are safe in UVIC's archives, but artist's identity is unknown 2:40

University of Victoria researchers are appealing to the public to help identify the artist whose heart-rending First World War sketches ended up in the school's archives.

Art history professor Marcus Milwright says the sketches appear to be by a British soldier with the initials "JM" who used stationary with the coat of arms of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was based in France and Belgium in 1917 and 1918. On a dedication page in one of the books, he wrote to a daughter named Adèle — but that's where the facts end and the mystery begins.

An unknown British soldier with the initials "JM" created approximately 130 watercolour and pen and ink images while based in France and Belgium in 1917 and 1918, including this one titled "Ramparts Ypres" (UVic special collections)

The sketchbooks have some connection to Canada — they likely ended up at UVic some time in the 1960s, Milwright believes. A search of military records has turned up nothing to shed light on the identity of the creator of the works, or who some of the people in the sketches might be.

"I think because we're at the 100th anniversary of the First World War it makes it so important to try and find out who these people are. It's a war which is just passing out of lived experience and yet it's still something that means so much to many families."

Milwright says the works clearly demonstrate talent, as he turns to a black-and-white illustration depicting 10 figures of war horses.

"This is one of the most moving images," he said. "It's entitled 'Gas in the Lines' and it shows the effect of gas attacks on the horses that were on the front lines."

The university has put the illustrations online, and will be putting the sketchbooks themselves on exhibit in November.

The hope is that someone who sees the artworks will recognize something familiar, and may lead researchers to the identity of "JM."

"It's important in both human terms but it's also important in academic terms because once we have that name we can start to create a biography around the images," Milwright said.

With files from the CBC's Stephen Smart

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