London: scene of flight, scene of destruction

August 15, 2013 0 Comments

DSC_0083Fleeing from the noise and heat of the midday traffic we took our sandwiches to a bench in a small public garden off Marylebone High Street.  What we’d chanced upon was the site of the old St Marylebone church, across the road from its 1817 replacement.  Nothing remains of the first three churches (the current is the fourth).  But arranged around the perimeter of the garden there remain tombstones of some of those buried in the old churchyard, including the architect James Gibbs, the painters George Stubbs and Allan Ramsay, and the Methodist leader Charles Wesley.

It was a less well-know name that caught my eye.  Peeping out of the foliage was a stone commemorating ‘Claudius Champion de Crespigny, Esq., a French Refugee’, who died in 1697, and his wife Maria de Vierville, who followed him in 1708.

De Crespigny was an aristocratic soldier and a Huguenot, a French Protestant.  The Huguenots found themselves subject to persistent persecution by Louis XIV, culminating in 1685 in his revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had safeguarded the rights of Protestants in France till then.  With his family De Crespigny fled his chateau at Vierville in Normandy and like some 50,000 others made for England, finding sanctuary in London and joining the English army as a colonel.  An oil painting of him by an anonymous artist survives in Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, a future home of the De Crespigny family.  He looks respectable enough in his adopted country, though his face perhaps betrays a hint of anxiety.  In a matching portrait his wife Marie combines piety with an elegant plainness of dress.

(c) Kelmarsh Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe family flourished in London, gained a baronetcy and built a house called Champion Lodge in Camberwell.  The eccentric Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny (1847-1935), the 4th baronet, won the Balloon Society’s gold medal for being the first person to cross the North Sea in a balloon, and was an enthusiastic steeplechaser, retiring at the age of 67.

The reason why so many Huguenots found refuge in England was that Charles II had announced in 1681 that they were welcome to settle in England.  It was an enlightened and wise policy.  The Huguenots brought their advanced skills in silk weaving, watch making, bookbinding, silver smithing and many other crafts, and made a substantial contribution to the economic development of London and the country as a whole.  (It’s still possible to get a flavour of how some of them lived in the main area of London in which the poorest Huguenots congregated, Spitalfields, thanks to the efforts of local conservationists.)

Today there seems little left of the enlightened generosity of Charles II towards persecuted groups overseas.  Recently I heard David Cameron offer as the justification for maintaining the overseas aid budget the thought that it helped ensure foreigners didn’t come ‘over here’ asking for admittance, and Chris Bryant, amazingly enough a Labour MP, apparently wished employers to discriminate (illegally) against EU workers from outside the UK.  The word ‘refugee’ – a French word brought here by the Huguenots as a self-description – has acquired a derogatory nuance, like the wider word ‘migrant’.  There’s a whole organisation, Migration Watch UK, chaired by a certain Sir Andrew Green, devoted to keeping a suspicious eye on the movements of these sinister people; naturally they except from their suspicions people they call ‘genuine refugees’.

But people like these who wish to insulate Britain from the outside world are far too late.  By far the most striking characteristic of London to the visiting anthropologist – this was the first time I’ve ever spent as long as week living among the inhabitants – is the unbelievable mix of nations, races, languages and cultures that now share the same space on the banks of the Thames, and make it unique among world cities.  The result is surely the richest possible kind of creative ferment, and a constant source of hope for internationalists and believers in justice.

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Tate Britain did a controversial rehang of its permanent collection earlier this year, and this was our first taste of it.  The controversy arose from the (on the face of it) reactionary decision to group most of the works on display in strict chronological order, with minimal interpretive text.

The result, it seems to me, is superb.  Gone is the lumbering March through the Movements.  Instead your eye’s constantly caught by surprising juxtapositions and separations.  The surprises multiply as you move through time.  Like warring neighbours, artists from the academy share wall space with the whitest and wildest of avant-gardists.  A conventional early Gwen John is followed in the next room or the room after that – when you’d almost forgotten about her – by a later, greater painting in her chalky stripped-down style.  There are lots of absorbing works I’d never seen before, even in reproduction.

No Man's Land 1919-20 by Charles Sargeant Jagger 1885-1934

Again it wasn’t familiar works that made the biggest impression.  The object that kept me looking longest was not a painting but a large bronze relief sculpture: ‘No Man’s Land’ by Charles Sargeant Jagger, presented to the Tate in 1923.

Jagger is one of the artists whose name is not familiar to most people even though at least some of his works will be: anyone passing regularly through Paddington Station will certainly know one of his most striking sculptures.  I’ve a soft spot for him because he was brought up in Sheffield, where he began work as an apprentice metal engraver for Mappin and Webb before moving to London as a student in the Royal College of Art.

The event that dominated most of Jagger’s life and work was the First World War.  He interrupted his advanced art studies – he’d recently won the British Prix de Rome – to enlist in the army in 1914.  He survived service in Gallipoli and the Western Front, was gassed and wounded several times, and won the Military Cross.  After the War the demand for war memorials gave him a ready market for his sculptures, but memorialising the dead was far more than a commercial choice for him: deeply affected by his own experiences, he clearly wished, as far as he could, to tell the truth about the reality of the War.

DSC_0080Jagger was already sketching ‘No Man’s Land’ before the end of the War, as he was recuperating from his wounds in Sheffield in the early summer of 1918.  It’s a large and ambitious work: a long horizontal panel in low relief showing a single scene from the trenches.  There are several figures of soldiers.  Every one of them is dead, except one.  This is a ‘listening post’, and the only living soldier is straining to catch any movement or sound from the enemy, far out to our left.  In a letter of December 1918 Jagger wrote, ‘‘I am enclosing a photo of another sketch I have made which you have not yet seen. The subject is a listening post in No Man’s Land and shows the sentry on his post, which for obvious reasons is often chosen amongst a group of dead.’  The listener sits surrounded and protected by his comrades’ corpses.  They lie as they ‘fell’, in a variety of tortured poses, utterly without dignity: half-buried by mud, lunging forward, prone, draped over barbed wire.  The ground is littered with broken equipment as well as broken bodies.  The legs of a redundant stretcher rear into the sky like the legs of a dead man.  This is a scene of utter desolation, and near-total silence.

Jagger’s style in this work is uncompromising.   At first sight realism is taken here to extremes.  Details of human forms and their dress, equipment and wire are all microscopically transcribed, and Jagger leaves no room at all for heroic responses.  Yet on closer inspection you begin to realise that there’s more than realism in the sculptor’s treatment of the scene.  The flung out or hanging arms and legs of the frozen dead are gestural and full of expression.  If the prevailing sonic is silence, as Jagger in his letter implies it to be, in reality the air is full of the echoes of screaming agonies.

DSC_0082If the adjective ‘expressionist’ can be added to ‘realist’, we might add a further one: symbolist.  One of the dead figures, at the extreme right of the relief is particularly interesting: a soldier placed dead opposite us, his head bowed so that we see only the crown of his head, his arms outstretched and caught on skeins of barbed wire, a bag, strung round his neck, hanging still under his head.  The form echoes clearly that of the crucified Christ, and to reinforce the parallel we can see what appears to be the shape of a cross just to the soldier’s right.  Jagger leaves to the observer how to interpret the analogy – if what we see is in some sense a sacrifice, what is the sacrifice for, and could it ever be justified? – but he gives us no encouragement, in the way he plans and executes his terrible vision, to answer the second question positively.

Perhaps it’s no accident that I stopped in front of this sculpture (‘I consider it the best of my war sculptures’, Jagger said not long before his death in 1934).  After all, we’re just about to begin a long commemoration of the ‘war that will end war’.   If some of the exhortations made to us by those in power seem to suggest we should accentuate the heroism at the expense of the horror when we remember the slaughter, then Jagger’s great work is a good place to think again.

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