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Heroes in stone and bronze

How British sculptors rose to the challenge of commemorating the fallen of the First World War

The effect of the First World War on British figure sculpture was enormous, not least because it led to hundreds of commissions for statues of servicemen, to be included on war memorials. And the way that those servicemen were depicted was to have a lasting impact.

Jonathan Black is a Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Dorich House Museum, Kingston University. Through a Fellowship funded by the AHRC, he has produced a book and accompanying exhibitions on the work of the British sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, best known for his statues, dotted around Whitehall, of Clement Attlee, Viscount Slim and Viscount Alanbrooke, as well as that of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, which was famously given a grass Mohican by anti-capitalist protestors. Roberts-Jones also produced a statue of Rupert Brooke, now in Rugby, Warwickshire, which shows the poet (in Jonathan Black’s words) as a ‘barefoot hippy neo-pagan,’ before he enlisted.

Though he was born too late to have taken part in the Great War, Roberts-Jones was working in the tradition of sculptors who had seen active military service (he himself had fought in the Burma Campaign in the Second World War). And he was working specifically within an idiom that developed around the end of the First World War: ‘he was the last of his kind,’ says Jonathan Black. ‘The last in a tradition of great icon-makers that goes back to the Great War: the last creator of images of heroes’.

Soldier-artists

As Roberts-Jones himself was aware, he was part of a very particular lineage — of sculptors who had been soldiers themselves, before they turned to depicting men in uniform. Sculptors like William Reid Dick and Gilbert Ledward (who designed the Guards Memorial in Horse Guards Parade), both of whom fought in the First World War.

And above all, for Roberts-Jones this was the tradition of Charles Sargeant Jagger, who created some of the best-known memorials of the Great War, and had a direct influence on Roberts-Jones’s work. Roberts-Jones’s Viscount Slim, for example, has been seen as being very similar in pose to the figure of the shell-carrier on Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, which (having served in the Royal Artillery himself) Roberts-Jones would have known well.

Jagger, The Driver, Royal Artillery Memorial, 1921 - 1925

Jagger won the Military Cross for bravery (‘not the sort of thing expected of artists, then or now’). He was a tough character — a working-class Yorkshireman who was given a commission as a second lieutenant in the Artists’ Rifles, which bestowed on him the dubious status of being a ‘temporary gentleman.’ At one point, having been wounded in the arm, he pleaded successfully not to have it amputated, a decision on which his subsequent career depended. 

Jagger’s own taste was for work that didn’t shy away from the business of fighting. When he was commissioned to produce the Great Western Railway War Memorial in Paddington station, for example, the figure that was chosen by his patrons was that of a soldier reading a letter. As Jonathan Black says, the importance of the mail is an often-overlooked aspect of the war, with the delivery of post from home contributing much to the cohesion of the British army: ‘I myself had a great uncle who fought in northern Italy in the First World War. He was sent an Eccles cake, posted two days before, that his platoon devoured under shell fire — it was still moist.’ The Great Western Railway committee wanted something quite elegiac and soft-focus for their memorial, and so they chose the statue of the reading soldier. Yet Jagger himself had preferred other, tougher-looking figures – in Jonathan Black’s phrase, statues of ‘terminator Tommies.’

Second Lieutenant CS Jagger, the Worcesters, September 1915

But then, Jagger had a personal investment in works such as the Royal Artillery Memorial. As Jonathan Black says, ‘as a soldier himself, the howitzers he depicted were the last word in force, strength and protection for him. Brickbats came Jagger’s way from the Bloomsbury group for the way that he depicted the war and the participants in it, but they didn’t do the fighting: as time went on, Jagger became irritated by the increasingly dominant view of the war, put about by people who hadn’t been in harm’s way.’

The end of heroism

Like Jagger and the others, then, Roberts-Jones was a sculptor who had been at the sharp end. And for Roberts-Jones, it was Jagger’s brand of realism, above all, which was influential. Jagger doesn’t use stock types, but bases his figures on individuals, making them distinct, even though they are representing a great mass of people. They are portraits on one level, in other words, meaning that his work doesn’t fall prey to sentimentalism. As Jonathan Black says, ‘Britain doesn’t really have the equivalent of a George Grosz or Otto Dix – the German painters who reflected the brutal realities of war in paint. The closest we come is in our figure sculpture. As a result of their experiences, sculptors such as Jagger were able to bring to art the bite of war’s reality.’

‘Roberts-Jones was the last of a generation who saw action, and then made sculpture. It’s entirely different today, when artists go to art school and are discovered while they are still in their twenties. Most of the Great War memorial artists began their careers later, in many cases when they were in their thirties: they’d had other experiences — including first-hand experience of combat.’

But since the Sixties at least, such a form of representation as Jagger’s has not been possible, says Jonathan Black. ‘The Blackadder view of the First World War applies visually, too. We may struggle to admit the idea of heroism in a doubting age, but that was not the case in the Twenties, when the British public passionately identified with the Tommies.’

The work of the soldier-sculptors after the First World War is based on a vision of ‘a credible, down-to-earth, realistic heroism, while there was still room to admit that heroism exists.’

Find out more about what research reveals about WW1 and its legacy in the AHRC’s Beyond the Trenches publication. Read it online or order a free copy here.

Jonathan Black is giving a talk on the works of sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones in the Palace of Westminster and Whitehall in the Palace of Westminster on the evening of November 10th.

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