Lutyens and the Leicester Arch of Remembrance

Leicester Arch (Small)The 11th November 2015 marks the anniversary of the signing of the armistice which brought the First World War to an end in 1918. In a timely act of governance the UK the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport The Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP has listed or had the existing listings upgraded of all 44 of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s war memorials in the UK. This is a long overdue measure of protection to some of the finest architecture and memorial sculpture in the world. We are very fortunate to have one of the best (and largest) of these memorials here in the City of Leicester in the form of the Arch of Remembrance in Victoria Park, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate the nearly 10,000 men of the city and county who fell in the Great War. It was unveiled on 3rd July 1925 after a long campaign of fund-raising and changes of potential site. It’s a remarkable demonstration of what has been described as “Stripped Classism”, a style of architecture which Lutyens made his own and perfectly reflected the sense of loss and emptiness felt by British society in the years after 1918. But Lutyens was more than just a memorialist, he was a profoundly gifted and ingenious designer, obsessed with puzzles and blessed with a fertile and mathematically inclined mind as well as an artist’s eye. For many years after his death in 1945, it was widely understood that he had used mathematical methods and proportional systems of great complexity and intricacy to create his architecture, including his war memorials but no-one knew, in detail, what these actually were. In 2008 the late Professor Dennis Radford and me (Douglas Cawthorne) of the Digital Building Heritage Group at De Montfort University published the first in-depth analysis of Lutyens’s mathematics and geometrical methods using Leicester’s Arch of Remembrance as a case study, in a paper in the journal ARQ called – Unlocking Lutyens: A Gateway to the Hidden Legacy of John Pell and Sir Christopher Wren. Through careful analysis and computer modelling we were able to show precisely how Lutyens used an elegantly simple numerical and geometrical system to achieve a beautifully balanced design which was redolent with inbuilt symbolism and connections to antiquity, in particular the temple of Janus in Rome. The magazine Leicestershire and Rutland life was kind enough to allow us to draw their readers’ attention to these observations about the Arch’s connections to antiquity in their December 2007 edition. In a two page article for the first time I noted the solar alignment of Lutyens’s Arch of Remembrance but regrettably the editors could not find space to show the photos of it. Sunrise at Leicester War Memorial Banner (Small)A couple of years ago I was talking with someone who said to me that they’d heard that this alignment was just an urban myth and of course I realised it was my fault, I’d neglected to publish any confirmatory evidence on this aspect of the Arch. So here’s some for you to mull over (see above), both were images taken just after sunrise on 11th November 2007. It was in that year (2007) that I’d first accurately measured and photographed this remarkable solar alignment and on a couple years after this I have been back to Leicester’s Arch at sunrise (07:18-32 am GMT) on the 11th November, long before any of the crowds arrive for the memorial services to watch the sun burst above the horizon and shine directly down the main axis of the Leicester Arch. When the weather permits (and this sadly infrequent) it’s a deeply moving experience, eerily still and life affirming, with the light of a new dawn casting long shadows down Lancaster Road and Peace Walk.  But I hear you say, the sunburst is actually slightly out of alignment! Well the reason as you will quickly see, is that the trees on the south side of Victoria Park in Leicester were either absent or much smaller in 1925 and so the effective horizon was lower than it is today. Trees and possibly buildings have increased the vertical distance from the horizontal of the effective horizon since then, actual rather than astronomical sunrise is delayed very slightly now from what it would have been then by about 4 minutes and just over 2 degrees of azimuth (horizontal distance – in this case West – to the right of the image). The Arch was aligned with sunrise on the 11th of November which anyone could have seen from the site in 1925. Today I do not think the 2 degree difference makes that much difference to the overall effect but I could be wrong. Maybe if the trees could be “pruned” we could find out for sure! In any event I like to think of Sir Edwin, standing in a long coat against the morning chill with pipe in mouth and pocket book in hand, quietly noting this unique aspect of the site, the only place in the city where it could occur. I also like to think it’s why he picked it and I’m delighted that this and his other WW1 memorials now enjoy the protection they deserve and that future generations will continue to be moved by their form, beauty, detail and meaning.Wreath Colour Small

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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