Modernist Cenotaph Article


Issue 19 of The Modernist is “F for Faith”

I’ve got an article in the current issue of The Modernist – the 20th Century design and architecture magazine – about the Cenotaph. Issue 19 is on the theme of ‘Faith‘ – and as usual features erudition and concrete in equal measure all for £5. I was asked to write something after i sold one of the Modernists a bike and gave them a copy of my booklet about war memorials, ‘Best We Forget’ (which you can download here as a pdf for free) – with the instruction to write with less polemics and ore architecture. A big thank you to Maya Balcioglu and Stuart Brisley for letting me use a photograph from their Cenotaph Project.

If you are particularly skinflint or just plain skint, you can read my article here…

Faithless: The Cenotaph a secular shrine By David Dunnico

The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh. – Siegfried Sassoon, The Cenotaph

The First World War formally concluded in 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In marking the end of the “war to end all wars”, the allies had to reconcile the contradiction of celebrating their victory and commemorating their dead. They did this with rituals such as the two minutes silence and monuments, most notably the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall.

Although classical in form, the Cenotaph looks ‘modern-ish’, if not modernist. It entered the public consciousness as the modern world was being wrought out of the political and social upheavals that followed the war.

In ‘Lutyens and the Great War’ Tim Skelton and Gerald Giddon argue the Cenotaph’s success:

“…owed much to its simplicity and non-religious appearance. It was a blank canvas on to which people could project their own particular thoughts, with its combination of simplicity, elegance and lack of triumphalism…”

It is probably the best-known monument in Britain, yet was hastily commissioned and designed. It was not meant to be permanent structure, let alone a fixture of national life. A Victory/Peace Day Parade was organized for July 1919 and it was proposed that a number of temporary structures be placed along the route. Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was heavily involved in the design of the British war cemeteries, was given just two weeks to design a catafalque (a raised ornamental structure that holds a body as it lies in state).

Lutyens rejected the idea of a catafalque. Instead he proposed a cenotaph (Latin for ‘empty tomb’) in the form of a pylon (a classical term for a tall pedestal). He and the Prime Minister Lloyd George wanted the memorial to be secular, noting that many of the Empire’s troops had not been Christians. The Church of England wanted a big cross, the military something full of imperial and martial symbolism. Ultimately both pressures were resisted, although the flags of the three armed services were hung from the finished monument.

Lutyens had already completed a cenotaph in Southampton. Legend has it that over the course of an evening he refined and simplified this design, for London. An early sketch included statues of soldiers at the corners, another had a flaming urn finial. Neither appeared in the final design, which was built of wood, painted canvas and plaster and installed in Whitehall. It proved to be perfectly judged. The Times called it ‘simple, grave and beautiful’. Its form allowed it to:

“…immediately become a focus for the mass grief of a nation ravaged by a war that had until then not had a sufficient collective opportunity for expression – grief particularly enhanced because very few bodies had been repatriated from foreign theatres of war and few of the fallen had had individual funerals.” (The Cenotaph: A consensual and contested monument of remembrance Norman Bonney, Emeritus professor at Edinburgh Napier University, 2013)

Over a million people visited it, at one point the floral tributes were ten feet deep. It was agreed that a permanent version be created. Some of the wood from the temporary version was used to make model replicas, which were sold to raise funds for blinded soldiers and sailors. Once again the Church of England tried to include religious symbols and inscriptions and once again this was resisted. The Church’s ardent support for the war and its perceived inability to offer consolation or explanation, made many question its relevance in the post war world. Secular monuments were seen to undermine their position further – The Church Times denounced ‘Cenotapholatry’. The Church did succeed in getting its own monument – the Unknown Warrior – who was interned in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, when the permanent Cenotaph was unveiled (Lutyens who waived his architect’s fee, was not invited).

The present structure has continued to be the main focus for Remembrance in Britain seamlessly encompassing the dead of World War Two and later conflicts. It is made of Portland stone, 35 feet tall, and weighs 120 tonnes. In 1970 it was listed as Grade 1, English Heritage describing its form as:

“Rectangular in plan. At the top is a plain tomb chest, with moulded cover, on which lies a large laurel wreath. It stands on a three-staged base, which in turn stands on a tall shaft, set back towards its upper section. Beneath is the two-stage base, with cyma recta [concave at the top, convex at the bottom] moulding to the foot of the shaft… The Cenotaph is sparsely enriched and very carefully executed… The entasis (or tapering) of the design is minutely calculated, so that the vertical lines would, if continued, converge on a point 1000ft in the air, while the horizontal lines are fractionally curved, and would share a radial point 900ft below the pavement.”

The restraint in ornament was not modernist – ostentatious decoration was considered inappropriate in a monument to a war, which was already being interpreted as a tragedy. A character in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1922) describes the Cenotaph as a “Monument to the dread of swank.”

Lutyens had used the careful geometry and principle of entasis in 1918 with his Stones of Remembrance. These were installed in the hundreds of military cemeteries being established by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. Each was 12 feet long, ostensibly monolithic, with a barely perceptible curvature, that if extended would form a circle 1,801 feet and 8 inches in diameter. (To appease religious sentiment, a Cross of Sacrifice designed by Reginald Blomfield would also be installed.)

Before the war Lutyens was principally known for country houses and his work at New Delhi. Afterwards it would be for his monuments such as the Thiepval Arch, but above all he is remembered for the Cenotaph. He would go on to design 44 war memorials in England (which are all listed, seven at Grade 1) and a number abroad. Eight of these are Cenotaphs. Two are reduced scale copies of the Whitehall monument, the half sized Royal Berkshire Regiment Cenotaph outside Brock Barracks in Reading and the two-thirds sized Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment Cenotaph, in Maidstone, Kent. Others are in Manchester from 1924 and Norwich’s (his last) from 1927. The Imperial War Museum has catalogued 47 further cenotaphs designed by others to the same end.


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