• Chris Rogers

The nation’s memory

I’ve been moved by events in the past dozen days, from the new Prime Minister’s ‘God save the King’ outside No 10 Downing Street to the thousands lining every mile of road between the Mall and Windsor yesterday. Following the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, a complex yet stirring set of ceremonial events unfolded in a manner that was very far from cold and remote. Proclamation, procession, vigil, funeral – all were delivered immaculately and soberly yet with room for humanity and personality. In due course, the everyday practicalities of the transition will be addressed: money, flags, passports. And, at some point, attention will inevitably turn to physical commemoration.


Queen Victoria, that other great female monarch of the twentieth century, is remembered in the capital principally by the massive triumphal arch and elaborate memorial rond-point commissioned by her son, King Edward VII, in front of Buckingham Palace. Both were designed by Sir Aston Webb with Thomas Brock as sculptor of the latter. It is unlikely that anything approaching the scale of either will appear ever again – and perhaps just as well, given Admiralty Arch is currently being converted into a hotel.


Some have suggested that the new King might dedicate a portion of the (actually very modest) grounds of Clarence House, adjacent to the Mall and his official residence until the accession, as a public garden. This would be quite appropriate given the late Queen and her husband once lived there and their daughter, Anne, was born there. Buckingham Palace’s grounds would probably be deemed inviolable in this respect even if the idea of a ‘pocket park’ carved out of its perimeter somewhere is attractive. A new area or ‘garden’ within one of the Royal parks might emerge, inspired perhaps by the temporary floral tributes laid in Green Park.


It is, though, the statue that dominates the process of Royal remembrance, and it is surely a given that a figurative sculpture of Elizabeth combined with an architectural setting and carved lettering will appear in the next year or so. It’s certainly true that recent examples have been of variable quality, but several have settled quietly into the background. Who will sculpt any new memorial, what design it should take and where it will be erected will all need to be considered.


An obvious location would be the existing King George VI Memorial in Carlton Gardens, dating from 1954-55 and overlooking the Mall. Its statue of the late Queen’s father, who looks toward Buckingham Palace, is by William McMillan; architect Louis de Soissons provided the base and steps. The whole was remodelled by Donald Insall Associates and Donald Buttress in 2009 to accommodate a statue of the Queen Mother by Philip Jackson (who repeated McMillan’s pose) and relief panels by Paul Day, and it ought to be possible to alter it again to accommodate a representation of their daughter. Some careful asymmetry could offer a solution to the limited space, moving the most recent statue to one side and inserting the new work next to it but lower down for example.


But it seems to me that the perfect site would be in Green Park itself, between Canada Gate to the south and Devonshire Gates to the north. Though the latter are closed, forcing anyone wanting to enter the park from Piccadilly to walk further east to the tube station to get in or out, they could easily be reopened for a much simpler and more direct route between the two great east-west thoroughfares. The statue could stand at the midway point along this path, in what would be a quiet yet popular spot.


As to the pose, whilst we might like to remember the late Queen as a homely, brightly-clad figure with handbag and ready smile, something more regal is of course necessary. That earlier memorial has both her father and mother wearing formal dress – he a navy uniform, her the robes of a Garter Knight – so for me Julian Calder’s magnificent photograph of their daughter wearing the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle robes is the model of choice. Appropriately, too, she is doing so at Balmoral, as Calder describes in this lovely piece.


Bronze is the traditional material for commemorative statues, as used by McMillan and Jackson, but I wonder whether stone might not work better here. It would be lighter, softer and more in keeping with the natural landscape of our site as compared to the largely urban surroundings of the north side of the Mall. Half a mile or so east in Old Palace Yard, the statue of King George V by William Reid Dick shows how this can be done – note the subtle touch of his robe ‘falling’ over the plinth, which was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott.


Time will no doubt tell. But if those lines of well-wishers and of course the Queue are any guide, the country wishes to remember the woman who remembered us.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture