David Odgers, Odgers Conservation, The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London

There is extraordinary simplicity and power of the design in the Cenotaph and Lutyens is rightly lauded for providing the symbolic and emotional centrepiece of national commemoration. A.A. Milne wrote: ‘It is the perfect evocation of grief and pride’ (1919). 

Unfortunately Lutyens paid little heed to the effect of weather and particularly rainwater on his designs. It was rather a consistent failing, Castle Drogo has suffered and Little Thakeham, one of his great houses in Sussex has had similar problems. Lutyens is not alone in this; damp problems and water ingress affect the Menin Gate by Blomfield and other significant memorial structures such as thiose at Arras, Vis-en-Antois and the Menin Gate.

The only acknowledgement that Lutyens made to water in the Cenotaph is a drain in the middle of the wreath on the top which one can see from this photograph of the top elevation. It has a cover over the top and it drains water through a pipe (that still works) somewhere into Whitehall,. Only a very small amount of water falls inside the wreath. Apart from that, most of the upper section of the cenotaph retains water as the top and offsets are flat. The cornice is only a decorative embellishment; in classical architectural theory it should have a ‘throat’ cut on the underside, which would have ensured that the water was thrown clear of the stonework beneath but it does not have this feature. So water falling onto the Cenotaph collects on the top and then runs down the moulding of the cornice onto the stonework beneath leading to discolouration and streaking. 

Stone is a very durable material so why does it have a problem with water? If stone is always wet or always dry, it is likely to be in good condition, but if it alternates between wet and dry it will tend to slowly deteriorate. This gradual deterioration process opens up the surface pores of the stone, providing a perfect environment for the accumulation of pollution and for the growth of microbiology. As heavy traffic thunders past the Cenotaph, particulates are released that collect on the stone. We live in an environment where sulphur dioxide levels are now as low as they have been since the fifteenth century, but this has been replaced by nitrous oxide which acts as a catalyst for the growth of algae and other microbiology.

People have a deep cultural and emotional attachment to the Cenotaph and on November 12th each year complaints flood into English Heritage; these are along the lines that either it is disrespectful that the main national symbol of remembrance is not maintained in an appropriate manner or why can’t the Cenotaph be kept in the same condition as the memorials overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The pristine condition of the latter involves a deliberate strategy of replacement. At workshops in Arras, they can produce thousands of these stones each year. They use laser cutting machinery to cut the name and the regimental badge and this enables replacements to be made the moment the originals become stained or disfigured. 

People do not realise that the Cenotaph is probably the best maintained monument in the country. Between 2008 and 2012 it was cleaned eight times and, during the 1990s, cleaning took place at night every four weeks with a high pressure water jet. This is the nub of the problem; the stone has been cleaned so many times that the surface is now very damaged and the decay is being accelerated. Our challenge is to find ways of preserving the monument; although principally a matter of conservation, it is also involves education of what is achievable and appropriate.

So conservators are dealing with a monument with incomparable aesthetic, but defective, practical design; it is constructed from a natural material that will inevitably decay; it is in a highly polluted environment; it has been damaged by many previous cleaning processes and yet there is an expectation for its appearance that is driven by the idea that cleanliness of the monument and the degree of respect we have for those who lost their lives are somehow linked. At present there is a heightened awareness of the significance of war memorials, not just the Cenotaph and a temptation to be seen to be doing something is overwhelming. But this might not always be in the best interests of the memorial itself so it is no wonder the War Memorials Trust is encouraging people to be cautious in their approach to the treatment of war memorials.

What are the options for the Cenotaph? Continued cleaning at the intensity of the past is not sustainable. We are now at the stage where leaving the stone dirty is better than cleaning it. Can we tolerate it being dirty? If we cannot, can we seal it or cover it? What about re-cutting it so that the ledges slope and the cornice work to throw the water clear – would that subtly change the appearance and ruin the Luytens design? Can we stop the traffic down Whitehall? Will it eventually have to be refaced? After all, the memorial to the missing at the Somme at Thiepval was refaced (just the brick not the stone) in the 1970s and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission continue with a policy of renewal rather than repair. But perhaps we can also realise that the act of commemoration might not need a pristine memorial still to be heartfelt. Would the raw emotion of the Last Post on Remembrance Day be diminished, just because the memorial has taken on the scars that are the inevitable result of its age and location?

Six months ago, the Cenotaph was cleaned with superheated steam, which is much gentler than pressurised water. A latex poultice was used to try to remove the staining deep beneath the surface of the stone. The joints were repointed and then a lime-based coating was applied to the surface of the upper section.; this is designed to fill the open pores of the stone and reduce the rate at which the dirt can collect. After six months there are subtle changes, but the signs are encouraging that the cycle of maintenance has been slowed.

There is a wider debate to be had about the art of commemoration and how we treasure our memorials and look after them now and in the future .The Royal Artillery War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner is, I think, the most compelling and beautiful of all memorials; no triumphalism, only the raw images of the reality of war. Designed by Lionel Pearson with carvings by Charles Sargeant Jagger, it is beset by practical design problems. It seems a shame to take such a glorious evocation of the grim reality of war and start talking about water, but once again the flat surfaces on the top, aided and abetted by repeated over-cleaning have led to significant deterioration of the stone. There are added enemies in the form of the plane trees that flank it and the pigeons which roost on it; together they provide the perfect nutrients for organic growth that root deeply into the wet open textured stone and, as a result, algae grows quickly. Recent monitoring shows that the process of almost complete coverage with green algae only takes about eight months following cleaning. Over the past couple of years, we have tried to find a way to improve the situation. Could anyone with influence at Westminster Council please get them to remove those plane trees, because at the moment they are steadfastly refusing to do so? We tried the methods we used at the Cenotaph but they haven’t worked, so we are adopting a form of water proofing of the top; trials have shown that this should significantly reduce the growth of the algae; such a process will have to be re-done every few years and, although we are quite confident of the outcome, we cannot be absolutely sure of the long term effects.

The relief carvings were treated with a new method of stone consolidation in the late 1980s. This used a lead catalyst, which is why the algae tends not to grow on them. The lead catalyst is now a banned substance, so the consolidant cannot be used again. Although the treatment doesn’t seem to have caused any harm to the surface, it doesn’t seem to have been of any significant benefit either, so the loss of detail continues. A recent laser survey to compare the surface with ten years ago found there is a loss of about 1mm stone on the top surfaces – so how long before those carvings become indistinct?

We are entering a period of intense scrutiny about the act of commemoration and its physical reflection in our war memorials. After 2019, when the centenaries are over, will interest start to diminish? Will war memorials start to be neglected? I doubt that. I am sure the Cenotaph will continue to be the centre of national commemorations. But we do need to have a debate about how best to look after them and how to manage the expectations of the public.

Main image: Detail, The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, (photo: David Odgers)

Aurora Corio