The Art and Writing of David & Ping Henningham
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The Times Literary Supplement, ‘the leading international forum for literary culture’, has published a celebratory review of ‘An Unknown Soldier’. You can read the review here:

Against Unremembering

In the review David Collard puts our poem into context, saying:

Henningham’s mordant wit and avant-garde flair is part of another poetic tradition stretching back to Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Dada pranksters of Zurich, although the first truly modernist treatment of the conflict in English emerged only in 1937 with the publication of David Jones’s In Parenthesis.

He says our current exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library, which continues until January 4th 2015:

brings a much-needed sense of indignation and disgust to present-day rituals of commemoration and gives a voice to the anonymous war dead of all nations without tapping into simple patriotic sentimentality.

Anyone interested in snapping up one of the remaining copies of the Paperback version of An Unknown Soldier will find it here:
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About An Unknown Soldier paperback

An Unknown Soldier paperback version

The exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library shows all the works to date associated with An Unknown Soldier:

The Saison Poetry Library,
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
Southbank Centre
London SE1 8XX

FREE

Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Contact: David Henningham

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

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I gave a short talk in the Southbank Centre on Remembrance Sunday. Sir Andrew Motion began the day with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the centrepiece was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, chiefly featuring players representative of the age for military service. There’s a link at the end for the video that preceded that performance, a virtuoso bit of arts education. Between these two main events, numerous talks and workshops took place all over the Southbank Centre. Below you’ll find the notes for my talk, which some people have expressed an interest in reading.

The exhibition continues until 4th January 2015, and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 8pm
The Poetry Library, Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
(take the singing lift.)

 

An Unknown Soldier: Remembrance, Technology, Modernism

In the Old Testament, when God asks Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain says that he is not his brother’s keeper, God’s reply is very interesting. He says:

What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

Cain then receives a mark, a memorial on his body of what he did. We’ve often seen new dimensions to this ancient story over the last few years as we’ve worked at the Henningham Family Press on this series of poems and prints entitled An Unknown Soldier.

The Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of my wife Ping, and myself. We write, print and bind our own books, and make them live through performances and readings.

We believe it is a vital function of art to commemorate wars. Yet in these works of Remembrance it is difficult not to sanitise and Romanticise the immediate past. It has become even more difficult because of the dehumanising effects of Industrial war in Europe with the Great War of 1914. This Industrial effect was at every level; factory produced munitions that were to be swallowed up by No-Man’s Land, industrial transport networks such as trains and iron ships to bring the soldiers to the Front, and industrial printing technology that would enable the propaganda to recruit a vast body of volunteers and the bureaucratic stationary needed to move them all. In the age of Henry V some men were not there on Crispins Day, and that was because of a lack of effective advertising.

When we realised we were making a piece of commemorative art, about the bodies of the fallen, we felt that the image of an intact fallen soldier, like Michelangelo’s statue of a Dying Slave, is too graceful. He appears to be swooning. But the real soldiers marched into No Man’s Land and disappeared. Their remains were bombarded year after year. These able bodied men became like a chorus of Abels crying out from the ground. This is why The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is such an apt memorial; it testifies to the fact that the destruction wrought by the First World War is beyond our comprehension or healing power.

The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died early on in the war, but whose body had no identifying marks. After an elaborate process of selection and impromptu rituals, he arrived in London on November 11th, 1920 and brought the city to a standstill. It was a former Army padre, the Rev David Railton, who’d had the original idea, and Westminster and the King wavered over it for almost four years. But their enthusiasm and the public approval of the gesture increased to suddenly become the focal point of national grief. At midnight, carrying a lantern, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt selected the body at random from four bodies that lay under Union Flags in a hut in Ypres. This chosen soldier was met by a flotilla of six ships with Naval honours reserved for the King, as if he were now King over England’s underside, and his funeral was attended by a battalion of widows and grieving mothers. The biggest crowd ever seen in London silently paid their respects and a quarter of London’s population came to stand by the Tomb and wonder if he were their family. But today the remains of the fallen cry out from the ground in a new way.

When I heard a report on the radio about an Anglo-Australian experiment identifying soldier’s remains using DNA, extracted from their teeth to match with known relatives, or even the saliva on envelopes from their letters home, it immediately occurred to me that we would probably never use these techniques to identify the Unknown Warrior. Yet by refraining from identifying him we would still be changing his significance underground. Because of our deliberate decision to not identify him, in itself a proper mark of respect, he might now also alert us to a reluctance to uncover the past and learn from it. Yet this is entirely in keeping with his calling. This new brush with DNA technology intensifies his warning to us, that we must avoid a dangerous faith in technology to resolve conflict on its own. He continues to raise the question, ‘why are we still so dependant on industrial warfare, despite our wealth and experience?’ It is very significant that an advance in technology has threatened this soldier again; he is sensitive to hubris.

“Lest we forget” is everywhere engraved in stone, and this has taught us to be reluctant to go to war. But it is tempting to obscure the engraving with a neon sign that can alternate between “lest we forget” and “forget”. The Cabinet, under the immense pressures of government, will feel this temptation. The public feel the same temptation to assume our advanced weaponry can provide a quick fix. It is Realpolitik like this that encouraged me to write the first part of An Unknown Soldier, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. It is a satire on political abuses of Remembrance rites, and also the inherent risk that Remembrance can produce mass amnesia rather than solidarity, if we feel satisfied by the event but do not continue on towards efforts for peace today, or as I put it in the poem:

From the picking up of The Sun to the putting of it down again, we will remember them.

But I feel this year has been good for us. Numerous astute Centenary events, such as this one here at the Southbank Centre, have marshalled our respect for this important occasion. They have reminded us of the history, re-evaluated the history, and preserved it. Thousands of engraved memorials have received both physical and intergenerational maintenance in 2014.

[What I would have added at this point, had I known about it at the time, is the threat the Coalition Government pose to our WW1 heritage. Massive cuts to budgets for the Imperial War Museum will force the closure of the library, dispersal of the archives, and cessation of many education initiatives that continue the cautionary spirit of Remembrance Day year round. Not to mention that, from what I’ve overheard when I am there, the IWM is a regular port of call for people active in the armed services trying to explain the pressures they face to their children. It will only cost £4m to keep this cautionary heritage alive. We spent £248 million bombing Libya, according to Chalmers, and according to Jane’s that would buy us 4 or 5 Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which are currently being used in the Middle East. Again. It would also keep a Tornado in the air for just 110 hours – a mere 13 days of museum opening. Meanwhile David Cameron wants the museum to permanently host some ceramic poppies from the Tower of London because he thinks it is “the right place for it to be.” Are we really going to let our government mark the WW1 Centenary by treating our own archives with the same contempt they showed the National Museum of Iraq? A priceless collection dispersed simply to balance a temporary glitch in our national fortunes?

READ this article in the TLS explaining the situation

SIGN this petition at change.org

It is a vital function of art to commemorate wars because words are the alternative to violence. Art nurtures ‘democratic communication’, a use of language that equips itself as it goes along to strengthen our local and international community. George Orwell reminds us that words can be also used as Political Language, which distorts the present and rewrites the past, but art that discloses our intentions, rather than veiling them, civilises us. Art frames and preserves our peace and passes it onto future generations.

This is the context we were working in for our poem ‘An Unknown Soldier’. Lots of prints have come out of this project now, and these are all on display here in the gallery of the Saison Poetry Library. These prints take quotes from the central poem and rework them. The Imperial paper sizes allow us to hint at call-up posters, postcards, martial instruction manuals. The kind of industrial print that facilitated a new kind of war. They all feature patterns we drew that hint at security envelopes – carrying both letters, and DNA code, home.

‘An Unknown Soldier’, though, is composed of three documents housed in a screenprinted wooden box. It begins with a poem of instruction, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. This pamphlet is equally influenced by the Book of Common Prayer and the Vorticist manifesto BLAST. The artist Wyndham Lewis edited this manifesto in 1914, attacking both the stuffy Edwardian values of England and the dehumanising machine worship of Futurist abstract art on the Continent. The words in the Vorticist manifesto congregate and tumble as if they are being expelled from a whirlpool. This vortex is the individual human spirit of invention and reinvention.

The second part of our poem is a screenprinted text of thirteen panels. We imagined the remains of the fallen Soldier being called up from the earth for a second time, like the no-men of no-man’s land speaking all at once, recruited by you as you read the body of text. Confused by your proposal, as the recruiting sergeant, he takes you on a tour of no-man’s land, which is both his kingdom and his body, saying:

Un est something uf n master-path smith;
one foot n hammer, nuh other n anvil.

His dialect is a kind of hopeless Esperanto, a corrupted jumble of English, French, German, Flemish, and Latin. The conjunctions have decayed the most to leave the more solid vocabulary like disjointed bones. His personal pronoun is the nugatory ‘Un’, and the normal determiner a is replaced with the non-specific algebraic term n. In this way we have made the individual words in a sentence have a destabilising effect on each other and they tend towards uncertainty, like Dada. The more uplifting vowel sounds have been eliminated, creating a sombre percussive sound for the tongue and restricting the jaw movements of the reader. We also invented new letter forms, similar to the Vorticist art and Dazzle Camouflage of Edward Wadsworth from that period. He was employed as a camoufleur to create bright, disorienting patterns that were reproduced on warships and confounded First World War optics. In our font, slabs like limestone headstones are penetrated by various prisms to create voids and negative spaces that resemble both glyphs and trenches. These fragments of visual poetry cut into the page and simultaneously emphasise and mute the text, a kind of dumb shouting that hints at the important message repeated by the inarticulate warrior. These occur at all the key locations in his body.

In fact the position of the stanzas on the wall reflects the human frame like a mirror. For example, the phrase ‘Red Giant’ describes a dying star hovering over no-man’s land, and also shows where his heart used to be. ‘The Capital’ is at his belly, then he takes you on to ‘The Nobiskrug’ in his stomach, which is the little known legendary tavern on the road to hell. This is where he and his friends spend the ferryman’s wages on one last drink. The Nobiskrug, or ‘hourglass’, is a memento mori. It reminds us that life, just like a refreshing pint of beer, will come to an end and our glass will be collected, no matter how well we nurse it. Then you progress on to the ‘Semen’s Mission’, an absurd mixture between clinic and nightclub, where the soldier discusses the lost generation. Finally the ‘Labour Exchange’, at the knee, is where Miners arrived and exchanged their pits for trenches. This place continues to act as a portal between life and death, all the time receiving new recruits for the life underground who bring news of future wars.

Many horrors were never put into words, and there is a void at the heart of the stories recounted in An Unknown Soldier like no-man’s land itself. Part three of the poem, ‘Funeral, March’, is a triptych of verses that reflect on the legacy for my family, bound as a small Order of Service. It concludes with this affirmation of my enduring hope in technology; the tale of Grandad Jack, a veteran and an Engineer who made a copying machine. Machinery that proliferates life-giving words instead of killing boys and men. It goes:

At Roneo Works
Grandad Jack,
who I never met,
in his capacity as a toolmaker
constructed one of the first copying machines.

Many of the engineers gathered
to look at the marvellous blueprints
plotting constellations of cogs and gears
placed with uncommon precision
by the commissioning mathematician.
His clarity of vision
for this mimeographic microcosmos
suggested he could handle
the responsibility of the skies

Yet Wilf,
as Jack was also called,
performed an equal marvel
in that the machine worked first time
with no recourse to engineer’s blue
and no need of fine tuning.

 

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The Southbank Centre have asked us to take part in their Remembrance Sunday, Andrew Motion: Dulce et Decorum est, by doing a 15 minute talk and short Q&A in The Saison Poetry Library at 1.15pm.

We will be touching on the role of the Arts in Remembrance and Memorials, those decent British iconoclasts – the Vorticists, and industrial print technology’s part in an industrial war. Through all this we’ll explain what An Unknown Soldier is all about.

The day begins with Sir Andrew Motion reading Wifred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est in the Clore Ballroom. Short talks will then take place all over the Southbank Centre. The day closes with Britten’s stunning War Requiem at 3pm, (and don’t miss another captivating 1964 version also available to watch on BBC4 with the man himself – you can feel it is a heartfelt performance from a nation at a crossroads).

Sunday 9 November 2014
10.55am Andrew Motion, Dulce et Decorum Est
followed by numerous interesting talks in foyer spaces

1.15pm Henningham Family Press: An Unknown Soldier talk
Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

FREE

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be giving out a small, free limited edition print, and reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk
Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

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We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

The exhibition will also include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015
Opening Event 7th November 7.30pm (booking essential)

Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. We will also be giving out a small, free limited edition print. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk

 

The exhibition will include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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guards

The Active Service Gospel recently received its official launch at the prestigious Guards Museum at Wellington Barracks, just opposite Buckingham Palace. Our four screenprint editions were dotted around the museum on display.

Fascinating and moving speeches were made in which we heard about many of the exciting projects that are already committed to using the replica gospels in this centenary year, especially among the young to promote a passion for peace. We also said a few words about why the project grabbed our attention and how we approached it.

We were a little stunned to hear about all the people who will be receiving these little books, and that the 120,000 already available may well just be the start. To receive some of these little books for free, or with a donation, you can go here.

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SGM filmed this interview with David about the four prints we made with them for the WW1 Active Service Gospel replica.

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The Active Service Gospel Replica

We are very pleased to announce the publication of the ‘Active Service Gospel’, a replica of a John’s Gospel that was given to troops, and sometimes their families, during the First World War. SGM Lifewords (at the time called Scripture Gift Mission) commissioned us to create the original artwork for their commemorative project. They didn’t want to make a straight facsimile of the original, but rather a replica with a few considered changes in the spirit of the original, which would give the recipient today more of an insight into what it would have felt like to receive one a hundred years ago.

Active Service Gospel Replica

Our commission was to make four pieces of art that would be reproduced as colour plates. These screenprint editions import the legacy of the First World War into a document that lived in the trenches. The tragedy of WW1 is absent from its pages because it unfolded around them. We found the SGM story as interesting as it is moving. Their tradition of offering gospels without any social agenda attached, to anyone who wants or needs one, allowed them to mass produce words of comfort and encouragement without partiality, during a war where words had already been slain by mass-produced propaganda. A staggering 42 million Active Service Gospels were made, a testament to the demand. Some were accepted gladly, others with derision, and some with derision that became devotion. The trenches were a place where some lost faith and others found it. The story of the Active Service Gospel is a little-known history, and we are delighted to help in remembering it.

'Night Watch'

‘Night Watch’

'Cody Kite'

‘Cody Kite’

'Pals'

‘Pals’

'Embarkation on a Dazzle Ship'

‘Embarkation on a Dazzle Ship’

SGM also asked us to reference the Modernist artwork of the time, exploring the tension between Vorticist individualism and Futurist machine-worship. In the context of a machine war, the latter is obviously less appropriate (and less British – only Nevinson was a close disciple of the Italian movement). This was an age when Artists turned Camoufleur. Painters like Wadsworth, under Wilkinson’s lead, created vast Modernist artworks in the form of Dazzle Ships. Nash wanted to “burn their lousy souls” with desolate reportage paintings like ‘We are making a new world’. Even a regiment of Artist Rifles exchanged the gallery for the shooting-gallery and signed-up.

The Themes Behind the Prints

We began work with life-models and period uniform obtained from a costumier to make portraits of four individuals, each faced with the strains of war, moments when they would have experienced doubt or fear. We collaborated with actors, mainly, in these sessions.

We had two central themes we were meditating on. The first being that, on an international level, the war was about self-aggrandisement and vainglory, but this did not prevent the men who had enlisted performing acts of genuine humility and love, the kind of sacrifices they would have found examples of in the pages of these little gospels. St John contrasts Jesus the Christ, who serves and brings peace, with Caesar the Tyrant who’s Pax Romana is obtained through oppression of neighbouring states in warfare. It was after the First World War that Jesus’ statement “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (found in John 15:13) became current in Remembrance. When we began this project we had long considered this usage inappropriate. However, we came to realise that for powerless infantry to be able to redeem their active service by doing acts of service to each other, and sometimes even their ‘enemies’, was a powerful comfort for many of them. The way we approached all this in the prints was to employ camouflage and symbols of Pro Patria as a symbol of deception. Flat geometric planes, pleats and patterns surround and enfold the figures so that only their faces and hands testify to a human presence and will.

The second theme, or perhaps it was more of a ‘consideration’, was that the Church of England, and some other Christian groups, had been wrongly supportive of the First World War and contributed to the call-up. This is a shameful episode that confused Imperialism with Mission and searched for Just War instead of fostering Peace. This error of judgement contributed to a decline in British ecclesiastical art, perhaps the only remission being the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after World War Two and the artworks and music commissioned for it, all of which find a degree of authenticity in repentance and mourning for humanity as a whole. Most of the brilliant British artists and writers of the 1920s were Secular Humanists or Catholics who celebrated the Internationalist aspect of their Church. We wanted to join in with the spirit of Coventry in representing ecclesiastical themes in a contemporary way. Therefore, in our Nightwatchman, Aviator, Pal and Sailor you will find a nod to the hermit tempted in the wilderness, an annunciation, three disciples and a holy jester.

The Four Prints

 

'

‘Night Watch’
2014
Henningham Family Press
Screenprint
edition 90
16cm x 25cm
£80

'Cody Kite'

‘Cody Kite’
2014
Henningham Family Press
Screenprint
edition 17
48cm x 74cm
£234

'

‘Pals’
2014
Henningham Family Press
Screenprint
edition 30
35cm x 51cm
£180

'Embarkation on a Dazzle Ship'

‘Embarkation on a Dazzle Ship’
2014
Henningham Family Press
Screenprint
edition 20
61cm x 94cm
£380

A soldier on Night Watch is a frequent metaphor for enduring suffering and waiting for enlightenment. He is a man aware of his own weakness waiting for vindication. The moon and stars here stand for the light that the darkness cannot overcome. We were interested to find that the trenches were an extension of the human body and, like a grave stretching off into infinity, took the length of a foot, shin and arm for their makeshift construction.

Cody Kites were brought to the British Military by Wild West showman Samuel Cody, who reached the end of his life in Aldershot where the embryonic RAF (Royal Flying Corps) trained. A chain of kites lifted an officer high into the air where he could sight artillery and gather intelligence of enemy movements. The thin cables, like those often painted in gold on depictions of the annunciation, and rapid upward movement imply a religious experience. But the apparatus levitating him is man-made and looks more demonic than angelic, hinting at the particular hubris of this age and conflict.

Our depiction of a pals regiment sees a very young man meeting two friends as they embark on what they believe will be an adventure and a ‘rite of passage’ together. Their hats, that resemble halos and are circled with a thin gold band, ultimately obscure their identities, hinting that they will lose their lives and he will lose his two pals. The building he is exiting, Navarino Mansions in Hackney, is a social housing project built in the Arts and Crafts style – an architecture that collapses the ideal of a Merrie English monastery into a housing block. We have heightened this sense of overbearing Pro Patria by rationalising it into the colours of a Union Jack. This is intended to contrast with the instinct to serve and save promoted by the verse – contrasting Father God with Fatherland.

The sailor embarking on a dazzle ship is surrounded by the disorienting effect of camouflage, which in all these pictures stands for deception. Note how the same blue circles look different in tone when surrounded by white or black. The sailor has been brought here by words promoting conflict, and is now examining more words that are trying to lay claim to him. The form of his uniform extends the influence of the camouflage onto his own body, but his unkempt appearance shows that his own identity is fighting back. He signed up once, will he sign up again? This picture is about the threshold of faith.

All four screenprints are available to buy
email us here to express an interest

Active Service Gospel replica available here
10 copies for suggested donation of £6
(or free thanks to supporters of SGM)

or copy and paste this link if you can’t see the item: http://www.sgmlifewords.com/uk/resources/details/ww1-johns-gospel

 

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