Hyde Park Corner: War, what is it good for?

Christmas is traditionally a time for seeing loved ones, taking stock and counting one’s blessings and/or electronic goods. In the twenty-first century, where houses suddenly cost millions of pounds and the steady job is a historical relic, we tend to feel that we have drawn a short straw. It can therefore be instructive to compare our lot with 100 or 200 years ago; before we exported our conflicts to hot, poor, faraway countries where we got robots to do the fighting for us, and when I would have been at significant risk of getting myself killed in the industrial scale carnage of either WWI or the Napoleonic Wars.

Hyde Park Corner is one great toothpaste tube of traffic; in driving from West London into the heart of the city, motorists are funnelled into the bottleneck between Hyde Park and Green Park/Buckingham Palace. It’s an important place but not a pleasant one in which people would choose to congregate or loiter; indeed, the pedestrian is directed underground to a user-unfriendly labyrinth of subways. As a salutary lesson which we never quite seem to learn, the patch of grass that has over the decades become a glorified traffic island has acquired a number of war memorials for people to reflect upon as they sit on the top deck of the 137 from Streatham Hill.

A limpid and colourless winter’s afternoon such as today is no time to visit Hyde Park, especially with droves of people making a beeline for Winter Wonderland, which I assume is some Disney Teutonic “market” selling paper cups of battery acid and Ribena for £5. Writing in ’66, Mr. Nairn tells us that although beloved by Londoners, Hyde Park is “not quite strong enough, and the remarkable character that some of its inhabitants used to give has been gone these six years since the Act”, which appears to have been a piece of anti-traveller legislation. He is full of praise, however, for the entrance colonnade on the corner. “Decimus Burton’s screen is a really fine thing. It must be taken for granted more than any other building in London… you need to have seen a lot of neo-Classical stodge to appreciate just how easily and deftly Burton has handled his three triumphal arches and the Ionic columns between… a genuine screen, inviting motion, saying Come on in, and the trees behind are a really important part of it”. There is a tasteful lightness to the screen; it’s there, but it doesn’t shout and scream for your attention. The central arch has a Roman frieze along the top, and there the embellishment stops: less is more. Much as I appreciate the invitation into the park behind, I can’t help feeling it is negated by the stop-start whirlwind of red lights and green lights.

Across the road from Burton’s screen is Jagger & Pearson’s memorial to the Royal Artillery Regiment. The blacklisted American director, Joe Losey, recalled sitting in the traffic of Hyde Park Corner and feeling revulsion at these monuments to war; his first film after The Servant was the WWI deserter drama King & Country, which begins with the camera panning slowly, lovingly and oh-so-sardonically over this very memorial.

A tall cruciform slab in Portland stone, it has taken quite a bashing from the English rain. A menacing, mechanised Howitzer sits on top and the feel is modernist, a balance between classicism and cubism. To the sides are bronze soldiers, each an exhausted looking Everyman in a tin hat. Beneath the inscriptions are friezes of battle scenes. Although classical in form and carefully composed, they do convey the strain and horror of trench warfare; some man the cannon, some are wounded or fallen, some struggle with unruly horses. It is a halfway house between a Piero della Francesca battle scene and Picasso’s Guernica. This perhaps reflects a compromise between the interested parties involved in prominent public commissions.

Next is 2003’s Australian War Memorial. We associate WWI with the trenches of Flanders, but Australia & New Zealand suffered huge loss of life in the Gallipoli campaign; had it turned out differently Istanbul might be a Russian city today. Forming a wall around the lower southwestern corner of the island, the memorial is glossy, abstract and recognisably contemporary. The granite curved wall supports stacks of granite slabs that look like airplane seats, or tombstones.

The thousands of place names inscribed on the granite are the home towns of each Australian soldier who served in the world wars, parts of the text emboldened to give the sites of major battlefields. The events of Ypres and Passchendaele are scarring, leaving their mark on dozens of diverse towns, and this is a deftly literal illustration of how the battles ripped through communities. Like in Britain, some of these towns must have lost entire families, if not entire generations, in these vast battles and it is a neat acknowledgement of how the catastrophe altered everything and everyone. Thus are nations born, by giving everyone something in common: suffering.

On the opposite corner, by Park Lane and Piccadilly, is the New Zealand War Memorial, which was added in 2006 and also eschews the figurative. At first glance, the formation of angular metal girders looks like the putative foundations of a building side. They are black with white tops showing off the cruciform shape; tilted upwards, the white crosses resemble planes setting off on a bombing raid. Architectural critics have taken a dim view of this prominent side being given over to such a “bristlingly unlovely” installation.

With so many more immediate objects clamouring for your attention, I can’t imagine many people feel the urge to take a closer look, but those who do will discover that the girders are embossed with snatches of poetry, historical nuggets and primitivist illustrations.

Next to this, a more traditional memorial that I find prettier, and more problematic for it; the Machine Gun Corps Memorial. The gunners had a casualty rate of 30% in the Great War. The hand on hip and the sensual rendering of the rippling, pubescent torso indicate that the statue is a David after those of Donatello and Michelangelo, but what have the horrors of WWI to do with the Florentine Republic and the birth of Venus? I admire the sculptor in question, Francis Derwent Wood, and after the war he opened a clinic to create copper masks for the many soldiers who came back with chunks of their face blown off, so he would have harboured no illusions about the grim realities of war. At the foot of the elegant inscription is a line of scripture, “Saul hath slain his thousands / But David his tens of thousands”, and I wonder if anyone questioned whether this struck quite the right note.

All of these monuments are dwarfed, of course, by Britain’s Arc de Triomphe; the hefty Wellington Arch and its North Korean proportions. The Romans were big on triumphal arches, and so every capital city that fancied itself the Third Rome needed a military victory it could build an arch about. Intended as the gateway into the grounds of Buckingham Palace, it was shifted onto the traffic island as the roads got widened and is now more of a landmark than anything else. As in Paris, far more people will drive past it than walk underneath it.

It’s Decimus Burton again, and again it opts for minimal embellishment; Corinthian pilasters, and Corinthian columns supporting the slightly protruding porch.

The slightly muted design of the arch makes it a blank platform for the showboating bronze quadriga on top that turns the whole into an English Il Vittoriano. The lady with the wreath represents Peace, and you have to get quite close to realise that she is placing it on the head of the chariot’s driver; a small boy holding the reins of his wild horses with “look at me, ma!” incredulity. Wild, untamed forces placed in the hands of infants, and seemingly about to plunge over the edge; the sculpture group dates from 1912, and may have had one eye on what was going on at the time.

I’ve already told the story of the quadriga’s predecessor in my book, but it’s a good one. Wellington Arch was originally topped with an equestrian statue of the Duke, pointing with his Field Marshal’s baton. This statue was so oversized that it looked grotesque. The only person who liked it was Wellington himself, and he threatened to resign from all his governmental posts when parliament suggested removing it. We had to wait for Wellington’s death to take it down; as a remnant of the fiasco, a scaled down equestrian Wellington now sits on the island, facing towards Apsley House, the Iron Duke’s home.

Legend has it that any mail addressed to ‘No. 1, London’ will be delivered here. It was originally built by the great Robert Adam, although subsequently bashed around a lot- the hero of Waterloo needed a stately home, rather than a modest townhouse, and Nairn does indeed think him “the worst possible owner” of an Adam house (“the headlong clash of temperaments, masculine and feminine, is still tangible”).

This was where the Iron Duke lived out his illustrious old age; now a museum, it has been kept largely as it looked with period artefacts and the many ‘wedding list’ household gifts with which the grateful courts and crowns of Europe showered Wellington. Nairn has it that “to really understand or apprehend him will do more good than reading a dozen social histories”, and to an extent, walking around his house is instructive insightful. You get a sense of the man, and “as an official record of the years after Waterloo it would be hard to beat”.

Sun Tzu said that the first job of a general was to know his enemy, and it is noticeable that Napoleon is a constant presence in the home of his conqueror. Was Wellington an admirer of Napoleon, was there a sneaking respect for NB as strategist and reformer, along with a tinge of regret that the century wasn’t big enough for both of them? Or are the Napoleonic artefacts trophies, which reduce the fearsome general to the status of a domestic pet and allow Wellington to gloat? The truth may be a jumble of all these contradictory impulses.

I started downstairs in the Museum Room, which Wellington had to give over to all the gifts he received, in large part dinner service sets which have enough bling to make the eyes water. The C19th range of Apple gadgets, these illustrate that when people attain a certain level of wealth there is nothing more to spend their money on. There are several lovely sets of painted plate, with postcard views of cities relevant to the Napoleonic Wars and battle scenes; these seem to have been the inspiration behind a million granny’s biscuit tins. There is a detailed miniature of Ancient Egypt for one’s dinner table, apparently a “divorce present” from Napoleon that Josephine refused to accept. There are things so gold and grandiose that I found it impossible to decipher what they were for.

At the foot of the spiral staircase is “one superb, Wellingtonian gesture, one of the funniest things in London” (here I heartily concur with Nairn). Antonio Canova sculpted a nude of Napoleon as Mars (via Augustus), fifteen feet tall in typically translucent marble, which fell into British hands. It was made a present for Wellington and this was the only place in the house where it would fit, “and where he must have passed it several times a day. C’est magnifique”. The sculpture itself Nairn dismisses as “blind academic talent, Canova at his worst” and Napoleon is reported to have disliked it too. You can tell who it is, but in portraying the imperial persona rather than the man Canova has had to idealise Bonaparte’s babyface, and the chin-jutting result is more like Mussolini with a toupee. My head only came up to his upper thigh, so I had to stand halfway up the stairs to look the great general in the eye, and despite everything the effect is thrilling.

Upstairs, a few neat Georgian/Regency style sitting and drawing rooms are bracketed by long, tall creatures of the extension, a dining hall and the Waterloo Gallery. The sitting rooms are triumphs of luxury, chandeliers with stripy silken wallpaper. Nairn’s favourite is the Striped Drawing Room, for its portraits of the various generals on duty at Waterloo, “where real people look out at you”. There are a few of Wellington too, whose long face and haughty, refined features remind me of Christopher Lee. It seems somehow telling that a room filled with battle scenes and soldiers’ portraits has at its centre a portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, her radish-red nipples poking through a thin top.

Interesting objects in the other rooms include an C18th grand piano, which looks for all the world like a harpsichord, and a range of slightly sentimental paintings from the life of the Duke. One of an aged Wellington passing through Horse Guards Parade for the last time is addled with pathos. With the original sketch exhibited next to it in his time, Nairn is scathing about a painting of Chelsea Pensioners receiving the first news of victory at Waterloo (“in the sketch, a soldier is leaning back and shouting for another pint. In the painting he is regaling an enfeebled pensioner with the Great News. This is why we now have action painting”). Pride of place goes to a classic Titian nude, in which Jupiter seduces Danae by disguising himself as a golden shower (!), with storm clouds gathering in the roof of her four-poster bed. It evidently takes all sorts.

The dining hall is taken up with vast portraits of the monarchs who carved up the Napoleonic territories between themselves, Russia and the Netherlands included. Deciding that Nash should have had the job of expanding Apsley House, Nairn says that the “preposterous portrait of George IV in a kilt would have been more at home in the Brighton Pavilion”. I’m struck by the no-nonsense, martial look of the Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm III and Austria’s Franz I; a sly, wary old fox. They provide a forceful contrast to the ridiculous Louis XVIII, obese and gouty in his ermine garb, pathologically determined not to take on board the lessons of revolution but to outdo Le Roi Soleil.

For me all of this reaches its apotheosis in the Waterloo Gallery, with “enough atmosphere to smudge the details into a haze of gilt and red damask”. Wellington’s forces intercepted Joseph Bonaparte fleeing from Spain with a collection of old masters, and the restored Spanish monarch insisted that the Duke should keep them.

This collection must be the envy of many an art gallery, so rich and plentiful is it. There’s a Jan Steen piss-up, one of Velazquez’s screaming Popes, Caravaggio, Rubens, Goya- religious and secular, military and mythical. Surprisingly Mr Nairn overlooks the paintings to praise the chandelier as “a miracle of exact brilliance (look at the other chandeliers, themselves good, to see the difference)”.

Leaving the house, I head down Piccadilly to catch the Jubilee Line back to civilisation. I’d never noticed the customised traffic lights at Constitution Hill, which is shamelessly twee in its playing to the tourist gallery, but no doubt delights thousands daily. I have often noticed the handsome white-and-green building on the corner of Old Park Lane, and wistfully wondered why all the most stylish buildings in Europe always seem to get bought up by Hard Rock Café.

There is one other newcomer to the War Memorial show at the edge of Green Park, 2012’s Bomber Command Memorial. It’s striking how recent these memorials are; perhaps because so few of us had to live through the war- if you had experienced that trauma first-hand and had to get on with your life afterwards, one’s instinct would be to try and forget about it. Perhaps there’s a measure of telling the plebs, as employment and home ownership are whipped from under our feet in the great transfer of wealth from West to East, that we ought to be grateful that conscription has been done away with.

The RAF lost as many men as America lost in the entire Vietnam war. Bombing campaigns were supposed to demoralise a population and make them turn on their leaders, but current research indicates that it only made them more determined to resist, and we are unsure whether the destruction of Dresden achieved much more than tit-for-tat cultural vandalism. I am humble and grateful for those who died fighting Nazism, and history certainly proved the appeasers to be wrong, but having read A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities and accounts of the phosphorous bombs and firestorms in Hamburg, the hell-on-earth conditions in which civilians perished made me feel sick. We’re told that WWII was a triumph of civilisation, but everyone involved fought dirtily.

Although the Queen opened the memorial, government did not pay for it and the whole thing was arranged by figures who are a bit non-U; I think this reflects the unease we feel at some of the things Bomber Command made our pilots do. At the risk of offending everyone and sounding like Jeremy Corbyn, my instinct is that this is a memorial built by and for one faction of British life, the swivel-eyed Daily Mail contingent who would have us nuking Buenos Aires. The principal benefactors, who make sure their names are prominently displayed, are the Phones4U magnate, the tabloid pornographer who bankrolls UKIP, and the man who will be remembered for accusing the Prime Minister of fucking a dead pig in the mouth. I’m not sure even Sir Arthur Harris deserves such company.

The memorial itself? It is for such a thorny and painful subject that this is the one occasion when something abstract would probably have been appropriate, but it harks back to Empire with its aping of the classical form: a sort of Greek temple flanked by colonnades of Doric columns and with a square oculus looking onto the skies. The quotations (I wonder if Boris Johnson provided the line from his favourite Athenian) have no truck with ambiguity and it comes across as bloody-minded, perhaps reflecting the struggle they had to obtain permission for the memorial from uneasy authorities. Inside the Portland Stone temple, bronze statues on a huge marble plinth. One look at the statues, and I felt that although the memorial very much wants to be classical, it ain’t. These figures are pure Hollywood, and their macho poses owe more to Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone than to any of those poor devils sent to hell in a biplane. If you prefer Tony Scott to Donatello, knock yourselves out.

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