Commemoration: Visual texts
Commemoration: Visual texts

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Commemoration: Visual texts

1.3 The Royal Artillery Memorial

Now I want to take another text. It is similar to the paintings in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in that it asks for a visual response first and foremost. We can, therefore, ask the same kinds of question – how the text came into being, the context in which it was produced, what form it takes, and how it communicates meaning.

The text is the Royal Artillery Memorial. The architect was Lionel Pearson, the architect responsible for Sandham Memorial Chapel; the sculptor was Charles Sargeant Jagger; and the monument was built between 1921 and 1925.

Exercise 7

Before I tell you where it is to be found, let me ask you this: if you wanted to commemorate a regiment's activity in war, where would you choose to site it? Should it be on regimental premises, in the chapel perhaps? Or should it be placed somewhere public for all to see? Jot down reasons for your choice.


You could justify placing regimental memorials in either private or public locations, and they are to be found in both. But there is a difference between objects designed for public display, and those designed for private viewing. We could say that there is a difference in intent. This in turn determines the way the object is produced, and the way the creator of the object approaches his task.

Spencer's paintings for Sandham were initially private, in the sense that the chapel was owned by his sponsors, and presumably access to see the building and its decoration was therefore limited. Even now, since the chapel is owned by the National Trust, it is not fully open to all: you have to pay to go in, and the hours of opening are restricted. Spencer had to have regard for what his sponsors wanted, and needed to create paintings that fitted the design and the intention of the chapel as a small building of memorial to one man.

Exercise 8

If you were considering the construction of a memorial to a whole regiment – and moreover a regiment which, you might think, played a significant part in a war that relied so heavily on gun-power – which view do you think would prevail? A public monument, or a private memorial? Again, note your reasons in your notebook.


If you decided that a public memorial would be most appropriate, then you would be at one with those who approved of the choice of Hyde Park Corner, in London, for the Royal Artillery Memorial – a central, very public, busy junction in London, also close to the Royal Artillery Headquarters. (See Figure 3 below.)

Figure 3
Figure 3 Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner, London (Photograph: Mike Levers/The Open University)

At this point we need to spend a little time in tracing how the memorial at Hyde Park came into being. Memorials do not just appear. Once a decision is taken to construct one, thought needs to be given to the form, design, location, inscription, the building and the payment. If the memorial is to be a private one, paid for by individuals, as in the case of the Sandham Chapel, then the matter might be relatively straightforward. But for memorials intended to be placed on public sites, and perhaps funded through public appeals, the issues are different. Many of the First World War memorials came into being as a result of committees being formed and agreements reached, and commissions for construction given. Archives still exist through which the history of the projects can be traced – records of public meetings, committee minutes, newspaper reports and so on. These are public documents, emphasizing the public intention of the memorial, whatever the form of it might be.

This is true of the committee formed to carry out the idea of a memorial to the gunners of the First World War, for there is a full record of the conception and execution of the memorial. We know, of course, that the site chosen was a very prominent one. But before that decision was taken, we see from the minutes that the committee wrestled with opposing views as to what would be an appropriate memorial. The view that prevailed was that there should be a fitting public memorial to the 49,076 gunners who died.

The other view was that the memorial should be more practical, and useful, such as a relief fund for soldiers of the regiment and their families, or a meeting place. The dilemma was a real one, and you might like to think out what your views would have been. This problem was faced by all committees set up to organize war memorials, and some resourceful committees managed to produce both practical help and the construction of a memorial. But the stronger view always was that there should be permanent, public monuments; and although there was never an ‘official’ recommendation as to the form a memorial should take – no kind of handy kit that could be set up where it was required – there was agreement as to the appropriateness of form.

Now let us look closer at the Royal Artillery Memorial, and consider whether its form appears appropriate for its function, bearing in mind that it is one example of many memorials established at a similar time in many places in the United Kingdom, France and other locations worldwide. One of the committee's first tasks was to find an architect and a sculptor. Unlike many committees that held competitions to find their sculptor, the committee solved this task by considering the names and works of men who had produced war memorials already by 1921; and the name of Charles Sargeant Jagger was suggested. At that point (1921) Jagger was 36. He had served through the war, fighting in Gallipoli and on the Western Front, where he had been wounded and also awarded the Military Cross. He had begun to make a name for himself as a sculptor before the war, but obviously the war had interrupted his work.

Exercise 9

Does this remind you of anyone else?


I hope that you thought of Stanley Spencer. Although Jagger held a commission throughout the war, Spencer was not made an officer until the end of the war when he was commissioned as a war artist. But both had begun to establish themselves in the artistic field, and both continued their careers after the war. Jagger, on his return, developed his career as a sculptor. The work he was given in 1921 to design the Royal Artillery Memorial, and the monument he produced, established him as one of the major sculptors working in this field. He designed many other monuments – the Tank Memorial in Lourverval in France, the Brussels National Memorial in Belgium, the Great Western Railway memorial on Platform 1 of Paddington Station, memorials in Hoylake (Cheshire), Southsea (Hants) and Liverpool. He died at the age of 49 in 1934.

The memorial took over four years to complete, from 1921 when the agreement giving him the commission was signed, to late 1925 when the memorial was dedicated. Jagger did not want a free-standing, figurative sculpture, but one in which the sculptured form rested on a podium, suggesting a gun emplacement. To achieve this he needed to work with an architect, who could design the podium, and he collaborated very successfully with the same architect who went on to design the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Lionel Pearson.

Exercise 10

Look again at the illustration of the Royal Artillery Memorial (Figure 3). Jot down a description of what you see, thinking about the memorial's size, location and general appearance. As before, note down what you see, prioritize your points, and write them up into a paragraph of about 250 words.


An official description of the memorial reads: ‘Statues of a driver, a shell-carrier, an artillery captain and a dead soldier, reliefs depicting Horse Artillery and Heavy Artillery, stone and bronze.’ But I expect that you mentioned other things – perhaps the size. You may be able to see that it is on an ‘island’ surrounded by traffic. The plinth on which the gun (a howitzer) stands is very high, and the gun looks realistic. It points south – not Jagger's original intention, but he moved it to this orientation to achieve greater balance in the sculpture. It was said that if it had been a real gun, its power would have allowed it to strike as far as the French coast.

Exercise 11

Now look back at the paragraph you wrote on the appearance of the monument, and note the words you have used to describe it.


I have used:

powerful realistic
solid mighty
massive forceful

My own words are not ‘correct’, or the only ones to use, but I would be surprised if there were not some agreement between us, and I would be positively alarmed if you had used words such as ‘dainty’ or ‘charming’. In talking about artefacts such as these, we do share perceptions and have similar ways of describing them.

So let us look more closely at the way in which the monument is constructed. To achieve the forceful appearance, the gun is placed high up on a stone plinth. The plinth also carries a carved stone frieze depicting war scenes. The figures of the frieze are shallowly carved, for Jagger's intention was to recreate the image of the confined spaces in which the gunners worked. The four sides of the memorial each contain a figure carved in bronze – a highly durable and expensive metal. By placing only one figure on each side of this memorial, Jagger has isolated each one, and emphasized them, so that the viewer concentrates upon them first. We have to get nearer to see the detail of the frieze, but that was Jagger's intention – almost as if we are drawn into seeing the working conditions of the soldiers as they themselves experienced them in their trenches and gun encampments.

Exercise 12

I would like you to look at the shell-carrier (see the illustration below), who stands on the east side of the monument. This time, think not just of the words you would use to describe him – ‘realistic’ is one that comes to mind – but write a couple of sentences expressing what you see and, if you like, your feelings about the image.


The man is very lifelike. You feel that you could touch him, and know that there is a human form there. But he looks straight ahead: there is no movement. He is not pulling out his shells ready for action. He is still, almost calm, with a very firm, solid stance. Think how different he would have appeared if Jagger had sculpted him with his feet close together, his arms at his side. As it is, the soldier looks mighty, and grim. His face is set, his greatcoat crumpled, his sleeves rolled up. His mind seems intent on war. This is a man who, despite his immobility, is part of war.

Figure 4
Figure 4 The shell-carrier, Royal Artillery Memorial, east side (Photograph reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Artillery Trust)

I do not know, of course, what you felt about the sculpture. Jagger said that his intention was to show ‘the Tommy as I knew him in the trenches’, and I leave you to decide whether you, as a spectator of his work, feel that he has achieved this with the shell-carrier. Tommy Atkins was a – possibly fictitious – soldier from whom the word ‘tommy’, meaning a private in the army, is derived.

I now want to look at another of the four figures, the one at the north side of the monument (see illustration below). Unlike his companions, he is lying down, covered with a greatcoat, his helmet on his chest. He lies beneath the Royal Artillery coat of arms.

Figure 5
Figure 5 The dead gunner, Royal Artillery Memorial, north side (Photograph reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Artillery Trust)

Exercise 13

Why might you think Jagger wanted to include the figure of a corpse? Write a sentence or two in answer to this question. You would do well if you could refer to other examples of dead soldiers we have encountered in this section.


In the creation of a monument which is depicting realistic form – so that the men we see look like real soldiers – Jagger must have drawn on his own experience which told him that war is about death as well as survival, as Spencer also knew.

Think back to the notes you made about the form that memorials could take. The Sandham Memorial Chapel is in its intention unambiguous – a religious building, consecrated by a bishop, with paintings on the walls depicting ordinary soldiers doing ordinary things. Spencer's way of dealing with death is to take death one step further, into resurrection from the dead. Jagger, on the other hand, faces death squarely with his realistic sculpting of a dead soldier: no white crosses for symbolism, but the bronze figure of a corpse placed alone on one side of the monument, in contrast to the living reality of his three companions.

This realism had its critics.

Exercise 14

Why, do you think? As before, jot down your answer in the form of a few points.


By 1921 the war had been over for three years, and perhaps by then people felt that the horrors of the war should be put behind them. Others, of course, felt that the realities should not be forgotten; and in the poetry and prose of one poet, Siegfried Sassoon, we can see others certainly felt this. Jagger, too, said that he ‘regarded a war memorial as a means of forcing home in the minds of the public the horror and terror of war’. But after the memorial was unveiled, controversy about its size, and the inclusion of the dead figure, filled the newspapers of the time. You might like to consider whether such controversy would have flared if the monument had not been public or located in such a prominent place, and if its design had not been so realistic and its sculptor so well known.


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