Walter Ernest O'Neil Yeo

Sailor Uniforms, digital embroidery, lazertran digital fabric print. 2007

The success of Gunner Walter Yeo’s surgery can be seen as questionable in terms of aesthetic improvement but the procedure did improve the function of Yeo's vision. The Plymouth born son of a sailor lost at sea aboard the H.M.S. Serpent, Walter Yeo suffered cordite burns aboard the H.M.S Warspite during the Battle of Jutland. On admission to the plastic surgery unit and once his burns had healed, Gillies proposed lifting a chest flap to graft the whole area of skin across the eyes. The result was a graft that resembled a skin ‘eye mask’. Walters scars did lessen with time but by Gillies own admission, some of the surgical resolutions selected to treat particular injuries were defined by the popularity of a particular technique rather than by appropriateness. This could be regarded as applying to Walter’s surgery.


Yeo Diptych

Sailor Uniform, Patient Gown, digital embroidery, lazertran digital fabric print, branding. 2014

Revisiting the story of Walter Ernest O'Neil Yeo. The 'Yeo Diptych' tracks events from Walter's early life through to the treatment he underwent to restore function to his badly burned face caused by igniting cordite aboard HMS Warspite during the Battle of Jutland, 1916.

The first part of the work (uniform) describes his extended family tree on the undershirt whilst the jersey features newspaper reports of the loss of HMS Serpent on which his Father served and died including an image of his father with fellow officers aboard Serpent. The overlapping of the lines of text describing the loss of the Serpent are intended to suggest layers of waves. A signalling flag crossword features all the naval vessels on which Walter served, reports, diagrams and maps describing the ship movements and battle event in which Walter was injured.

The second component (hospital gown) describes the treatment Walter underwent to restore function to his face and remove extensive scar tissue. Details include a small sleeve portrait embroidery of Walter in the days after he received his injury framed with an outline plan of the Royal Naval Hospital Plymouth where he underwent some of his early treatment. Text includes reflection on Walter's case by operating surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, along with an excised flap of fabric on the chest reflecting the site from which Gillies harvested the skin graft to be transferred to Walters face. The word Ectropion which is the term used to describe the turning inside out of Walter's eyelids due to scar tissue contraction, is treated in a way in which the underside threat of the embroidery is pulled through to the front side of the fabric in reference to the 'wrong side becoming exposed'. The piece also features a large appliqué portrait interpretation of Walter mid way through his treatment. Fabric from other military uniforms is used in the creation of the portrait.


Yeo Crossword

Salvaged signalling flag fabric, cotton, brass. 2014

Walter's story is additionally conveyed in 'Crossword', presenting key words and phrases from research gathered by Paddy over a 12 year period. The staring point for the research was Walter’s medical record held by Gillies Archives and now in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons England. From this point, additional information was gathered from the National Archives Kew, newspaper appeals and respondents, Walter’s extended family and Sheila Yeo from The Yeo Society. A key piece of information contributed by Walter’s Nephew George, was that Walter was a keen crossword compiler for national newspapers. By combining the crossword puzzle format with the naval signalling flags used by the Navy from 1913 and throughout WW1, Paddy managed to devise an artwork which required the viewers active participation in solving the puzzle to understand the story the puzzle conveys. Signalling flags are used to communicate from ship to ship or ship to shore over a distance and was an entirely appropriate metaphor for telling a story over a ‘distance of time, from the past’ so to speak.

Each flag in the crossword is unique in the set and are made from original salvaged and vintage naval signalling flags which have previously been used aboard ship. Each flag is constructed with subtle differences and are grouped by theme, context, construction method and fabric treatment to enrich the content of the piece. Wherever possible, details from the original flags from which these new flags were created have been included. Holes, hems, tears and dye run are all retained.

Break the Code

For additional content regarding the creation of 'Crossword' visit the News section of this website of click on this LINK where you can download the crossword matrix, questions and key to the flag to complete the puzzle.

All Gillies Archives records appear courtesy of the Gillies Archives. Reproduction permission must be requested.