Monuments

Achilles

So the RCA didn’t want me, and I didn’t take any photos for a while after that. Then Stephen and I decided we needed a project to get us each going, so we decided on London monuments. He picked five, I picked five, and he wrote poems and I took pictures. I hired a Pentax 67 with a huge 500mm lens, then bleached and toned the prints. No more aimless street photography for me. Planning, consistency, craft. That was the way to get people to take you seriously.

While I was printing these, and the Numina series, I’d get the bus to Oxford straight after work, sleep on my brother Mark’s floor in Headington, then spend all day and most of the night in the darkroom of The Photographers’ Workshop, on St Mary’s Road, just off the Cowley Road, thanks to the rock-solid generosity of Keith Barnes. Then home on Sunday evening, with wet 20×16 prints in trays wrapped in bin bags in the luggage hold, and the touch-and-go bleaching and toning in the old butler’s sink on the (unheated) landing between floors at 7 New Cavendish Street. I think I used to hang them up to dry in the kitchen. It all seems so artist-in-a-garret now. I didn’t think it was garret-like enough at the time. I thought I should have been doing it all in a squat.

We’d just switched over to desktop publishing at Accountancy Age – not more Mondays and Tuesdays sitting around in a musty room on the first floor of a typesetter’s on Kingsland Road – so I had QuarkXPress to play with for setting Stephen’s poems. I’m still quite proud of the typography. And I was really quite excited that, thanks to Jerry Udall, I can still work with the files 20 years later.

They were shown at The Photographers’ Workshop from 6 February to 6 March 1993, mounted behind wire grills and hung off rusty chains. The full set is here.

Here’s what I wrote at the time – I still think most of this, though its preciousness, prudishness and pomposity make me wince:

MONUMENTS

We are all terrified of loss. We have so little faith in the future, in ourselves, that having got what we want we grasp and cling on to it, in case such luck never comes our way again. Once granted a fresh insight, a stimulating experience, we bury it in the safe wrappings of memory, so that we do not have to spend the rest of life dull and stupid as before.

Monuments are expressions of the orthodox, of the establishment, of power. You and I carry our fragile, precious memories, desires and beliefs, our friends and our loves, in the tenderly vulnerable cribs of our brains, or perhaps on cheap scraps of paper guarded like gold leaf. Those whose opinions are armoured with power can decide for us what our memories should be and can pay for them to be turned into stone and bronze, erected against the sky where we must see them. They are public works of art with a public message, a single definite meaning: though the bodies of kings and heroes wither and die like ours, the heirs to their power cannot allow death to possess their names, their achievements, their bigness. These must live, and we must know them.

 

The individuals thus forced into our memories document these opinions, the choices of the powerful. Every monarch since Elizabeth I has a statue in London, except Edward VII. They stand or ride horses. Twelve London statues are in Roman dress – ten of them kings. Among the crowd of politicians and soldiers, and assorted social workers, writers and explorers, there are only three actors – Henry Irving, Sarah Siddons and David Garrick, the latter with only a medallion for his fame. There are nine women. The statues’ preferred accessory is a book, but there are also ancillary dogs, a palette and brush, binoculars, a lorgnette, telescopes, a pair of compasses, a walking stick, an umbrella and a football.

But we, the individuals of the public mass, for whose pleasure, education and improvement these pieces are erected, are more interested in whatever subversive, personal significance the monuments have for each one of us. Eros means a tourist’s London, too much traffic, young travellers sitting on its steps in summer heat; it also means the sweet tyranny and cruel chances of sexual attraction. Before the second world war, and for a few years afterwards, it meant the old flower-girls who used to sit beneath it with their huge baskets. Who remembers that it is The Angel of Christian Charity, put up by public subscription to prolong the memory of the Earl of Shaftesbury’s philanthropy?

Achilles is a tribute to the victories of the Duke of Wellington, the metal from thirty-three tons of captured French cannon, the largest bronze cast for 1,800 years. Through its artistry it implies a dynamic, virile, dangerous warrior. But we are perhaps more likely to be repelled by its murderous brutality, or attracted to its hard muscles. Then there were those of ‘the ladies of England’ of 1822 who paid for Achilles but were upset by its nudity; and the inscrutable critics of 1870 and 1961 who chipped off its fig-leaf. The sculptor himself was interpreting another’s work; the name was his, but the stance comes from one of the two statues of horse-tamers on the Monte Cavallo in Rome, which themselves were taken from Alexandria.

The Boy David is a version of the model for the Royal Machine Gun Corps memorial which stands at Hyde Park Corner. The final bronze is larger, more muscular, more classical, and carries a larger sword, the better to represent manly military values. The fibre-glass copy, standing in a little green on the Chelsea embankment, shows a lithe, elegant youth with relaxed posture, more likely to arouse than inspire. The artist wanted to honour the sculptor of the original, rather than his patrons, and this illicit meaning may indeed have been his intention: but I wonder if the Old Comrades’ Association, which paid a hundred guineas towards it, really approved? But it is a monument, and therefore public, and we, the public, are free to choose our own truth.

The Cenotaph shows how the first world war, a tragedy of ordinary people, has been claimed by the institutions of power that devised and directed it. Although there are no religious symbols on the stone, and the inscription is simply to ‘The Glorious Dead’, and its beautifully simple lines bring to mind a quality of noble intention far above aggressive, acquisitive, territorial drives, the Cenotaph stands at the close-guarded centre of British government, and is best known as the scene of a yearly affirmation of the established order. Every second Sunday in November sees it beset by royalty, military commanders, and such politicians as will submit to the required attitude of reverence and accept the correctness of our role in history.

In contrast to this, the Monument seems to promote no individual, or class, or belief, or value. It only reminds London’s people of the Great Fire, something that without question affected all of them, individually and as a mass. The fire burned for five days and destroyed four-fifths of the city, including eighty-nine churches, four hundred and sixty street, and thirteen thousand, two hundred houses – almost all the domestic buildings. The melted bells of St Paul’s ran down its walls. Pavements glowed red.

In setting a flaming orb rather than his statue atop the memorial column, Charles II declined to make the Monument his. The public even paid for it, as for many other buildings at the time, through a tax on coal.

The Monument has been used, nevertheless, for various private and partisan causes. On the west side of the base is a bold relief showing the king in Roman dress arriving at the scene of the fire, stretching out his hand to offer relief to a female figure representing the desolate city, though there may be some less august significance in the depiction of Charles’ fingers resting on London’s naked breast. Round on the north side is a Latin inscription describing the fire. In 1681 extra lines were added blaming the fire on Catholics: ‘Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.’ The Catholic James II had this section erased. The Protestant William III had it etched even deeper. It was finally removed the year after the Catholic Emancipation Act. And the Royal Society of Astronomers observed from the Monument, until vibration made it useless for them.

In 1750 William Green, a weaver, was one of those who made this ordinary people’s monument their own. He left his watch with the doorkeeper, walked up the three hundred and eleven steps, and jumped. In 1842, the platform at the top of the column was enclosed.

Swathed in exhaust fumes, teetering between the grey river and the crawling cars, I can’t help feeling that Cleopatra’s Needle has come to a sad end, drained of any meaning at all, personal or public. We can only dream of what it meant three and a half thousand years ago, in Heliopolis, Sun City, when it and its twin were carved with the life of Rameses the Great. Augustus moved them to Alexandria seven years after Cleopatra died there.

The beginning of its prosaic exile was its encounter with the British Empire. Egypt was taken from the French in 1801, and although the troops fancied the obelisk as a war trophy, they were stumped by the problem of looting sixty-eight feet and a hundred and eighty-six tons of pink granite. The Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, took it upon himself to present it to Britain in 1819. It was finally crated up and towed to England in 1878, twice abandoned on the way in the Bay of Biscay because of storms. It was stood where it still is on the Embankment, sitting above a cache of 1878 coins, a picture of Queen Victoria, Bradshaw’s Rail Guide, a case of cigars, newspapers of the day, hairpins, children’s toys and other items of significance. A Zeppelin bomb brought further indignity in the first world war.

 

Since the second world war there have been many more new pieces of public sculpture than public statues put up in London. Modern artists are rarely interested in creating a likeness, of course, and we are more conversant with three-dimensional art than were our great-grandparents. But we are also less inclined to accept that our leaders must have a better idea than we do of what is right, what we should respect and honour. Whether through better education or prosperity, the blurring of class distinctions or the end of religion, those in power have perhaps lost their nerve. Few persons beloved of the establishment could safely be put forward as uncontroversial subjects for general admiration. We are in love with the individual nowadays, but not individuals who conform to the pleasure of the powerful.

We have only our own values, our own fascinations.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Which might be roughly rendered as, ‘If it’s a monument you’re after, look around you.’