The Dead Man’s Penny

The Dead Man’s Penny is an exhibition and installation which commemorates the death of the artist’s great uncle, Frank Keighery, at Lone Pine in 1915.

The Keighery family received one of the 1.35 million Memorial Plaques issued to the families of all British soldiers, as well as next of kin of all Empire service personnel, who were killed during the First World War. These plaques quickly became ironically known as

The Dead Man’s Penny. The plaques are inscribed with the words He died for Freedom and Honour.

This exhibition includes an installation of 8,709

hand squeezed and moulded knuckles of clay, representing the number of Australian soldiers killed at Gallipoli in 1915. They also represent the historic and contemporary feelings of grief, frustration, futility and anger surrounding that campaign.

This project centres on the diary of Michael Keighery’s Great Uncle Frank, which was taken from his body after his death at Gallipoli in 1915 and sent to his parents back in Australia.

The diary is written in Pitman Shorthand Frank was a reporter and printer from Lang Lang, a small town in South Gippsland in Victoria – and Michael found a number of volunteer translators to work on the small diary which is now housed in the War Memorial Museum in Canberra.

Translating the diary was a difficult task given the individuality of handwriting, military jargon and colloquialisms. One of the volunteers who assisted with the translation of the diary (who Michael only knows via the internet) visited Frank Keighery’s grave at Lone Pine recently and left a postcard to Frank and a handmade wreath!

Frank Keighery also wrote poetry (in English) to pass the quiet times.  Other soldiers made

trench art from the military detritus such as artillery shell casings etc that were the by-product

of the first industrialised war. These objects often became domestic, sentimental and indeed sanitised reminders of familial loss. Michael extensively uses the stylised forms of artillery shells in his work, in order to explore this anomaly.

For Michael Keighery, the elusive nature of the meaning of his uncle’s diary and the Dead Man’s Penny serves also as a metaphor for how we continue to understand as well as misunderstand the Gallipoli Campaign and indeed all of The Great War. The almost indecipherable code of the shorthand symbols themselves become representational in this body of work.

Finally, it gives the artist great pleasure to acknowledge the wonderful assistance of the Canberra Potters’ Society, the Ceramic Workshop at the ANU and Walker Ceramics for enabling him to undertake this project.

The Dead Man’s Penny Exhibition by Michael Keighery was shown in September 2015 in Canberra at Watson Arts Centre. Review by Kerry-Anne Cousins for The Canberra Times, 15 September 2015.


The Dead Man’s Penny is a background documentary produced by Michael Keighery which explains some of the thinking about his 2015 installation and exhibition which commemorates the death of his Great Uncle on Gallipoli in 1915. His family (and the families of other British soldiers who died) received a medallion which became ironically known as The Dead Man’s Penny and was inscribed with He died for Freedom and Honour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: