I have become increasingly confused with the number of memorials and pieces of sculpture that have appeared along Piccadilly, Park Lane and around Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch in recent years. I do not wish to single out any but some definitely lack the ‘impact’ of others (a few seem to lack a purpose). Many have the stamp of ‘committee’ all over them and as I know, a group-decision about public-art leaves nobody happy. The biggest surprise, viewed from a bus or glimpsed from the bike, was the new, enormous, Bomber Command Memorial that has appeared where Piccadilly meets Hyde Park Corner. I was astonished at the size of the structure and it’s resemblance to Burton’s Hyde Park Screen (1825) adjacent to Apsley House. “Safe and boring - another piece of classicism”, I thought.
Being British or from Europe, (anywhere in fact) one remembers a lifetime’s worth of the discussions surrounding Bomber Command and their role in the war, Churchill’s apparent snub with no campaign medal, the controversy of the continued ‘industrial’ bombardment into the final hours of hostilities and so on but it is still a surprise to think it has taken sixty-years to put something up, and sobering to have been reminded that: “55,575 lost their lives – a 44.4% death rate, much higher than that for infantry soldiers of the First World War. The next most perilous occupation in WWII was that of the Merchant Navy who lost a third of their men. A further 18,000 RAF bomber aircrew were wounded or became prisoners of war. All in all, the casualty rate was 60%” [LINK]. The memorial also includes reference to all casualties of conflict.
Very classical and safe it appears as I cycle up and I expected to be bored. Entering I was surprised that although it was all very standard classic memorial stuff something else was happening here. The roof/ceiling is designed as bomber fuselage with aluminium from a crashed Halifax to evoke a Wellington Bomber and the figures, evocative of Sargeant-Jagger’s work are by Philip Jackson. They are excellent. The roof has been left open in the manner of James Turrell with the words Per ardua ad astra framing a patch of sky.
Many people will talk about the architecture and of course about Bomber Command’s role in the war but I have to say I was deeply moved by watching how people reacted to the sculptures. This could not have been predicted and it might be that the plinth is one day seen as too high as they have already become a shrine with telegrams, photos, love-letters and biographies attached to the figures boots and coat-tails. People I watched come and go seemed genuinely fascinated by the detail. Such sculpture is popular in war-memorials and I am not a person who thinks that all memorials should be figures - but this seems to work. I was moved by the figures and the statistics but I was particularly moved by the momentoes and visitors’ sombre viewing of every detail, every scrap of paper, every tied-up-with-ribbon photo. There seems to have been an immediate and intensely human ‘adoption’ of the figures and the space by relatives and friends of the fallen. This may not last very long and may well have also been a feature of the Royal Artillery Memorial after both wars. The difference here is that it is very easy to attach things to these statues.
There are no names of the fallen on the monument just the number killed so nothing like the Menin Gate [LINK] or the Washington Memorial to the US fallen of the Vietnam War [LINK]. I have noticed that this is a feature of veteren and Legion online discussion groups where many feel a roll of the fallen could have been incorporated. I don’t have a view except that their omission is in stark contrast to the branding by those involved in it’s funding, design and construction with their names emblazoned all over the place. One funder even has their name engraved across it’s own niche. I can’t remember ever seeing such a ‘branded’ memorial. I am very confused by this.
As the stone mellows the memorial may settle down into its location but at present it does rather look as if it was dropped from above onto the site that it was given and that it was determined to occupy every millimetre of that site. Perhaps this is as it should be.