Dulce et Decorum
The monument to Edward Horner in the parish church at Mells, Somerset, is an affecting tribute to the losses suffered in World War I. Should the parish be allowed to move it?
Tuesday, 7th August 2007
Mells, in the Mendips in Somerset, is a beautiful example of an old English village. It has an Elizabethan manor house, an ancestral home of the Horner family, which, in the traditional way, stands right next to a fine medieval parish church with a magnificent Perpendicular gothic tower (Fig. 2). But what makes Mells so particularly special is the tangible evidence of the devastating effect of the Great War of 1914-18. Every English village, of course, and every church has a memorial listing the names of so many young men who never returned, but here that evidence is of rare quality because of the involvement of the greatest British architect of the 20th (or any?) century, Edwin Lutyens, as well as of other artists. It is a connection that illuminates the ramifications of Edwardian society.
Frances Horner, wife of Sir John Horner, was the sister of the wife of Sir Herbert Jekyll, brother of Lutyens’s patron, muse and collaborator, the redoubtable Gertrude, or Aunt Bumps. Lutyens became great friends with Frances Horner, and made small alterations to Mells Manor as well as introducing a friend, that wonderful painter William Nicholson, to execute murals. In the 1920s, he also rebuilt Mells Park for Reginald McKenna, politician and chairman of the Midland Bank, who commissioned some of his finest commercial buildings, in London and in Manchester. McKenna lies in the churchyard at Mells, under a remarkable abstracted sculptural tomb by Lutyens guarded by carefully planted trees as sentinels. But, as Jane Brown writes in her book Lutyens and the Edwardians, ‘Mells is today one of the places where the spirit of Lutyens’s particular Englishness lingers, not so much for what he built there as for the influence on the pattern of his building, and the people he encountered there. The chatelaine of Mells, Frances Horner, a member of the Souls’ circle, always understood him and brought forth the best in him.’ She had also known Edward Burne-Jones, whose work is in the church.
One reason for visiting Mells is to see the grave of Siegfried Sassoon in the churchyard. He, of course, survived the war, disillusioned and angry, to tell the truth about the industrialised slaughter of the Western Front when so many of his contemporaries did not. ‘All their young men are killed’, wrote Lutyens to his wife after returning from Mells in 1919, referring to the friends and families they had met at the Manor House before the war. Some are listed on the village war memorial, designed by Lutyens with seats integrated into a corner wall where two roads meet. The church also testifies to the losses. At the west end is a tablet, designed by Lutyens with lettering by Eric Gill, to the memory of Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, who had married the Horners’ daughter Katharine and who had been killed on the Somme in 1916. But most important, and most poignant, is the memorial to Edward Horner, the heir to Mells Manor and the last of the male line, who also died in the war. This is in the Horner Chapel, at the end of the north aisle.
An equestrian bronze sculpture of a young cavalry officer by Alfred Munnings stands on a pedestal designed by Lutyens (Fig. 1). Originally, Lutyens planned an extension to the church in which the memorial would stand surrounded by columns, two of them free-standing, but in the event it was placed in the centre of the Horner Chapel, the former Lady Chapel. Family chapels, filled with tombs and monuments, are of course often found in parish churches, but in this case Edward Horner is not buried here: he lies in France, where he died. The Imperial War Graves Commission, which Lutyens advised and for which he carried out some of his finest work – not least the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval – had rightly insisted that there was to be equality of treatment in death and that rich and grand families were not to be allowed to bring bodies home. In the 900 or so carefully designed, beautifully maintained cemeteries of the Great War in France and Belgium, no distinction is made between officers and men, or rich and poor, or, indeed, between different faiths or none: all lie beneath standard headstones. Lives may have been recklessly squandered by generals and governments, but all received the same dignified treatment .
Back home, however, families could erect memorials in the traditional and hierarchical manner as if the social revolution begun by the war had not taken place. On one level, the Horner Memorial is slightly absurd. Edward Horner may have been an officer in the 18th Hussars but he certainly was not on a horse when he was killed at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Douglas Haig’s repeated attempts to break the German front line – at prodigal cost in lives and shells – so that his beloved cavalry could charge through and beyond were all in vain. The memorial therefore represents that romantic, mendacious impression of the war, that chivalric fantasy associated with Rupert Brooke, of heroic gilded Englishmen and wicked Huns, which sustained people back home and which so infuriated those such as Sassoon who had experienced the brutal reality. But, as such, it is a telling monument of its time. It is also a fine thing, even if Munnings’s equestrian figure might seem rather cloyingly sentimental. Munnings, of course, was a painter of horses and a good one, even if he later ruined his reputation with his notorious, drunken speech at the Royal Academy – unfortunately broadcast on the radio – that crudely dismissed Picasso and Moore.
Now it is proposed to move the Edward Horner Memorial to a new position to the west of the north aisle, a proposal that has dismayed the Lutyens Trust and has worried others. As the church is so much visited, the parish wishes to reclaim the chapel as a place for quiet and prayer. It is argued, rather speciously, that as Lutyens originally designed the monument for a grander setting, the westernmost bay of the aisle would give it more space and allow it to be seen more easily. The design for altering the north aisle, by the architects Alan and Ann Thomas, is careful and respectful, but that is scarcely the point. Even if this project has more justification that the usual proposals for lavatories and kitchens that are spoiling so many ancient churches, the reasons for moving the memorial a few feet do seem a little frivolous. There are other spaces where a chapel for prayer could be created. But the main objection is that the memorial belongs in the Horner Chapel.
Perhaps the appropriation of sacred spaces in so many churches by landed families after the Reformation was wrong, but these places – such as the Bedford Chapel at Chenies – are surely now justified by artistic and historical interest. The Edward Horner memorial is a work by a good artist and a great architect, but its peculiar poignancy comes from the fact that it represents the tragic end of the line, the last of the Horners (Mells Manor eventually passed to the Asquiths). As such, it belongs in the Horner Chapel and ought to stay there, especially as its setting was later enhanced by a window designed by William Nicholson in memory of Sir John Horner. Things should be left alone: Mells – church, churchyard and village – is one of the most moving and revealing of sites in Britain affected by the Great War as well as a place where such good and interesting artists worked.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy