11 November 2015

‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’

The War Memorial unveiled in Trumpington on 11 November 1921 is one of the finest examples of Eric Gill’s work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This is Remembrance Day [11 November 2015], and silence descends on many places across these islands at 11 a.m. Later this morning, I am catching a flight to Stansted to spend the rest of the week in Cambridge at a meeting in Westcott House of the Trustees of Us, the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

I was last in Cambridge two months ago, taking part in the annual summer school in Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Before that conference, I spent the last weekend in August in Trumpington, on the southern outskirts of Cambridge. I was staying in the Lord Byron, and, of course, I visited the neighbouring village of Grantchester, which is closely associated with the memory of Rupert Brooke and his death 100 years ago [1 April 1915] during World War I.

In many commemorations in England, Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘The Soldier,’ is part of the traditional readings, with its opening lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England …

‘The Soldier,’ was written by Brooke in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, encompasses the memoirs of a dead soldier who recalls the blissful state of England and proclaims his patriotism by declaring that his sacrifice will mean the eternal ownership by England of the small piece of soil on which he dies. It is often contrasted with Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (1917), which is also read in many places as part of the Remembrance commemorations.

Rupert Brooke’s name is inscribed on the war memorial in Grantchester churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A year after ‘The Soldier’ was published, Brooke died on a French hospital ship during the Gallipoli landings in 1915, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Syros. Brooke’s name is inscribed on both the war memorial in the churchyard in Grantchester and on the roll of the war dead inside the Church of Saint Andrew and Saint Mary.

Two years before his death, while he was in Berlin in 1912, Brooke, in a fit of homesickness, wrote evocatively and memorably in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ recalling his times in the Orchard, Grantchester Meadows, the Old Vicarage and the parish church:

Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truth, and pain? ... oh! Yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

‘Stands the Church clock at ten to three?’ … the clock on the tower of Saint Andrew’s and Saint Mary’s Church, Grantchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In many ways, Grantchester steals all the limelight from the neighbouring village of Trumpington. Harry Wallop once wrote in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Trumpington is England at its most Richard Curtis. The Cambridgeshire village has a gem of a 13th-century church, a thatched cottage, an Eric Gill war memorial, and an old vicarage of such gorgeousness that I am already measuring up the curtains.’

The war memorial in Trumpington commemorates the 36 men from the village who died in World War I. This is one of the finest examples of the work of Arthur Eric Rowton Gill (1882-1940), a sculptor, typeface designer, stonecutter and printmaker, who was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and who is still regarded as a master of letter carving. Gill Sans, the sans serif typeface used on the covers of pre-war Penguin books, is regarded as the first British modernist type design.

Gill came from a religious family: his father was a clergyman, many members of his family were missionaries, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913, and he was known throughout his life for his strong religious and political views which influenced and shaped his work. He was a radical socialist, came close to pacifism, supported the Republic side in the Spanish Civil War, and strongly influenced Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

After World War I, Gill’s carved and lettered war memorials throughout England became his bread-and-butter. They include crosses, memorials, plaques and monuments, and so many towns and villages have one that it has been said almost everyone in England has an Eric Gill in reach.

The memorial to Captain FPC Pemberton in Trumpington parish church is a fine example of Gill’s letter carving (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Gill learned his craft at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he introduced to the Pemberton family of Trumpington. Through this connection, he was commissioned to inscribe a memorial plaque in Trumpington parish church to a Captain Francis Percy Campbell Pemberton of Trumpington Hall, who was killed in action in Belgium on 19 October 1914.

The first plans for the village included a memorial garden with tennis courts, a clock tower and an obelisk were all considerations. The selected design by Gill is a traditional cross with a stepped plinth and is unique in the way it combines examples of his skills in sculpture and in letter carving.

At the time, it was not unusual for artists to have little connection with works attributed to them, and in many cases much of the work was carried out by their pupils. But Eric Gill was very hands-on when it came to the war memorial in Trumpington.

The whole work was designed and executed by Gill, who submitted his designs to a memorial committee chaired by the new Vicar of Trumpington, the Revd Dr Arthur Christopher Moule (1873-1957), later Professor of Chinese in Cambridge University (1933-1938).

The committee decided to erect the war memorial in the centre of Trumpington at the junction of Church Lane and the High Street, on a site once known as Cross Hill and once an important part of the old village. It was unveiled 93 years ago today on 11 November 1921 and was dedicated a month later on Sunday 11 December 1921.

Gill’s memorial has four carved panels above which the names of the dead are listed. The panels were carefully chosen to represent both Saint Mary and Saint Michael after whom the church is dedicated.

Panel 1: The Virgin Mary cradles the Christ Child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

On the first panel, the Virgin Mary is shown cradling the Christ Child in a way that evokes images of the Pieta in which she cradles her crucified son after he has been taken down from the Cross.

Panel 2: Saint Michael slays the Dragon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

On the second panel, Saint Michael is seen slaying the Dragon.

Panel 3: Saint George slays the dragon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The third panel shows Saint George, the patron saint of England, slaying the dragon. Saint George is a common image on war memorials throughout England, but here he is depicted as a semi-naked soldier with his helmet rather than as a mediaeval knight in armour.

Panel 4: A weary soldier trudges home with his rifle slung over his shoulder (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The fourth panel depicts a weary soldier surrounded by shell bursts and broken tree stumps making his way home with his rifle slung over his shoulder, evoking images of Christ carrying the cross on the Via Dolorosa.

Later, the names of the eight men from Trumpington who died in World War II have been added to the base. The lettering is the work of David Kindersley, who was one of Gill’s pupils.

The stone on the west panel, showing the weary soldier, is slightly more porous than the rest of the panels. As I looked at this panel I recalled the words of Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) in ‘The Fallen,’ first published in The Times on 21 September 1914:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In 1969, the top of the cross was broken when someone attempted to climb it. But he stone was re-fixed and the memorial has since stood the test of time.

The war memorial in Trumpington, with its lettering by Eric Gill, has stood the test of time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Eric Gall designed and carved the coat of arms of Bishop John Fisher, Lady Margaret Beaufort’s executor, which forms the keystone of the archway that leads from Chapel Court into North Court. Further work by Gill can be seen around these courts, most notably his carving of the symbol of Saint John on the keystone of the central arch of the Chapel Court cloister, and the eagle and marguerite carved on the keystone of the central arch leading from the Forecourt.

Gill’s other works in Cambridge included designing and carving the bold relief lettering in the Ham Hill stone of the front entrance to Westcott House on Jesus Lane, where this week’s meetings are taking place.

Recent biographies have shown how Gill’s work and his public persona were totally at odds with his private life, and they have revealed disturbing stories of his sexual behaviour, including persistent adultery, incest and child abuse.

When his adultery, incest and other sexual behaviours first came to light, they altered the perceptions of Gill, both as a man of God and as an artist. There was such a stir in the Catholic press that there were demands to remove his Stations of the Cross from Westminster Cathedral. One report at the time said that while Cardinal Basil Hume and the cathedral authorities did not deny Gill’s lifestyle, they suggested a distinction should be made between his artistic skills and his private life.

Gill’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy says:

‘After the initial shock, [...] the consequent reassessment of his life and art left his artistic reputation strengthened. Gill emerged as one of the twentieth century’s strangest and most original controversialists, a sometimes infuriating, always arresting spokesman for man’s continuing need of God in an increasingly materialistic civilization, and for intellectual vigour in an age of encroaching triviality.’

Gill died 75 years ago this month, on 17 November 1940. I wonder how the 75th anniversary of his death is going to be remembered next Tuesday. But Gill’s work, including his war memorials, especially the one in Trumpington, should not be neglected or forgotten.

How is Eric Gill going to be remembered 75 years after his death? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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