If HG Wells had stumbled up on a magical elixir of youth – of the kind he might have written about in one of his sci-fi novels – he would have been 150 years old this year. Sadly he did not – but in the absence of the great man, Woking is celebrating the birth of a writer who by commencing his world-famous novel The War of the Worlds on Horsell common, associated this Surrey commuter town forever after with destruction and Martian death rays. To get in the mood for the planned HG Wells events over the course of the next few months, you should visit the new exhibition at The Lightbox, ‘Wells’ War of the Worlds: A Visual Celebration’ (26 March – 1 May 2016). It features prize-winning works and a selection of the best designs submitted from a public competition, and includes a smaller version of a statue of Wells that will be unveiled in Woking later this year.
As well as the sculpture by Wesley Harland, who is based in Woking, key features of the exhibition are the two prizewinning artworks – Look Up! by Neville Godwin, and The Visionary by David Dragon. Godwin actually lives in Horsell, and has said he wanted “to include elements from different ages to reflect the longevity of The War of the Worlds”. Thus his work, which has the Martian fighting machine as its central image, has a pulp fiction/comic book feel, as well as that of a B-movie film poster. He has also smuggled two building from modern-day Woking into the background. David Dragon’s The Visionary combines a bold portrait of HG Wells in a style that calls to mind propaganda posters from the Soviet era, with images of the Martian and of guns that would have been trained upon the alien. Other artworks on display at the Lightbox that demand a mention include Adam Green’s Man flu strikes again, depicting the lowly virus that finally saw off the Martians; Candida Woolley’s depiction of the battle at Shepperton lock; Penny Green’s vision of the invaders marching through the Surrey countryside while cows graze beneath them; and Julia Hawkins’s vision of two chaps – one smoking a pipe – putting the world to rights in a peaceful study on The Eve of the War.
And then there is Wesley Harland’s original maquette version of his sculpture, a glimpse of his figure of Wells that will eventually be 17% larger than life size, and installed in Woking town centre, on Christchurch Way by the subway, which sounds a rather disappointingly obscure location. You can read more about the development of the work here. He has said that the piece, Novelist and Thinker, “reflects HG Wells in a thoughtful, contemplative seated pose … I wanted to reflect his importance as a political thinker in the design”.
The exhibition may be housed in a comparatively small room at the Lightbox, but there is much to see. The artwork on the walls represents an explosion of images associated with this most remarkable of novels – a novel that helped to establish a worldwide literary reputation, and put a hitherto obscure Surrey community on the global map.
Update: In the event the statue of HG Wells has been installed at the entrance to the Lightbox, a far more fitting place, in my opinion – and not far from the gloriously barmy statues of Woking sons Alec and Eric Bedser bowling and batting across the Basingstoke canal.
[Greg Freeman 1 April 2016]