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November 07 2011

Power and glory: London's Royal Artillery Memorial

Restored by English Heritage in time for Remembrance Sunday, this monument to the shocking filth and futility of battle is as unforgettable as the war it depicts

The Royal Artillery Memorial at London's Hyde Park Corner is an iceberg of dangerous memories, menacing the traffic that circles its island, forcing unpleasant truths from the past into the present.

They get further away, it sometimes seems, the horrors of war. Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that we live in a progressively less violent world, so peaceful compared with the past that we can't, or won't, believe our luck. There's a lot of truth in that – especially if you compare our century with the years 1914-1918. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the first world war. That figure is inconceivably higher than today's war casualties, at least as they affect British troops. Among recent conflicts, only the Iran-Iraq war – featuring trench warfare and gas, and claiming up to a million lives between 1980 and 1988 – can even be usefully compared.

The first world war remains a terrible extreme of organised slaughter – a warning to the ages – and this is why its memory must never fade, even as we get closer to the centenary of its almost random beginning with an assassination in the Balkans in June 1914.

For this reason I salute English Heritage which, in time for Remembrance Sunday, has just finished cleaning and restoring the Royal Artillery Memorial. I visited the still-scaffolded monument last week: up close you can see why it needed some work, especially on the reliefs that surround it and depict scenes of artillery warfare.

Created by Charles Jagger and Lionel Pearson, the memorial is a shocking collision of technology and the human body. It enacts in its own form the destructive energies of war. The ambivalence of its style, caught between figurative accuracy and the modernist daring of its age (it was unveiled in 1925) enhances its dreadful power.

A massive Howitzer points into the sky as if preparing to bombard London – but it is carved, incongruously, in stone. After being cleaned by English Heritage, the gun now looks whiter, more skeletal and ghostly than it has for a long time. The rendition of a mighty metal firearm in artfully carved stone is eerie, the conflict between traditional sculptural values and the brutality of mechanised war shocking and grotesque.

The fascination of my visit to the scaffolding, however, was not so much standing on the stone blocks that support the gun as peering very closely at the reliefs below. Each of these scenes might seem, at first glance, a conventional image of artillerymen at work. They are depictions of strength and strain. But the more you look, the more they resemble nightmares conceived by Goya and carved by Donatello. Like German expressionist images of the war, these formidable scenes convey the mess, filth, exhaustion and futility of the western front.

Walking along planks, studying these friezes of desolation, I found myself wondering whose boots lay ahead, poking round a corner. Was an English Heritage stonemason asleep on the job? Then it dawned: I was looking at a dead artilleryman, cast in bronze. From where I stood on the monument, he was like Mantegna's Dead Christ. From any angle he is devastating. This is one of four bronze soldiers posed around the monument. Another, facing the oncoming traffic, holds out his arms like Christ under a shroud-like cape.


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April 21 2011

Slideshow: Life of a northern town under enemy fire revealed

Hartlepool Museum showcases archive of bombardment pictures on photo-sharing website

The collection of 77 pictures includes 50 from the bombardments of Wednesday 16 December 1914 which the museum says was one of the 'most significant events in the town's history'.

"Over 1000 shells were fired causing much devastation to the town and its people. 112 people were killed, more than 200 injured and many buildings were damaged or destroyed."

Alongside the bombardment pictures are glimpses of everyday life such as people enjoying the The Promenade, stepping out in their finery, and working men and boys standing around a large catch at the Fish Quay ready to weigh them for selling.

The pictures have been made available on the photo-sharing site Flickr under The Commons program which aims to increase access to publicly-held photography collections, and provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.

The Hartlepool Museum collection has no known copyright restrictions.


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October 30 2010

10 best British war artworks

Broadcaster Jon Snow picks his favourite artistic interpretations of war

1 Jeremy Deller It Is What It Is (2009)

Deller towed this Baghdad taxi round America, provoking debate wherever he went. It was blown up on a Baghdad street dominated by bookshops and it was no accident that the car bombers chose that particular street; they devastated what the insurgents regarded as a hub of decadent western culture. Deller spent six months, accompanied by an Iraqi refugee and a GI, stopping in towns and cities across the US, connecting Americans with the Iraq war. Having starred in the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago, the taxi has finally arrived in pole position at London's Imperial War Museum.

2 John Piper Interior of Coventry Cathedral (1940)

Piper concentrated on this emblematic casualty of the second world war. The scene he paints in savage technicolour "the morning after the Blitz" stands almost unaltered today. Coventry took the full impact of the German reprisal for the allied bombing of Germany. Along with the loss of life, this was the overnight destruction of a religious icon, a cathedral that had survived the elements for more than half a millennium. Piper was young enough to play a role in the decoration of the Basil Spence building that rose from the ashes.

3 Percy Wyndham Lewis A Battery Shelled (1919)

Only by executing this painting after the first world war's end did Wyndham Lewis get away with it. Richard Nevinson had already been censored for his attempt to depict the true human cost of war by showing two dead Tommies lying unburied above a trench. Lewis deploys the remnants of both cubism and futurism in his portrayal of the devastation of targeted attack. He had served in the artillery in 1916 and so had first-hand knowledge of his subject matter. He shows a dead gunner being buried following an attack on an artillery battery.

4 Stanley Spencer Resurrection (1927)

This climactic piece sits above the altar at Sandham memorial chapel, Burghclere. It's a vast mural that ranges from reunited friends in heaven to the bodies of dead horses on a battlefield littered with crosses, and a tiny figure of Christ. Upon securing the commission Spencer cried: "What ho, Giotto!" He did not exaggerate. Had he painted this, and the other murals alongside, in a Wren church in the City, instead of in this remote Hampshire village, it might have become one of the most visited spots in Great Britain.

5 John Keane Mickey Mouse at the Front (1991)

Keane was the official British war artist on the front line in the Gulf war. Here, he paints the incongruities of war. He has something of Spencer's eye for detail – a shopping trolley full of rocket- propelled grenades, a bedraggled and brutally mangled palm tree and the bizarre appearance of Mickey Mouse. The awkward juxtaposition of American imagery (almost certainly carried to war as a mascot) imposed on a backdrop of a foreign land of which the invader probably knew little and cared less - it's perhaps one instance of war art as anti-war.

6 Steve McQueen Queen and Country (2007)

A completely brilliant three-dimensional tribute to the British soldiers who died in the Iraq war. It's an individual sheet of stamps intended for postal circulation (but poignantly refused by the Post Office) stored on individual, wooden- framed plates in an oak, coffin-shaped cabinet. To the naked eye, they appear like any other run of stamps, but down each side a short statement of age, rank and place of death sets them apart from the norm. One feels this piece will stand the test of time.

7 Henry Moore Tube Shelter Perspective (1941)

Moore spent many hours during the Blitz down in the Aldwych station on London's Piccadilly line. This was the sanctuary for hundreds of Londoners sheltering from the bombing above. Executed in pencil, ink wax and watercolour, this is an eerie work of ghostly pale shades. The sleeping bodies have the look of a regiment of corpses. It was exhibited above ground, along the road at the National Gallery, taking up space on walls vacated by the collection of old masters that had been carted off to Cheshire salt mines for safe keeping.

8 John Singer Sargent Gassed (1919)

One of the single most arresting images of the first world war. Blinded by gas, a column of soldiers stumbles across the battlefield. Yet in the far distance of this enormous canvas you can see other men playing football. It provides an intriguing insight into something Spencer worked on, the intermingling of the horror of war with the normality of life. Sargent went to France in the closing months of the war and was commissioned to paint this for a Hall of Remembrance. It hangs to this day on permanent display in a section of the Imperial War Museum set aside for that purpose.

9 Paul Nash We Are Making a New World (1918)

The fruitlessness and desolation of war is summed up in this painting. It remains one of the most important works of the first world war art. The portrayal of sheer havoc expressed through broken trees, devastated roadways, an absence of houses and all life. Nash was spared by falling into a trench and sustaining an ankle injury that necessitated his being invalided out. But not before writing, in letters home to his mother in England, harrowing accounts of what he had seen.

10 Richard Nevinson Column on the March (1915)

A sensational picture displaying the power of Nevinson's groundbreaking futurist commitment. He depicts a phalanx of French soldiers marching to war as one unbroken spiky metallic war machine. Utterly brilliant, but, poor man, he believed the first world war would be the making of futurism. He regarded it as potentially the greatest arena for the futurist movement until he ended up working the trenches for the ambulance brigade. He suffered a nervous breakdown and although he painted more wonderful stuff, his dream of futurism was significantly tempered and he with it.

Jon Snow's The Art of War is on Channel 4 on Wednesday (as part of The Genius of British Art series). An accompanying lecture is at the National Gallery on Friday at 6.30pm (nationalgallery.org.uk)


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