Friday, 9 October 2009

Myths of War: The War Memorial, Victoria Embankment

Fig 1. Triumphant War Memorial. Portland stone with intricate iron detailing.

Between Wilford and Trent Bridge, the riverside was embanked and landscaped as a place of Edwardian recreation. The suspension bridge, the playing fields and the embankment were all created in an effort to improve local amenities for recreation during the industrial revolution. This was funded by the city and local liberal philanthropist Jesse Boot, who contributed to public works such as the war memorial and gardens. The memorial is undoubtedly well designed, built and maintained, but does this structure perhaps looks a little like a triumphant arch? Of course it does, Pevsner says so but that's all he says.[i] This may be a moot point, but it is worth remembering how the seeds of the Second World War were sown during the aftermath of the Great War. At The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 France and Britain acted victoriously and with vendetta by severely punishing Germany with reparations.[ii] In so doing this left Europe's biggest country with a fragile interwar economy and created a breading ground for extremists. The guilt of war laid on Germany at Versailles was a frequent theme is Hitler's mad mouth foaming speeches. Belligerence breeds belligerence. While much is done to remember the ‘Glorious Dead’,[iii] perhaps more could be achieved by remembering Versailles with equal Daily Mail pomp publicity? Nonetheless, this is still an attractive structure which relates well to the riverside and garden location, and we are lucky Boot had the good taste not to commission a corpse, a Portland stone artillery gun or a lion trampling a snake.[iv] Nottingham’s nationalist hoodwinking is thankfully a little more subdued and this could be attributed to the patron and city architect.

Fig 2. Boots’ modernist gate house, Beeston.

The Jesse Boot story is a real rags to riches tale of a local druggist who built a pharmacy empire from a small Victorian terrace shop on Goose Gate. Like Woolworths, Boots soon discovered that the largest potential market was to be found in the rising incomes of the working class - the populist taste of the proletariat which is now universal law. Also known as drugs, fags, bikes, booze and a bit of fashion. Before his death Boot sold his business to the American United Drugs Company, who were more aware of this market and dedicated their new site at Beeston to Detroit style production lines and industry friendly modernism. A marked change from Jesse's paternalist liberal taste. It is perhaps a shame that the architecture of the Boots estate is restricted from public gaze and as of 2008 the company allegedly no longer pays any tax in the UK. According to the Guardian, under new owner Stefano Pessina (one of the 500 richest people in the world), the Boots headquarters are now based on a Pirate ship in Zug, Switzerland.[v] For Jesse Boot however, his company was always based in Nottingham and he gave liberally to his home city. Alongside this memorial and the adjacent gardens, his gifts were numerous, including Highfields Park for the University of Nottingham and the rebuilding of the Albert Hall in 1909. But the style of those gifts is telling. According to Eric Hobsbawn, the industrialists of England were always very different to those on the continent, primarily because their society had never undergone social upheaval and so they often complied to social hierarchy with the aim of entering the society of gentleman.[vi]

“It was Lloyd George who made provincial towns into ‘cities of dreadful knights’. The absorption of the sons of grocers and cotton-spinners into the aristocracy was a consequence of the loss of impetus in British business, not its cause…”[vii]

Boot achieved his elevation with flying colours; he was knighted in 1909, created a baronet in 1917 and finally became Lord Trent in 1929. In light of this it is not surprising that his favored architectural style was classical - the architecture of hierarchy and tradition, with little respect for the then current social rebellion of continental modernism.[viii] Boot’s chosen architect was T. Wallis Gordon, the city architect who was also T.C. Howitt’s boss and both had similar civic gestures to Luytens and Vincent Harris. For Howitt and Gordon, interwar Nottingham was being recast as a European city, but in the classical tradition, Howitt of course had been on his own 'Grand Tour' during his formative years as an architect.[ix]

Fig 3. T. Wallis Gordon's triumphal arch.

This triumphant Portland Stone arch complies with the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George’s view of the war as a costly victory over a war hungry Germany, rather than an unprecedented waste of life created by a long-term Victorian nationalist myth, imperialism, industrial ignorance and the short-term conflicts of a European aristocracy. Like Lloyd George’s commissioned Cenotaph, it may speak of ‘death, duty well done and remembrance’,[x] but promises nothing in creating a brave new world.

It's a devise for making the unacceptable tolerable. A big euphemism. Certainly in the marshal life death is close at hand, or rather, the dead are - which is different. The way they got to be dead - the cause of the greatest physical mutation - is forgotten. The dead are the dead. The literally vital precondition of being dead, the fact of being alive, is forgotten. The indignity of having life extinguished is forgotten. Death is forgotten. The enormity of its belligerent causes ignored. The dead get an arcadia to sleep in. They get a bit of respect when really it's too late. If only they could have lived in such peace.[xi]

[i] Pevsner, Nottinghamshire, p. 374

[ii] S. Marks, ‘1918 and After: The Postwar Era’, in, G. Martel, (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered (London, 1999), pp. 13 – 37.

[iii] Allan Greenberg is polemic in his praise for the Cenotaph. See, A. Greenberg, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 5 - 23.

[iv] Nicolas Penny is more critical than Greenberg but still fails to see the wider historical context. See, N. Penny, ‘English Sculpture and the First World War’, in, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Sculpture (Nov., 1981), pp. 36 - 42.

[v] The Guardian, 9th February 2009, From the High Street to a Tax Haven.

[vi] E. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire, (London, 1999), p. 161.

[vii] E. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire, p. 163.

[viii] N. Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (London, 1972), pp. 404 – 435.

[ix] E. R. Scoffham, A Vision of the City: The Architecture of T.C. Howitt (Nottingham, 1992).

[x] A. Greenberg, ‘Lutyens's Cenotaph’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 5-23.

[xi] Jonathan Meades, Brick and Mortars Part2/3 2mins.


  1. Thanks for this one, which has set me thinking.

    I'm not wholly convinced by your argument - although the memorial has the form of a classical triumphal arch, with all the associations of Roman pomp, the whole layout of the screen and gardens has always struck me as decidedly un-martial.

    Indeed, I don't think the central gates are even opened on Remembrance Sunday for Sea-Scouts to parade through, are they?

    As the New York Times wrote in 1919 when the form of New York's memorial was under debate "An arch built by the people is not to be despised because emperors have built arches" - although perhaps they may have had second thoughts after they saw the pastiche Arch of Constantine that temporarily went up in Madison Square!

    Also, the Treaty of Versailles was enormously controversial in Britain at the time - IIRC Keynes's damning The Economic Consequences of the Peace published as the Treaty was signed was a bestseller.

    As an aside, I can't believe that at no point in the last thirty-five years have I realised that Vivit post funera virtus is actually the city motto and not just the (apposite) inscription on the Meadows memorial.

    Which begs the question, why did the city adopt it? Is there some hidden Civil War connection?

    The motto "Vivit post funera virtus" has no heraldic authority whatever. It is a stock funeral phrase which can be found upon many tombstones throughout England, and it was added about 1720 quite unofficially;

  2. Oh, I'm always dubious about my own arguments and the post was a little mean considering Boot's philanthropy and diplomatic struggles of Versailles. So long as it raises some sort of debate.

    Yes, I've read Holland Walker's text on the hazy origins of Nottingham's heraldic badge before and haven't come across anything concrete since as regards the meaning of the motto. I can't think what relevance the civil war has but a wider context such as that is worth chewing over.

    I think I read that the badge and motto together was forged by a one of the newspapers; the Courant, the Nottingham Post or the Murcury - all of these started in the 1710s and 20s. But I can't find the bloody reference to be certain, though it rings true with the motto's civic, literary and populist taste. Given the various European wars in the eighteenth century and the often patriotic reporting in local Newspapers, then maybe this neatly explains why you didn't realise that this was the city's motto on the war memorial. But that's just a maybe.

    The gardens at the back are currently in a state of disrepair and awaiting a facelift. Here's the architectural renders - which I'm sure you'll want to sink your teeth into...



    Hard to imagine such an arch in New York. Who knew!

  3. Ta - Although I was intrigued that vaguely Tatlinesque tower which I had seen sketched previously, I hadn't seen graphics for the sculpture with wind-turbines and found myself doing sixth form maths on the forces applied to the structure and thinking "major fail"!

    I presume those more than slightly bonkers plans fell because the Big Lottery Fund rejected them at an early stage of whichever bidding round they were submitted for.

    However, I'm more than a tad concerned by what we may be afoot:
    i) as a result of the current plans to raise the Embankment as part of the flood prevention plans:
    and ii) the sketchy idea of a "major leisure hub" on the Meadow Rec.

  4. Tatlin - yes of course! Although I think previously it was reminding me of Beecher's pit head typologies:

    Oh dear, yes it's shame about some of the City Council's plans, which in terms of housing design is just a grid based vernacular with some modern dressing of old 70s cull-de-sacs.

  5. The screen reminds me a bit of Hyde Park Corner, which rather proves the militarism point given the proximity of Wellington Arch and the cluster of memorials including the Portland stone Howitzer mentioned in the post.

  6. I am very interested in how to commemorate our loved ones but not in glorifying war.

    "... this is still an attractive structure which relates well to the riverside and garden location, and we are lucky Boot had the good taste not to commission a corpse, a Portland stone artillery gun or a lion trampling a snake. Nottingham’s nationalist hoodwinking is thankfully a little more subdued and this could be attributed to the patron and city architect."

    When you were relatively pleased that other war memorials might have been more patriotic or more triumphant over the defeat of the enemies, I wondered if that was true for Australia and New Zealand.

    So my question is: is triumphant militarism universally immoral, regardless of where the memorials are? Or is it only inappropriate in cities and towns where the old enemies are likely to feel humiliated and angered by the memorials?

    Of course the victors write or rewrite history, so I was not surprised when there were controversies surrounding Yasukuni Shrine in Japan or the Bitburg Military Cemetery in Germany. But perhaps that wasn't triumphalism; perhaps it was any memorial AT ALL to their war dead.

    many thanks for an interesting link
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  7. Thanks - It's a tough one, but I can only think it is more healthy to question memorials than to be obliged to respect them without debate.

    As you can see from the above comments, the interpretation to these structures can often be very different and quite revealing.

  8. This is a petition I have posted on the Number 10 website (yet to be approved) Keep you eyes out for it.
    Victoria Embankment 1903 a Masterpiece of Victorian Engineering & C20th Design. Arbor of London Plane Trees stretching1600m each side of road in magnificent curve following the course of the Trent.
    1920 further area bought by Jesse Boot & donated to the corporation of Nottingham to be preserved as an Open Space and Memorial Site IN PERPETUITY including landscaping of the whole Embankment.
    It has 10 listed features plus the Historic War Memorial Gardens.
    Original Environment Agency Flood Defense Plans extended existing wall around the length in keeping with the character and destroying no features.

    New EA plans swayed by a failed Living Landmarks Ozone Bid remove 20 Mature Trees (8x100 yrs old), Recreational Ground, 1937 Art Deco Bandstand & Original delicate Ironwork fencing, gates and privet hedgerow along the frontage of the Gardens.

    Full sized Wind Turbine dominating our open space, water park/marina carving a huge chunk out of the Embankment removing many more trees, & possible 100m tower will then be imposed upon the area.

    Any wind turbine should be on Queens Drive Industrial Estate and the Embankment Saved Entirely from redevelopment and restored to Former Glory.

    Jonathan Hughes