Sunday, 31 July 2011

Old War Office, Whitehall SW1

This figure by Alfred Drury, Horrors of War, is remarkable in itself but doubly remarkable for its date and position. It was carved about 1900 when jingoism was at it height, the Second Boer War was raging and the arms race that would lead to the First World War was getting into its stride. So what is an image like Horrors of War doing on the headquarters of British militarism?
The building was designed by the Glasgow architect William Young and completed after his death in 1900 by his son Clyde. In all respects apart from the sculpture the design is standard British Imperial Baroque with giant columns and a dome at each corner. One would have expected the sculptural adornment to be either military impedimenta (displays of swords, spears, shields, flags etc), classical heroes or depictions of great British victories. What we have is a series of eight contemplative, serious, quiet allegories of war and peace that were extremely unfashionable at the time.
In Horrors of War, a woman looks aghast at a skull. Her left hand rests on a poniard, point down in the ground. Her cloak billows around her, giving a movement that accentuates the horrific atmosphere.
Next to her sits Dignity of War, a woman wearing a helmet and armed with sword and shield. She is not triumphant and there is no hint of glorification of war: she sits quiet and pensive. The other figures in the series (for subsequent posts) are equally ambiguous.
What was the public reaction to these images at the time? There seems to have been none. Quite possibly nobody noticed them, perched as they are just under the skyline of this tall building. Nobody notices them now.


The Duke of Waltham said...

Interesting what one can get away with when it's placed high enough. I certainly like it that something thoughtful could be added instead of the usual triumphalist allegories (not that I don't like the building or, for that matter, allegorical sculpture). By the way, Wikipedia says the corner domes were added to disguise the not-exactly-orthogonal shape of the building.

Question one: is that a copper poniard? It seems greener than the rest of the statue, with the exception of the stained hand. (Same thing with the sword.) Question two: what was that glitch with RSS? A week ago I received notice of an empty post entitled "Old War Office".

Chris Partridge said...

I don't know the metal, but I suspect it was bronze.
The empty post happened when I pressed the wrong button and published instead of saved - sorry!

CarolineLD said...

Fascinating - I wonder who signed off the designs.