Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Wellington Arch

Hyde Park Corner
Monday August 11h 2014

We, that is Roger, Linda and Jo, had planned a Wellington morning – the Duke not the boots that is – but in the event we only completed Part 1, which was to visit the Arch, owing to not having noticed that his house across the road is not actually open on Mondays.  Never mind: the Arch itself is both imposing and interesting, once planned as a grand entrance to Green Park and Buckingham Palace, now the centre of one of London’s scariest roundabouts.  Previous plans for an arch and grand entrance to West London, by well-established architects such as Robert Adam (as in Kenwood) or Sir John Soane (as in Bank of England) had been abandoned on cost grounds but following naval and military successes in the Napoleonic Wars it was felt that a triumphal arch could double as a Victory monument and an entrance statement.  In the end the go-ahead was given to Sir Decimus (yes he really was the tenth child of his parents) Burton whose original plans were rather more ornate than what you see today. This time the budget for remodelling Buckingham Palace had over run so corners were cut on the Arch, or in fact arches were cut on the arch.  

As visitors to this monument, if you take the lift to the First Floor this history of the Arch from plan to execution is well displayed. The next controversy was about the specific memorial to Wellington, to whom had already been given nearby Apsley House.  The 1st floor gallery has some excellent cartoons of the day showing how ridiculous the equestrian statue of Wellington looked atop the Arch and it was eventually sent down  to Aldershot and replaced by the Quadriga you see today. This last co-incided with the whole Arch being moved to its present site because of heavy traffic,  generated mainly by the recent opening of Victoria Station. The replacement statue of four horses pulling a chariot conducted by a young boy with Peace hovering over his shoulder was another expensive commission but a private donor and subsidy from the sculptor made a viable option – interestingly Adrian Jones, the artist, had actually worked with horses during his own military career and it probably accounts for the liveliness of the steeds.  These were finally unveiled in 1912.

The First World War clearly marks the transition from the 19th century preoccupation with triumph and glorious commanders to memorials of loss and remembrance showing the ‘ordinary Tommy.'
The current exhibition on the 3rd Floor is entitled ‘We Will Remember Them’ and is dedicated to looking in detail at London’s great War memorials, particularly those in the care of English Heritage. There is an accompanying brochure and to coincide with all the other events to commemorate the losses of war, this exhibition is timely, moving and altogether manageable as it focuses on six quite different approaches to  and examples of memorial art.

  •   Earl Haig, even now a controversial figure, is fittingly somewhat ‘old school’ and is shown on horseback, a horse the widow insisted by a real likeness of the Earl’s ‘Poperinghe’.
  •  Also traditional is the statue of Edith Cavell.  Royalty apart there are few public statues of women.
  •           For us the least known memorial English Heritage showcased in the exhibition was the ‘Belgian Gratitude memorial’ located opposite Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment and given in recognition of the UK offering a home for many Belgian refugees and entering the war on their behalf (something of a simplification).

  •           Most memorable probably is the Machine Gun Corps memorial depicting a very beautiful nude ‘David’ in true Renaissance style alongside the weapons of death. Interestingly the sculptor, Dewent Wood also helped the wounded with facial reconstructions.

  •           The Cenotaph, so well -known it needs no introduction, but admirable nevertheless. Sir Edwin Lutyens was probably better known for  his country houses but the simple stele has more than stood the test of time
  •           For me the most moving of the memorial sculptors is Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial; here is the man who captures the ‘universal soldier’ be he exhausted and at rest , the caped driver, or as at Paddington Station, reading a letter from home.

The memorials are set in a context of how the artists were chosen, and even more important how the words were chosen interspersed with the stories of certain individuals whose names can then be traced on the grand memorial such as Thiepval (Lutyens again) or range of village memorials from round the country.
Climbing to the platform of the Arch you can have an excellent view (although a bit tree-obscured  in some directions at this time of year), not just down into the Palace gardens, but also over many other memorials that cluster here – the Canadian, the Australian, the New Zealand (when trees are less leafy)  and Commonwealth memorials are innovative and reflect their own cultures whereas the Bomber Command one, already controversial , does not compete favourably and seem to hark back to a different era.

Talking of a different era the rooms now used for exhibitions used to house the Met’s ‘smallest police force’ who were stationed here complete with cat and this is about the most frivolous exhibit in what is both a memorial in in its own right, a great London landmark and a worthwhile temporary exhibition. 

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