Sarah Drury

A history of remembrance

An English Heritage exhibition atop Wellington Arch explores six London memorials

A history of remembrance
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One fight that seems to have been won is that spearheaded by the War Memorials Trust to preserve the thousands of memorials — monuments, statues, plinths, tablets — erected across the country to honour our war dead. Through conservation grants and hard graft, and a clampdown on the scrap-metal trade, many decaying and vandalised memorials have been rescued.

Inventories are being compiled, guides published, and now English Heritage is staging an exhibition atop Wellington Arch (until 30 November) that explores the history of six London memorials in its keeping. Two are visible from the arch: Jagger’s Royal Artillery masterpiece (above) and Derwent Wood’s more controversial David, commemorating the Suicide Club, aka the Machine Gun Corps. The others are the Cenotaph, Edith Cavell, the Belgian Gratitude Memorial and Earl Haig.

Their stories are told with plenty of supporting items, such as maquettes, sketches, letters and even a Vickers gun. It’s been calculated that it would take three-and-a-half days for the British and Empire dead of the Great War to march past the Cenotaph four abreast. Shining a light on the way we came to terms with loss on this scale, the exhibition also reveals the personalities of the artists: Hardiman struggling not to have to make a realistic likeness of Poperinghe, Haig’s favourite horse; Jagger’s insistence on including the effigy of a dead gunner, even if he had to pay for it himself; Derwent Wood fashioning masks for disfigured survivors. The dead lay abroad, the living had to get on with making a new world.