'We Will Remember Them' Quadriga Gallery

There could hardly be a better location than the Quadriga Gallery for this small but ambitious exhibition. On the upper floors of Burton’s Wellington Arch, the gallery itself forms the central point of an axis at Hyde Park Corner between two of the subjects of this exhibition. Focusing on the six major London memorials to the Great War maintained by English Heritage, the display triangulates, geographically and curatorially, monuments and ideas well beyond its immediate site. Carefully researched and diligently sourced from public and private collections across the country, the objects are sometimes unexpected and many are rarely seen. The gallery is an intimate space, even domestic in feel, despite its lofty and grand exterior. Visitors are closely engaged with the exhibits yet the density, scope and monumentality of the exhibition exceed its physical bounds and the scale of the objects on display.

The exhibition’s subtitle London’s Great War Memorials has a double-meaning, of course, and the re-designation this summer of Lutyens’s Cenotaph (Whitehall), Frampton’s Memorial to Edith Cavell (St. Martin’s Place) and Jagger’s Royal Artillery (RA) Memorial (Hyde Park Corner) to Grade 1 listed status has reinforced the artistic and architectural claims to greatness of half of its subjects. Francis Derwent Wood’s Machine Gun Corps (MGC) Memorial (Hyde Park Corner), Victor Rousseau’s Belgian Gratitude Memorial (Victoria Embankment) and Alfred Hardiman’s Earl Haig Memorial (Whitehall) were all re-designated to Grade II*. The exhibition presents a wide range of material reflecting stories and experiences of named individuals as well as the shared national and international enormity of mass burial, loss, grief and commemoration. Documents, postcards, photographs, sketches, sculptural objects, medals, ceramics, weaponry and popular cultural ephemera provide a rich visual mix. Papers from the Office of Works files at the National Archives reveal the complexities of erecting public memorials in a city seething with traffic and people of varying opinions. Site plans and elevations, often beautifully executed in watercolour, provide interesting insights into the artistic and administrative process. The changes made from early proposals and plans to the final executions are instructive. Hyde Park Corner has itself been the subject of repeated reconfigurations and disruptions over the century, as a photograph (c.1930) of the Royal Artillery Memorial as a glorified traffic island shows.

As we enter the exhibition we encounter, on the far wall, Jagger’s remarkable and poignant model A British soldier reading a letter from home, the original sketch for the monument at Paddington Station. The theme of this opening room is ‘Words of Loss and Memory’. Here we see letters and commemorative medals sent to families in England, New Zealand and Australia informing them of the loss or injury of their soldiers. The full set of official correspondence concerning the death of Private Charles Edmund Dickson (Jeremy Paxman’s Great Uncle), has been touchingly preserved, in mint condition, along with his ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, designed by Edward Carter Preston. A French certificate and medal commemorates a soldier ‘Mort pour la France’; a German commemorative scroll is illustrated with watercolour representations of grieving parents and military comrades standing over the recumbent body of a dead soldier. The label rightly and helpfully indicates that such unflinching depictions of the horizontality of death were outside British tradition, thus setting the scene for the novelty and drama of Jagger’s Dead Gunner on the RA memorial shown in the next room. Here too are postcards from Germany, Belgium and Britain, illustrating military cemeteries, nurses, the wounded and the transcendent spirits of dead combatants.

The evanescent bodies of thousands who were interred on the battlefields, the missing and the obliterated, whose names and memory were all that survived of them, are evoked and projected into Lutyens’s Cenotaph of 1919-20. The permanent stone version of this empty tomb was unveiled on Armistice Day 1920, when the remains of the Unknown Warrior, the body with no name, was brought here in the procession taking him to his symbolic interment at Westminster Abbey. Frank O. Salisbury’s painting, The Passing of the Unknown Warriorconveys the solemnity and scale of the ceremonial, with the Cenotaph at the centre. Pathé newsreel film clips of the unveiling are part of a video installation of several events relating to the exhibition, shown on the mezzanine floor. The vast crowds and mountains of flowers speak volumes in the silence. A wooden money box in the form of the Cenotaph, made from the timber of the original temporary structure, and a fragile paper napkin printed with flags and text outlining the events of the procession of the Unknown Warrior are among the evocative cabinet ephemera that root the commemoration of the dead in the trivia and banal materiality of the living.

The straightforward presentation of information and material relating directly or contextually to all six memorials is refreshing, if sometimes tantalisingly brief. The equitable presentation of historical details of all the commissions allows each memorial to speak for itself. The post Second World War vision that has coloured our understanding of the Great War as merely the futile beginning of an unfinished conflict, the war that failed to end war, has tended to ‘anthologise’ memorials, like poetry into categories of acceptable and unacceptable. Art critical judgments, that often highlight one memorial or artist at the expense of eclipsing others, are not played out here. For all the commissioners and artists involved in making memorials after 1918, this was the post-war, not the inter-war era. In this second room of the exhibition, Jagger’s RA Memorial exerts its power, the centre of the long wall occupied by the spot lit bronze statuette of The Driver. His cloaked arms, crucifixion-like, stretch out towards the drawings, plans, and photographs that make up the long display. Jagger’s sculpture is undoubtedly the compelling artistic presence in the room. A photograph of the clay model of the Recumbent Artilleryman picks up the earlier German allusion, but it might have been interesting to add that other examples of dead soldiers had already been included in memorials by both Lutyens (Southampton, very high up on top of a stone monument) and Derwent Wood (bronze effigy of an officer in muddied boots, low down on a marble dais, Ditchingham Church, Norfolk, 1920). Lutyens and Wood had also been direct competitors with Jagger and Pearson for the RA Memorial commission, as it happens. 

Juxtaposed with Jagger’s RA Memorial in the real world of Hyde Park Corner, and here in the gallery, Derwent Wood’s Machine Gun Corps Memorial is at last given a substantial exposition in its own right, beyond the often repeated misunderstanding that this is an inappropriate, insipid glorification of war made by a middle-aged non-combatant Royal Academician. Jagger’s and Wood’s memorials were unveiled in the same year, 1925. Indeed for the first time beyond the pages of a PMSA Sculpture Journal essay (2001), Wood’s involvement with making prosthetic masks for soldiers with brutal facial injuries is prominently proposed as an important factor in interpreting the validity and meaning of the memorial. The panel shows a series of photographs of Wood making a mask for a disfigured soldier, and describes how the renaissance bronze David and its inscription ‘Saul hath slain his thousands but David his ten thousands’ was controversial from the start. It should be noted that such Old Testament sentiments were far from unusual during the conflict, but by the time of the unveiling the passing years had rendered the uncompromising facts of the machine gun’s role in killing the enemy less than palatable to most. This was a memorial to the Corps itself, which was disbanded in 1922. And why might a beautiful, historicist David figure have seemed an appropriate image on a memorial to mechanised warfare? In Wood’s allegorical representation of the triumph of justice over might, only Goliath’s sword remains, while the helmet, kit and silent weapons are all that is left of the gunners; only David has flesh. Having witnessed the physical and psychological destruction of so many young men, was this Wood’s own poetic ‘anthem for doomed youth’? In the glass case a Vickers machine gun and its accoutrements, including the essential water-cooling bag are carefully displayed and explained, along with a machine gunner’s description of how necessity might require him to produce his own water to cool the weapon, if supplies ran dry. The eclectic contents of this cabinet include Derwent Wood’s elegant ink sketch of an earlier version of the memorial (V & A Collection) and a bronze statuette of the David figure that, remarkably, normally does duty as a finial on a brass bedpost at Anglesey Abbey (Courtesy National Trust). Whether the occupant of the bed knew the macabre provenance of the figure is unclear. It is pleasing to see Derwent Wood’s excellent caricatures of the architects Blomfield and Lutyens quietly lurking in the context of the Cenotaph and the Belgian Gratitude memorial. Wood’s striking portrayal of Blomfield with a wickedly ‘Modernismus’ cubic head is in stark contrast to the fluid traditionalism of his MGC ‘David’ on the opposite wall, and subtly implies something about the artist’s personality and his capacity to engage with modernity.

From regimental memorials to the commemoration, even sanctification, of an individual. The exhibits surrounding the Cavell Memorial are notable not only for George Frampton’s striking design and sculpture, whose making and installation is well documented here, but also for what they tell us about Cavell’s impact on the popular imagination. As heroine, martyr, and catalyst for recruitment, Cavell was unequalled as a patriotic emblem following her execution in October 1915. Notwithstanding her guilt of the capital crime of espionage and aiding allied soldiers, the shooting of a British nurse in Belgium further symbolised German brutality in the small, defenceless country whose invasion had brought Britain into the war. Cavell’s ‘murder’ was used to encourage volunteers to join up, as a Canadian poster shows. Idealised portraits and inexpensive souvenirs were produced, including the brass hand bell shown here. Was this to be used to summon a soothing hand at the bedside of the sick or wounded, one wonders? A medal struck in honour of Cavell and her Belgian colleague, Marie Depage, is simply inscribed ‘1915. Remember’: Depage had also died in 1915 in the other event that was to symbolise Germany’s savagery, the sinking of the Lusitania. She had been on her way home after fundraising in America for medical supplies and field hospitals. All this was a gift to the allied propaganda machine. Sculptor Charles Wheeler made a Cavell medal in silver on the instruction of Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1917, for his wife’s hospital fundraising scheme. Now in the British Museum, it is not included here, and doesn’t seem to have been put into mass production. In this exhibition, Cavell is the representative of her sex, of medicine and of action, as well as suffering. She surely expected peace to come sooner than three years after her death. Her memorial is inscribed with her final statement: ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone’.

The Belgian theme continues with the Belgian Gratitude Memorial, which like Cavell’s memorial was unveiled in 1920. Like many of his compatriots, the sculptor Victor Rousseau came to Britain as a refugee. Blomfield’s architectural setting on the embankment is well illustrated. Photographs of the installation and unveiling accompany these elevations and the cabinet exhibits include a work purporting to be an early design for the allegorical female figure ‘Belgium’. The sculptor’s widow gave this to the Chelsea Arts Club, to thank the membership for the hospitality shown to the émigré Belgian artist during the war. However, one scholar has suggested to me that the evidence that this was really an early version of the memorial is pretty thin. Artists’ widows do sometimes get these things wrong – whatever the case, beyond this art-historical detail, the sentiment behind the gift and the elegance of the fine symbolist sculpture capture the importance of this Anglo-Belgian relationship. Newsreel clips movingly amplify the humanitarian aid offered to this beleaguered state.

The arduous and thankless task of administering and completing memorial projects – for civil servants and artists alike – is epitomised in the sorry saga of Hardiman’s painfully protracted and contentious commission for the Haig Memorial (1929-37). It almost came to serve dual purpose as a headstone to the sculptor himself, whose health and finances were gravely tested. Coincidentally echoed in a selection of papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive, currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery (until February 2015), the display includes terrific photographs. The scale of the object is evident from the picture of the artist at work on the clay in the studio, while a photo of the finished bronze, wrapped against prying eyes and the elements, tied to a Pickfords’ low-loader, against the backdrop of the Palace of Westminster, is eminently worthy of its huge enlargement. Commander of the largest British army ever assembled, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) has remained a controversial figure. His reputation is difficult to disentangle from the pervasive influence of Alan Clark’s now discredited ‘Lions led by Donkeys’, or the ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’ interpretations, but military history is now offering some necessary corrections to over-simplified views. Even as late as 1938, writers and fellow artists had to defend Hardiman over the appearance of the statue. Stanley Casson’s essay ‘The Statue of Marshal Haig’ appeared in a chapter entitled ‘Some Art Controversies’ in R.S Lambert’s Art in England (pp. 144-150, Pelican, 1938). To attempt a modern version of the ultimate in traditional memorial forms, the equestrian statue, and particularly in the age of photography when an individual of Haig’s fame was known to all, was the devil’s own job. Casson clearly believed that early objections to the first design, and all the alterations and opinions that had to be considered over the years, had resulted in a lesser but nevertheless fine monument; ‘He has evidently been much helped and advised by those who have taste and discernment. He has wisely ignored external, non-artistic criticism’. Hardiman’s stylised equestrian statue is here flanked, for comparison, by a half-figure portrait of Haig by Solomon J Solomon (1919), and the vitrine display includes Haig’s death mask; the plaster image of a more dignified death, one cannot help thinking, than many of his men endured. And here we also have fascinating sketches and notes by Gilbert Ledward for his entry in the competition for the Haig commission. He was unsuccessful of course, but he may later have been grateful for this reprieve. The labelling and information panels in the exhibition respect the intelligence of the audience, and the curators clearly intend us to make our own connections between different elements of the exhibition. Sometimes one wishes for more, and it is a shame that we are not told in passing that Ledward was the sculptor of the Guard’s Memorial at Horseguards’ Parade, which has recently been re-designated a Grade 1 listing. Visitors seemed genuinely engaged with all the objects and would certainly have appreciated such a pointer. Indeed, it was a delight to see the interaction of visitors with the highly informative gallery attendant, and to note that they had many observations to make and had many questions. A short, selective bibliography, to include published and archive sources the curators used in preparing the exhibition would be a useful online resource for visitors who wished to follow up with further reading. From the exhibition opening on 16 July until 30 October there have been over 19,000 visitors.

Upstairs the mezzanine display is chiefly given over to an informative survey of English Heritage’s conservation work on memorials across the country and elsewhere in London, including the touching East London children’s memorial at Poplar. Here we can sit and watch the film sequence, which includes remarkable footage of a machine gun corps training camp in France as well as the clips mentioned earlier, all played to the quiet accompaniment of Vaughan Williams’s ‘Dark Pastoral’, an unmistakably English piece, composed during the Second World War, the elegiac remains of an unfinished cello concerto. The glass cabinet on this floor contains Jagger’s stunning plaster maquette of Wipers, for the Hoylake Memorial. But to me the most moving objects were the most mass produced: the white ceramic models of local war memorials, and especially the group of about twenty Goss china cenotaphs. The national memorial reduced in scale but representing monumental personal loss had a place of honour on thousands of domestic mantelpieces.

The exhibition has only three more weeks to run. Do see it if you can.

We Will Remember Them: London’s Great War Memorials, Quadriga Gallery, Hyde Park, London W1
16 July – 30 November 2014

Aurora Corio