Newspaper tear sheet reporting briefly on the 'undaunted' Harold Earnshaw, 1917
Next month, on 13 August, the 13% of the population who use their left hands will be celebrated with National Left Handers Day. Once considered a physical deficiency, left handed children were forced to learn to write with their right hand at school as recently as the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully, lefties today are encouraged to embrace their left-handedness and a wide range of adapted tools and writing implements make the process of being left-handed in a right-handed world that bit easier. Our blog today looks at the extraordinary story of one man, an artist and soldier, who began the war right-handed, but ended it using his left.
Harold Cecil Earnshaw, known as “Pat” to friends and family, was born in Woodford, Essex, in 1886, the sixth of nine children. His grandfather was Rector of Sheffield University and his father, Frederick, had left Yorkshire to join a firm of scientific instrument makers in the south. Pat met Mabel Lucie Attwell while studying at St Martin’s School of Art in Central London and the pair married in June 1908. They would have three children together - Peggy, Peter and Brian.
A talented artist in his own right, Pat would never quite achieve the fame of his spouse, whose nostalgic drawings of chubby children were hugely popular. Yet he had a warm, cheery style of painting and his humorous pictures were regular features of The Bystander, The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News and The Tatler. He also had regular commissions from the publisher Blackie, illustrating books and annuals for boys. Husband and wife often worked together in the studio and collaborated on pictures – Pat often painting the less “Attwellish” parts, such as animals or scenery.
Two illustrations from 'Winter's Pie' (left) and The Tatler (right), Christmas 1912. Boy scouts were one of Pat's favourite subjects.
Pat was very much part of the artistic community; he was a member of the London Sketch Club, and when war broke out, he joined the Artists' Rifles, a regiment populated largely by artists, writers and others from the world of the arts. He was a Lance-Corporal in the Royal Sussex Regiment serving in the Somme area when, on 13 February 1917, he suffered what many people might have regarded as ruinous, life-changing injuries.
He recounted events to the writer, A. B. Cooper in an interview for The Captain magazine entitled, 'Harold Earnshaw and his "Right Hand"' published towards the end of the war.
"There was nothing unique about it. It happens most days out there - that or worse. I had been doing patrol duty along a length of light railway for a fortnight, every now and then becoming motive power to trolleys for the front line. Myself and another were doing this very thing when I was 'pipped.' We were shoving up behind, our four hands on the back of the truck and our bodies bent forward like a Rugger scrum of two against the opposing wagon. The right arm I lost was close to the other chap's left, yet he was not touched. I was also wounded, although I was quite unaware of the fact, in leg and back, and he did not get a scratch. Yet the shell that knocked me out burst right over us."
The loss of Pat's right arm, taken clean off at the elbow, while his colleague remained unscathed is a chilling example of the arbitrary effects of shell explosions. But he was not one to dwell on his bad luck, and was also anxious to emphasise the relatively unheroic way in which he sustained the injury:
"Shells burst here and yonder, yet we went on pushing and pulling, and carrying and fetching, and doing anything required of us like men mending a suburban road of villas with nothing more menacing to fear than a passing car. It's use, not pluck; indifference, not valour."
He noted how his initial emotion was one of relief.
"I remember sitting up and thinking I was lucky to be alive and I had, even then, visions of a nice, clean bed in hospital and a visit to Blighty. I don't think I felt very sorry for myself, but I remember thinking 'pity it wasn't my left'. That was how it happened. A very ordinary, unheroic way of getting your knockout. I often feel I did nothing in the army except get wounded, and yet I suppose the main thing is that I was there for anything that turned up."
Pat did not, for one moment, consider his career as an artist over. As soon as he was able to sit up in bed and hold a pencil, he wrote to his wife and in subsequent letters included one or two little cartoon sketches, each time improving his technique. His fellow patients watched his progress with fascination, 'keenly interested to see how I shaped with my left, for one and all were in some boat of difficulty, and they were interested in the way I steered mine.'
His rapid rehabilitation is chronicled in part by the artwork published in magazines such as The Graphic and, particularly, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Editors seem to have been supportive and it cannot be denied that the incredible artistic recovery of Harold C. Earnshaw was a remarkable achievement. In its 28 July 1917 issue, The Graphic published a full page of drawings by Pat entitled, 'Down but not Out: Leaves from a soldier's hospital sketch-book,' featuring a number of semi-autobiographical vignettes showing wounded Tommies in hospital in Stockport where he had spent six months recuperating. Another illustration, 'The Senior Service' appeared on the front cover of The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News in October that year. The editorial accompanying the picture stressed how the artist had only been released from hospital on 17 July that year, and that autumn, a number of highly competent illustrations, all in Earnshaw's jovial comic style, appeared. It is not only the quality of the illustrations that is so striking, but also their humorous tone, another hint of Pat's irrepressible optimism.
The left image, entitled, 'Worth It' admirably demonstrates Pat's ability to see the best in everything and is a wry comment on his own predicament. It was printed inside the ISDN on 13 October 1917. 'One Never Knows, Does One?' appeared in Holly Leaves, the Christmas number of the ISDN in 1918. The two images clearly show that within a year, Pat had returned to his previous level of draughtsmanship.
Meanwhile, at home, Pat was finding ways to adapt to daily life. In another magazine article, he explained how, "My friends considered me 'down and out' for three years at least' but in fact, Pat had adapted to life without his right hand extraordinarily well. To A. B. Cooper he cheerily demonstrated a number of tools and tricks to help him cope, some of them invented at Roehampton, where men who had lost limbs were rehabilitated.
"It's a case of live and learn. The need brings the idea. Friends see something that will suit me, like a combined knife and fork, for instance, and tell me about it. Here's a cute little thing made by a chum of mine. Take a simple operation like sharpening a lead pencil. If my wife did not happen to be about, I was stopped dead. Try to sharpen a pencil with one hand and see how you shape. Pretty difficult eh? Well, here's a bit of wood with transverse grooves. You clamp it on the edge of the table, put your open knife in a groove, keep it there with this stirruped strap, and sharpen your pencil on it fine!'
Pat Earnshaw's lack of self-pity, and seemingly inexhaustible supply of optimism, make his story all the more incredible. This is no harrowing tale of endurance and hardship. This is a man who, faced with a problem suffered by thousands of men during the Great War, simply chose to carry on as before and overcome his disability with the minimum of fuss. We publish here examples of his work from both before and after his injury. After just a year or so, there is nothing to distinguish between illustrations drawn by his right, or his left hand. "It may seem strange," he remarked in one interview, "but the idea of giving up drawing never entered my head."
Later examples of Harold Earnshaw's work. The exquisite 'Worth Going to Bed For' was painted for Holly Leaves, Christmas 1919. 'Bas de Soie' on the right was published in The Tatler, 1 June 1927.
The effects of Pat's 'knockout' were perhaps more serious than this affable and self-effacing man might have admitted. He died, on 17 March 1937 and was buried alongside the couple's youngest son, Brian (who had died from pneumonia, aged 20) at All Saints Parish Church, West Dean in the Cuckmere Valley. His family were careful to underline the sacrifice he had made two decades earlier and his gravestone reads, 'In Memory of Harold Cecil Earnshaw who died from war wounds on March 17th 1937, aged 51 years.'
View more images by Harold Earnshaw here: https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=31951
Thanks to Webster Wickham and the family of Mabel Lucie Attwell for providing further source material relating to Harold Earnshaw.