Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Here was a Royal Fellowship..... Armistice Day

Royal Artillery Memorial - Hyde Park Corner -  London
Little by little, as the years pass, the original purpose of this public holiday in France on the 11th November seems to be overlooked. And yet it is Armistice Day, and whilst I'll be undoubtedly and very, very grudgingly doing even more work, I do want to remind myself of all that I have, and for which I should be grateful. Actually, I think that I am already aware of that, but am far more conscious of the fact that I have to limit my active appreciation of what I possess on every level due to an enormous proportion of my time being eaten up by ever-increasing workloads that do not 'pay' in any sense of the word. Time might well be 'money', as the saying goes, but when you have no time you really are impoverished.The concept of 'free' time is something that  I've lost sight of, as it seems to be more a case of stolen time, for which I feel guilty. So today I will try to refocus and think of people and populations, from the past and present, who have lost all freedom and have known true deprivation.

The Driver
Over a number of years, I dragged the big suitcase, children in tow, from Victoria coach station through Hyde Park and towards Paddington station... Invariably, we would pass the memorial to the Great War on the corner of Hyde Park, but daunted by all that traffic, and eager to enter the main park grounds, never crossed over to see it at close quarters. Literally each time, I swore we would do so, especially once we'd read Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher and were more observant of the impressive statues that are part of the city landscape. Even from afar, the striking form of the Driver, who looks on from the west flank of the Royal Artillery memorial, draws your attention. Finally, when I travelled to London alone last year, I seized the opportunity to look at the statues on this traffic island.
This was at the beginning of December, and therefore poppy wreathes still lay at the feet of the four soldiers who are positioned like sentinels around the massive memorial block of Portland stone. This itself bears sculpted reliefs showing uncompromising scenes of conflict. These were in line with the sculptor's intention to depict the events of war which would not shy away from its brutal reality and could in no way be taken as a symbol of Peace. Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934) was commissioned to carry out the work to commemorate the fallen Royal Artillery servicemen in 1922, and he duly stated that  “experience in the trenches persuaded me of the necessity for frankness and truth”. The result attests to this, but its refusal to present anything that could comfort or reassure the public of the nature of 'the Great War to end all wars' drew mixed reactions from the public and press alike. The spectre of Death, symbolized in the form of the fallen artilleryman, lain out and shrouded by his trench cape, was perceived as "a terrible revelation long overdue" (Manchester Guardian)  but also as 'inappropriate' by other parties. Jagger was insistant that this figure be an integral part of the memorial, and refused to give in to disapproval.

The fallen artillery man
A large sculpted howitzer, the heavy siege gun that was prevalent in trench warfare, is set on the top of the monument, its cold stone overshadowing the artillery men below - cannon fodder indeed. The Driver seems to stare onward towards the continual flow of pedestrians opposite him, oblivious to the noise of cars and buses, but his eyes are virtually covered by his metal helmet, and you have the feeling that underneath that, his vision is glazed. As one of the military ranks, his duty was to drive the teams of horses. Here, he is supposedly resting, although his pose is more that of exhausted resignation, rather than true respite.

The Driver
As he leans back against the stone, he holds the whip used to force his beasts onwards and the chains to shackle them to their fate, but he himself seems to be no more than a human cog in the inhuman machine of war. Man and beast all belong to the "fellowship of Death", that is alluded to on the plinth of the dead gunner and is fact drawn from lines in Shakespeare's Henry V in reference to the losses at Agincourt. As the other two standing forms, the Driver's poise seems both bold, here with his arms out-stretched and legs apart, yet ultimately is truly vulnerable.

The Artillery Lieutenant
An artillery lieutenant stands facing south. Initially, he too looks bold and full of aplomb, but this impression soon gives way to the feeling that he is weighed down by his duty, just as he is loaded down by his cumbersome clothing and wartime kit. He may lead men with his swagger stick, but he is led by events and must follow passively.

To the east stands the Shell Carrier, aptly named for huge cannister shells shored in the pockets of greatcoat. With feet firmly planted in heavy miltary boots he looks invincible, yet his sinewy arms look unprotected and the vulnerable veins on his clenched hands contrast the vein-like cords that hold the shells in place, ready to pulverise flesh on the 'other side'.

The Shell Carrier
The hobnails visible on the soles of the dead gunner's boots show the fraility of all things, as do his fingers, slightly crooked, no longer trying to keep a grip on life itself. Apparently Jagger was greatly inspired by the sculpture of Rodin, and this is seen in his study of hands. We cannot see the dead man's facial expression, but the hands say enough. Even the rough fabric of the clothing seems to speak to us - carefully created by Jagger's modelling technique of building up layers of clay to leave a textured finish.

The Gunner

The memorial is dedicated to the artillery men who died in service, and the names of the countries and regions where they fought are inscribed in its stone - France, Africa, Persia, Egypt, Central Asia, Palestine, Russia, Italy, India, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Macedonia, Dardanelles and Flanders.... Almost 50,000 men died.

Jagger's career only spanned 16 years, and war seems to have shaped much of those, directly or indirectly. Son of a colliery manager in a pit village near Rotherham, he became interested in sculpture as a young child, and later went on to study metal engraving, before attending the Royal College of Art in 1907. Although he won a prestigious scholarship to study in Rome in 1914 (Le Prix de Rome) he declined this and chose to serve King and Country in joining the Artists' Rifles. He was injured several times in service, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry, yet survived the war years. Nevertheless, he never freed himself from war in the sense that his eventual career largely centred on depictions of the Great War in the numerous memorials for which he was commissioned. Jagger died of pneumonia at the age of 49, just a few years before the start of the Second World War....

Paddington War Memorial - Jagger - photo by Cnbrb - English Wikipedia
What I did not know, until looking into Jagger's career for this post, is that the imposing statue in front of which we have always passed when boarding the train at Paddington station was also sculpted by Jagger... That one has always caught my attention, but I had never made the association between that figure and those of the Hyde Park memorial.

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