Art and Memory: New perspectives on memorial art
West Dean, Nr Chichester, until 1 November
There are those who haunt ancient churchyards in search of elegant epigraphs or curious carvings on lichened gravestones, but many focus only on what makes a good memorial when forced to do so by bereavement, and the desire to commemorate justly someone we loved. A few years ago we might have been forgiven for thinking that the fine art of letter-cutting was moribund, polished off by the dead hand of Church officialdom with its rules and regulations and its mania for neat, ‘easy to maintain’ burial plots, devoid of all interest and idiosyncracy. Then along came Memorials by Artists under the evangelical aegis of Harriet Frazer, and if anyone is still under the illusion that the making of memorials is a dying art they only have to visit the Art and Memory exhibition at West Dean, in the lee of the Sussex Downs, to see how green it flourishes.
There, in a natural amphitheatre of sheep-cropped park and spacious gardens, are 52 contemporary examples of the letter-cutter’s art, each commemorating something held precious — an individual, a group, a thought or prayer. The letter-cutters — all of whom work with Memorials by Artists — were given a loose brief, to make something that each felt strongly about on a memorial theme, with none of the normal restrictions imposed upon them (including cost). West Dean was the creation and home of Edward James, poet and patron of the Surrealists, and a man passionate about lettering, carving, printing and typography, whose spirit this exhibition amply celebrates. A few pieces will remain there in perpetuity while others are dispersed around the country to create a national collection of contemporary memorial art — and to show us what our fine carvers are capable of.
The exhibits are as various as their makers — not the ‘uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture’ of Gray’s sad elegy in that country churchyard, but a shape-shifting riot of invention realised in stone and slate, marble, wood or etched steel. A seat of green men girdling a tree, a set of lettered steps down to a fountain, a wooden saxophone on a carved plinth, pierced discs of slate suspended in foliage: at every turn there is something arresting, something to stop you in your tracks and make you read, and think, and sometimes smile, and dwell awhile. In the churchyard are three memorials to his mother designed by Nicholas Sloan, each a different type of remembering — formal, informal and delightfully pictorial, with trees, flowers and bees to reflect her passions. Nothing better demonstrates how telling a memorial can be, when conceived with love and executed with empathy.
As Eric Gill once wrote: ‘Letters are things, not pictures of things’; here, they take on a life of their own, and their different forms make one aware of the contemplative nature of the letter-cutter’s task — the minute adjustments of shape and spacing made to defer to the material and convey the message with beauty and economy. Sometimes a font is used: clear, precise and instantly legible, as in Lois Anderson’s Gill Sans-based threnody on the word ‘Endless’ on a slate tablet in the kitchen garden; more often the letter forms are invented, and have to be unravelled from the material that bears them, so the reading of them becomes an act of concentration, almost a homage in itself. Occasionally, different scripts are interwoven in the same piece, conveying separate messages in different registers.
It is interesting how many of the pieces commemorate the landscape, as elegies for what we might lose. Andrew Baxter is a letter-carver who designs his own completely original script, in this case to carve a poem by Wendell Berry, ‘It is the Destruction of the World’, on a standing stone with an inlay of trees in contrasting limestone. ‘I will always start by drawing out an alphabet that I think suits the commission,’ he says, and contrasts his holistic approach, ‘where the lettering, the poem, and the stone as a whole are all equally important’ with those who apply or adapt an existing font to their needs. Baxter’s stone stands at the junction of arboretum and open parkland, the tamed and the wild, and its lines ‘To have lost wantonly the ancient forests, the vast grasslands, is our madness…’ haunt the air around it.
Art and Memory is well-named; it is a richly memorable exhibition, one that lingers long in the mind and the imagination, and its catalogue, with statements by all the artists, is invaluable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 16, 2009