25 January 2009

Art Deco - War Memorials

I didn’t understand why memorials built to honour Great War soldiers utilised the rather abstract, pared back Deco style. After millions of people had been slaughtered in WW1, we might have expected statues of weeping mothers and young male bodies to emerge in every city and town. And some did. Emm in London, for example, showed a young soldier with the mud of Flanders on his boots, remembering his fallen friends. This Dartford memorial was unveiled in 1922.

In Derby, the figures were placed on a stone pedestal against a backdrop of a Celtic cross; this popular form of war memorial was a combination of a symbolic Christian victory, sacrifice and eternal hope. The mourning wife/mother and the orphaned baby could be seen as a continuation of the Victorian tradition of public statues.

Derby, WW1 memorial, built 1923

But too much public grief crippled communities. 8.5 million people died in WW1, boys in late adolescence and early 20s. They had to be remembered and honoured, but in a way that allowed some hope for the future.

The Cenotaph 1919 in White­hall was designed by Edwin Lutyens, first in plaster then in Portland stone. This very early Deco design was left undecorated, save for a carved wreath on each end and Rudyard Kipling’s words The Glorious Dead. Perhaps the clue is in the name Cenotaph, meaning empty tomb. We don't even know where the dead boys lie, nor do we know their names. This memorial was honouring sacrifice and heroism in the abstract, unemotionally and without dwelling on personal tragedy.

Cenotaph London, by Lutyens 1921

Sydney’s Anzac War Memor­ial was designed in a monum­ental and highly sculptured design which broke away from C19th traditions. Located centrally in Hyde Park South, the granite memorial was made possible after a compet­it­ion and fund raising program initiated in 1919. It was built in 1929-30. I would recommend examining the Deco sculptures in Sydney City and Suburbs blog.

Even Melbourne's neo-classical Shrine of Remembrance, the city’s most important war memorial building, has very distinctive Art Deco elements. It took from 1928-1934 to complete.

Thank you to the people who alerted me to three more Art Deco war memorials, undoubtedly based on Lutyens' cenotaph. This one monument clearly influenced the design of many other war memorials in Britain and in all the Commonwealth countries. Young men from Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Canada etc rushed to aid the Mother Country, particularly in the worst years of the war - 1914 and 1915. My own grandfather was fortunate. He gave a kidney and three years of his life to the Great War but survived, I assume because he was an official translator (Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, Hebrew and later French, English), not a foot soldier.

To commemorate the tragic losses of the Great War, the City of Fremantle in Western Australia erected the Fallen Sailors & Soldiers Memorial in 1928. The main memorial , 14m in height, was created from Donnybrook stone. The Calgary Cenotaph in Memorial Park was er­ected in 1928 to honour the fallen of Calgary, Alberta. The National War Memorial in Wellington was originally built to commem-orate all New Zealanders who gave their lives in the South African War and WW1. Wellington's Art Deco Carillon tower opened on Anzac Day 1932.

Calgary Cenotaph, 1923

David Thompson at Art Deco Buildings has found an amazing Cenotaph, Durban, completed in 1926. The shape is very similar to the Wellington Carillon, but the fallen soldier and the angels are brightly coloured.

In the years after the Great War ended, it must have become clear that war consisted of bad decisions, needless slaughter, despair and little achievement. Within a decade, cities wanted to represent their response to war and their sacrifice, but with a deliberate aim to avoid glorifying war. Perhaps the Deco war memorials achieved that balance, through austere architecture, minimalist decoration and intellectual, non emotional appeal.

Sydney Anzac Memorial, 1934

For an image of the Cenotaph in London, actually surrounded by Italianate buildings in the centre of town, see Emm in London's blog.

Jerusalem was liberated from the Turks in late 1917 when General Allenby formally entered the city, with French and Italian leaders. Jerusalem War Cemetery started with 270 British Commonwealth burials, later increased to 2,514 Commonwealth burials. Within the cemetery see the Jerusalem Memorial, commemorating 3,300 Commonwealth servicemen who died in operations in Egypt or Palestine and who have no known grave. The memorial, opened in 1927 by Lord Allenby, was designed in a very Deco style by Sir John Burnet, with sculpture by Gilbert Bayes.

Jerusalem War Cemetery and Memorial, 1927

To this day, ANZAC Day commemorations are held every year at the Jerusalem Memorial where Australian and New Zealand families can remember their grandfathers and Israelis can thank the British Commonwealth troops.


Pete said...

Hi Helen,I enjoyed your article.
My understanding is that after quite a long initial period of shock and inactivity up to a decade after the end of the war, many/most of the memorials were funded by local communities and individuals to give a focal point of remembrance for the community as a whole. As such to gain a consensus they tended to take a more austere approach as the grief was still very raw.
My guess is that as art deco was in vogue during this period that it struck the right cord for the peoples requirement of their memorials.
There was a BBC Series called Not Forgotten that dealt with this in detail and was fascinating.
My personal favourite is the Royal Artillery Memorial in Hyde Park which is very thought provoking.

Hels said...

One of my questions about Art Deco - War Memorials was why memorials built to honour Great War soldiers utilised an austere style. Not emotional statues of weeping mothers and young male bodies. But look where the Cenotaph is! As Emm in London blog showed, not in a spacious, green park, but right in front of a busy, elaborate building in the centre of town.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the department responsible for looking after the interests of Britain overseas, created out of the old Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office. Look at the architecture of the buildings: very classical, Italian Renaissance style complete with classical sculpture.

Emm in London has a photo of the 1921 Cenotaph designed by Lutyens in which we can see the austerity of the Cenotaph, standing out against the elaborateness of the surrounding buildings.

And Pete, I now agree that if parents and communities were to go on, after the war, the memorials could not be oozing with grief and loss. It would have been too difficult, emotionally.

Dina said...

Thanks for your ideas and information here, Helen.
Nice that you included Jerusalem.

Hels said...


because these structures were almost all built at the same time (from 1925 to 1934), they share a Deco sensibility that was becoming so loved. For example, I can see a strong similarity between the Jerusalem's War Cemetery and Memorial, 1927 and Sydney's Anzac Memorial, 1934

Hels said...

Art Deco Buildings has written a post on individuals' graves and head stones. They started in the inter-war period, as you would expect from Deco, but continued well after WW2. Fascinating new ideas come to mind.


Hels said...


this afternoon I will be publishing a post called Australian and New Zealand light horsemen in Beersheba, 1917. You may be interested.

Jim said...

I've never seen a photo of the memorial in Hyde Park from that angle before.

Hels said...


agreed. I think Deco designers really understood geometry, views and perspectives.