Sunday, 11 November 2012

“Simple, Beautiful and Dignified”

Manchester's Cenotaph (photo by Andy Marshall)
Earlier this year, I was commissioned to research the Cenotaph in St Peter’s Square in Manchester. This memorial and others around the country serve to commemorate those from all over the British Empire and then the Commonwealth and the Allies, who lost their lives in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. The design of the Cenotaph in Manchester is a virtual copy on one that stands in the middle of Whitehall in London. It was designed by one of Britain’s most celebrated architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens. While my research brief was to investigate the structural aspects of Manchester’s cenotaph I had to go back and look at the original London version to acquire the full picture. While I may have been asked to investigate the physical structure, through the research it was impossible to ignore the human story of how these memorials came about.

Sir Edwin Lutyens
Sir Alfred Mond

In the summer of 1919 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, gave Lutyens two weeks to design a temporary memorial, to serve as a “saluting base” for the Peace Day Parade in London on 19 July. Lutyens was already working with the Imperial War Graves Commission designing Allied war cemeteries in France. However, the impetus for Lloyd George to commission Lutyens was his own visit to France in 1919, where the Arc de Triomphe and the temporarily constructed catafalque had “envisaged our need for a point of homage to stand as a symbol of remembrance worthy of the reverent salute of an Empire mourning its million dead.”

Lutyens Original Rough Design of The Cenotaph (Image: Imperial War Museum)

Lutyen’s simple and unfussy design (an empty coffin on a high column surmounted by a laurel wreath) was constructed of timber and plaster, being only temporary. But the public grasped the appropriateness of the monument and on that day the base of the monument was covered in flowers brought by the mourning general public. For weeks after, there were queues of people waiting to place wreaths there. It became obvious that a permanent memorial had to be constructed.

Mourners in July 1919

The ensuing months saw Lutyens and his “ally” in Government Sir Alfred Mond (later 1st Lord Melchett) the First Commissioner of Works, struggle to reign in the demands of the Cabinet to create a grander and more elaborate war memorial. In a memo to the Cabinet in July 1920 Sir Alfred wrote: “Sir Edwin Lutyens’ authority on a point like this can surely not be in question. His is the genius which has created this monument which has been universally acclaimed. It is quite simple beautiful and dignified and his whole reputation is naturally involved in the final result …”

On 11th November 1920, in Whitehall, King George V unveiled the permanent Portland stone memorial replacing the one made of timber and plaster. Lutyens had caught the right tone with his understated, yet proud design. The permanent Cenotaph in Whitehall weighed 120 tons and stood 35 ft high. It was constructed by Messrs Holland, Hannen and Cubitts Limited and cost £10,000 to construct.

Lutyens called the memorial a “Cenotaph”, from the Greek that broadly translates as an “empty tomb”, there to honour those buried elsewhere. In addition to the laurel wreath on the top of the Cenotaph, there are two more on each end and on each side three flagstaffs. The sculptor Derwent Wood designed the wreaths. The inscription “The Glorious Dead” was chosen by Lutyens; rejecting other more effusive and even mawkish suggestions. The design was so popular that 55 similar structures were erected in Britain, including the one in St Peter’s Square in Manchester. This latter one has the figure of a soldier lying on top of the memorial.

Lutyens didn’t take a penny in payment for what was arguably one of his most important works. Benefited by his insight, we have a focal point of few words and embellishments that at the same time says and demonstrates everything we would want to express to “The Glorious Dead”.