Tamsin Dillon is a curator of over twenty years of experience. She is curator for England’s Creative Coast, co-curator of the King’s Cross Project, and curator for 14–18 NOW, a British arts program producing ambitious large-scale public commissions for the centenary of World War I in partnership with organizations across the United Kingdom.
Strolling through a forest, the crunch of gravel mixed with fallen leaves under foot, the sun glowing through reds and oranges onto the fading bracken of early autumn. A tinge of chill in the air hints at the altitude and that winter is on the way. A large gray-white object appears at the corner of the eye and then, without warning, is fully revealed: a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, Nissen Hut—part of the Shy Sculpture series.
Situated just around the bend of a path, the sculpture is hidden. Coming across it is a surprise even when you know it’s somewhere there. This sense of the unexpected is partly due to its size. It is not small; Nissen huts—the British design from which sprang American Quonset huts—are around sixteen feet wide by thirty-six feet long, and Rachel’s sculpture is a complete cast of the interior of one. Yet it is so strategically placed and well concealed that when it comes into view, it is already quite close, so seems almost to have just now landed there. And it does indeed seem somehow shy, to be concealing itself, cautious and reticent, until at the last moment, exposed, it has decided to jump from cover onto the path.
So where is this forest, and why is this sculpture here? The place is Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire, part of the Forestry Commission Public Forest Estate. The context in a larger sense has many elements, from British forestry to World War I, from the need for shelter, for temporary housing, whether in conflict or in peace, to the way artists bring new perspectives to every aspect of life. From one angle the work is a simple cast-concrete edifice among the trees; from another it represents many narratives, individual and intertwined.
The project that led to the creation of Nissen Hut began more than three years before the work was installed. The 14–18 NOW program, established to invite artists to reflect on the centenary of World War I and to make ambitious new works in collaboration with partners across the United Kingdom, grew through investigations into an astonishing number and variety of aspects of the war and took in a wide range of people, places, and organizations. Part of this research led to the realization that the Forestry Commission was approaching its own centenary, having been established in 1919 as a direct result of the impact of the war on timber stocks and the rural landscape. This connection was the trigger for the two organizations to collaborate on commissioning a new artwork. It would be a key work for the 14–18 NOW program, would mark the beginning of the Forestry Commission’s own centenary year, and would herald a new phase in the life of the Forestry Commission’s art program, which has been commissioning work across the Public Forest Estate since the 1960s.
While the origins of the Forestry Commission are clearly embedded in World War I, they are also intricately connected with the longer history of forests across Britain. In 3000 BC, the peak of coverage, as much as 50–60 percent of the country was forest. Since then, forest coverage has declined and increased several times as human intervention and innovation developed and land use changed. During World War I, Britain had huge difficulties meeting its need for timber. Over the previous few centuries, increases in the use of timber had been intense, with the growth of the shipbuilding, charcoal, iron-smelting, and glass-making industries. The decline of British woodland since the Middle Ages meant that by 1900, forest cover was at an all-time low of around 5 percent. The need for timber, particularly for trench construction, during the war only exacerbated the situation, and in 1918 a commission, the Acland Committee, was set up to find a solution. Its recommendation to Prime Minister David Lloyd George was that a state organization should be set up to manage the forests. On September 1, 1919, the Forestry Act came into force, creating the Forestry Commission and making it responsible for woods across Britain. The first Commission trees were planted on December 8, 1919, at Eggesford Forest in Devon, and, with stocks so depleted by the war, the Commission was given freedom to acquire and plant land all over the country.
This history sets the stage for the co-commission of a new work by 14–18 NOW and the Forestry Commission at Dalby Forest. Beginning in 2015, a number of meetings between the two organizations took place in a variety of settings, from Grizedale Forest in the Lake District to London. A decision was taken to invite an artist who might be intrigued by this particular challenge, and who could bring to it a level of ambition and quality that would reflect the importance of the commission. Having invited Rachel to submit a proposal, we were delighted by her enthusiastic response, and we set out to find a building in a forest for her to cast a new Shy Sculpture.
Forestry Commission teams all over the country—from the New Forest in the south, through Eggesford Forest in the southwest and Sherwood Forest in the Midlands, to Grizedale Forest in the northwest and Dalby Forest in the northeast—were tasked with the mission of exploring their estates for huts and outhouses that might fit the bill. Rachel had assured us that no matter how degraded a building might be, it could be just right; so our brief to the teams was to look everywhere and discount nothing. In return they sent maps, drawings, and photographs of buildings located all over these forests, and we huddled over and scrutinized them together in Rachel’s London studio. The buildings ranged from the pristine to the impoverished; old woodsheds, dilapidated deer hides, ruined rain-shelters, decrepit bunkers, and tumble-down outbuildings. The building that stood out among them all was a Nissen hut in Dalby Forest. We couldn’t wait to see it.
The Nissen hut is a semicylindrical structure made from corrugated iron sheeting. It has associations of austerity and necessity, and its established place in the English landscape, both rural and urban, would simply not exist without World War I, when the need for portable, cheap, easy-to-construct buildings to house troops was paramount, even desperate. Major Peter Nissen, a mining engineer as well as an army officer, designed a prototype in April 1916. Nissen understood the acute need for a robust building that could be transported and built by as small a crew and in as short a time as possible. His design was in fast production by that September; over 100,000 huts were made during the war, mostly to house troops and stores but with more than 10,000 adapted to medical uses.
The success of this prefabricated building lay in its simplicity, its economy of materials (key in a time of wartime shortages), its portability (also key in a time of wartime shortage of shipping space), and its ease of construction and deconstruction, with an average build time of four hours by six men. The record for the fastest build stands at 1 hour and 27 minutes. After World War I the hut was adapted to many other uses, deeply impressing itself on the English landscape. Nissen continued to work on improved designs after the war and patented the hut in his name, securing the continued use of the structure during World War II and beyond.
The history of Dalby Forest can be traced back to the Bronze Age, in 1000–3000 BC, when many parts of North Yorkshire were deforested and woodlands such as Dalby stood out from the landscape. Signs of the people of that time are scattered through the region’s woodlands but particularly in the large forests of Dalby, Langdale, Harwood Dale, Broxa, and Wykeham. Only 10 percent of the forested area in the Dalby of today is old woodland or on the site of old woodland; everything else was once either moorland or farmland. In the last thousand-odd years, the forest and its surround have seen a variety of uses and activities. Around 1106 AD, King Henry I declared much of the land between Pickering, Scarborough, and Whitby, including the present-day Dalby Forest and other woodland in the area, to be a Royal Hunting Forest. From the twelfth century through the eighteenth, Dalby was a center of commercial rabbit breeding, for meat and skins, and tens of thousands of rabbits were reared there in specially constructed warrens.
By the end of World War I, barely a single tree was left in Dalby Forest, and it became one of the first forests purchased by the Forestry Commission to restock the timber industry. Some of the first Forestry Commission plantings were made there, and Nissen hut camps were built to house the laborers working on those plantings. Today, concrete foundations overgrown with shrubs and bracken near Dalby village are for the most part the only sign left of these camps, but Rachel’s Nissen hut is probably a relic of them, though built on a site away from the village and later on between the wars. It was in a quite broken-down state when we went to see it, but was still clearly in use by the odd rambler and dog-walker sheltering from the rain.
Our first visit to the forest was on a sunny autumn day in November. The hut, sitting in a forest clearing in the sunshine, was a welcome sight after a long journey to Yorkshire from London, and almost before we were out of the car, Rachel confirmed there was no need to look elsewhere; we had found the right building. It sits, entirely unassuming, near a forest track. Most of its windows either broken or boarded up, its doors hanging off or missing altogether, it was open for us to look around and explore. Its fireplace looked recently used and it was clearly a natural home to many small creatures such as spiders and beetles, as well as to people stopping by to look, or perhaps for some respite from weather. Hunched down in the landscape with weeds and small bushes all around, the sun gleaming down, it had a poetic beauty that seemed to embody all the histories it represents.
From the decision about where to site the work to the site visits and planning, its casting and installation, the process of making Nissen Hut took a year from when we first discovered it in that clearing in Dalby Forest. The first idea for the location was near Dalby village, on the flanks of the forest valley where the labor-camp foundations hide beneath the weeds. Then, after further consideration, a more remote location was chosen, up on one of the highest hills of the forest, a place that requires dedication and a journey to get to. The cast was a short year in the making, but now it is there, it will sit in the forest for many years to come, a phantom of the inside space of the Nissen hut to be discovered by walkers in the woods, and, no doubt, to become the home of small creatures and plants.
As the latest in Rachel’s Shy Sculptures series, Nissen Hut represents a unique story in the development of her practice. Her creation of memorials to indigenous buildings across the world, from Norway to the American desert and from Norfolk, England, to New York, continues her long investigation of memory and history by making the invisible interior volumes of space solid and visible. These works are imbued with stories, with Rachel as the storyteller. Nissen Hut is a meeting point for myriad interwoven histories, a node of some kind; a crucible holding and guarding the chronicles and tales it represents for all those who come across it in the woods.
Artwork © Rachel Whiteread