A memorial too far
THE PLEASURE TO be had from walking through the squares, parks and streets of London is by no means unalloyed for anyone sensitive to their visual surroundings. We are not solely referring to the eyesores and inconvenience of continuous roadworks, the vast empty spaces left by the demolition of familiar buildings or the disruption of countless ‘events’ which, for example, turn Trafalgar Square into a cheap fairground. No, we are referring to the constant fear of coming across a newly sited public sculpture or subscribed-for memorial. The subject is not new to this Editorial page but we feel it is only fair to warn readers of what they might discover and, in one particular instance, what Westminster City Council has in store for them next year.
A distinction has to be made, of course, between works that have been temporarily situated and those that are intended for posterity, cemented to plinth, wall or pavement. The former are a relatively new development in the urban scene and have long been associated with social and spiritual uplift. A prime example of this was the proliferation of outdoor sculpture at the 1951 Festival of Britain. More recently motives have become mixed – from commercial opportunism to frank feel-goodism – and the aesthetic temperature has dropped. A current initiative is Westminster City Council’s ‘City of Sculpture Festival’ with changing works in prominent places throughout 2010–12, supported by the Grosvenor Property Group and some well-placed local dealers’ galleries.
We have lacked the courage to inspect all its manifestations and are thankful that Simon Gudgeon’s profiles of two empty heads – paradoxically entitled Age of Enlightenment – had not been unveiled on Millbank before we went to press. Two highly visible works marooned at Marble Arch will suffice. One is a massive, vertical horse’s head in bronze by Nic Fiddian-Green, an equine sculptor whose work has so far escaped our attention. Called Horse at water, the head is lowered in an attempt to drink from the black marble plinth on which it is balanced. The pretensions of the work are in full contrast to the ludic gigantism of seven variously sized and coloured jelly babies by Mauro Perucchetti, also atop a high rectangular plinth, on the adjoining grassed island. This witless affront is in part, it seems, a comment on human cloning. The temporary status of these two works is their one shared merit.
Much more alarming for its sculptural, architectural and environmental implications is a structure to be built beyond the southern end of Park Lane, across the traffic, on the Piccadilly side of Green Park (Fig.I). It is being erected in memory of the crewmen of Bomber Command lost in the Second World War. Possibly the largest, certainly the most grandiose of London’s war memorials, its foundation stone was laid last August and work has now begun. When we last wrote about memorials and public sculpture, it was known that an application had been submitted to Westminster City Council’s planning sub-committee for the Bomber Command memorial but we failed to comment, thinking – foolishly it now appears – it could not possibly be given the green light. The monument, designed by Liam O’Connor Architects, will consist of a colonnade (84 m. long) on either side of a Portland stone loggia (8.5 m. high), accessed from the Park, which contains a bronze sculptural group of seven airmen by Philip Jackson, known for his be-plumed Queen Mother on the Mall. Quotations and information within the loggia will add an educational element.1
There were many objections at the Council’s consultation stage.2 None objected to the purpose of the memorial, instigated by the Bomber Command Association with support from the Heritage Fund (to be built and maintained at a cost of £5.5 million). Some, however, pointed to other places in London where the Air Force and Bomber Command are remembered; to the unsuitability of the site in a Park mercifully almost free of statuary and memorials; objected that it would be on no ceremonial route; and that its proximity to the conglomeration of war memorials at Hyde Park Corner would lead to overcrowding. Several objections concerned the classical pastiche of the design, with its triumphalist overtones, and its weak echoes of Decimus Burton’s Screen at the entrance to Hyde Park. Strong reservations came from the police, local residents’ associations, the Parks and Gardens Trust and many others. Westminster’s Public Art Advisory Panel advised against the architecture and the site and expressed its dismay at not having been consulted earlier; a few months later the Panel was abolished by the Council. Inevitably, favourable comments were almost wholly in commendation of ‘the bravery and sacrifice’ of the airmen who will be commemorated. Fear of giving offence and an element of misplaced nationalism surely flavoured the scheme’s endorsement, particularly by prominent members of the Government. Did it also colour the granting of the application by Westminster City Council whose own planning officers had objected to the memorial’s size and situation in designated Metropolitan Open Land? This well-meaning but ill-judged private initiative should have been examined at the highest level, especially in the light of the dubious aesthetic impact of recent neighbouring memorials and the un-greening of this section of Green Park. The whole concept is regressive. Surely the airmen who died deserve a more innovative and imaginative memorial than this kitsch charade?
1 Editorial: ‘Keep Britain tidy’, The Burlington Magazine 152 (2010), p.711.
2 See the planning application of 13th May 2010 at www.westminster.gov.uk/services/environment/planning.