Sunday 8 November 2020


 Watching today's remembrance ceremony from Whitehall was a weird experience: no public, a handful of veterans, the few participants all standing two metres apart, even the ranks of the military bands drastically thinned. Such are these strange times. I couldn't help wondering what the wartime generations would have made of a nation brought to its knees by a virus that, er, kills old people. If Covid had appeared during either war, would anyone even have noticed? (They noticed the postwar Spanish flu all right, but that was vastly more serious and killed young adults on a huge scale.)
  This year marks the centenary of the erection of the permanent cenotaph on Whitehall, and of the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey – both brilliantly creative ways of commemorating the war dead and focusing the nation's grief. Lutyens's beautifully understated cenotaph is an almost abstract construction, essentially a blank monolith onto which memories and grief can be projected – no figurative sculpture, no triumphalism, no flamboyant display of emotion. Lloyd George had envisaged a 'catafalque', but Lutyens's final structure is more eloquent – an 'empty tomb' (the literal meaning of 'cenotaph').
  Curiously, Lutyens first came across the 'cenotaph' idea when he was working on Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood. He had designed a garden seat there in the form of a single block of elm set on a stone, and Charles Liddell, a friend of both Lutyens and Jekyll (and a librarian at the British Museum, and a cousin of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's Alice), christened it the 'Cenotaph of Sigismunda'. That was back in the 1890s, but clearly the word had lodged in Lutyens's memory. The Whitehall cenotaph that he brought into being years later was a direct response to his experience of the devastation wrought by the war in France, which Lutyens visited in 1917. This convinced him that a new kind of war memorial was needed, one that eschewed naturalism and expressionism in favour of an eloquent reticence. He was so right. 


  1. Did you know that there's a Luytens war memorial to Midland railwaymen in Derby? Our own mini-Cenotaph. Check it out when you're next in these here parts, Nigeness!

  2. Thanks, Mary. I've seen it many times, but never knew it was by Lutyens!