The sculptor’s vision
From the outset the form of the Monument was dictated by the nature of the available space and by planning constraints along the Embankment. When I first walked along the river between Westminster and Hungerford bridges, my ideas about the future Monument were, unbeknown to me, in harmony with these practical restrictions. I observed a panorama of major architectural landmarks on a grand scale: the Palace of Westminster, the old GLC building, the Ministry of Defence building, the London Eye, etc. The river walk is also awash with various sculpted monuments that look great from a distance but that do not really bear close inspection. What was needed here, thought I, was something on a human scale that would offer the passer-by something rich in detail when seen up close and not just another monolith to be admired from afar, of which there are plenty already. The existing plinth, being low and long, would serve my purposes precisely. It could be used as a wall on which to tell the tale of the Battle of Britain with a sculpted storyboard in high relief and which would present itself to the viewer at eye-level, thus being accessible to all ages and intimate rather than grand and distant. Having been selected to produce the Monument, much to my delight, I encountered Tony Dyson, the architect, who shared my interpretation of the site, and who would enrich my original thoughts with his own clear-sightedness.
I proceeded to research the subject as thoroughly as possible and during a three month period did nothing but read books, watch films and interview veterans, with a view to being totally immersed in the Battle. Of course, encountering the veterans meant not only hearing of the extraordinary feats of courage from the lips of pilots and gunners, but those other veterans, the aircraft themselves, spoke volumes about the exhilaration and physical challenge of 1940’s air combat. The chance to fly with my RAF namesake and Squadron Leader of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was too good an opportunity to miss. An hour in the air with S/Ldr Paul Day brought home to me with force just how physically trying it was to sustain hard manoeuvring in the air, albeit without the cannon shells flying around my ears.
The Monument is made up of two relief panels facing in opposite directions. On the one I wished to commemorate the unique achievement of Fighter Command and give the entire space over to telling their story. On the other I wished to portray something of the wider experience, of the Nation as a whole at war. The few thousand pilots, gunners, ground crews and WAAF’s are undoubtedly the heroes of the hour, but I felt it important for future generations to remember the other countless acts of self sacrifice and heroism among the British people without which the RAF could not have so well defended the Nation.
I feel it important to add that my desire has been to create a work of contemporary art and not to adopt the manners of a previous period or style which has so often been the case with public monuments in the past. Conservativism is not the best way to give life to an historic subject in art. The thing has to take on a life of its own if it is to speak now and to future generations and not to look “past it” from the beginning. The Battle of Britain is an epic moment in History, but one of modernity where new technology was vital. The Monument is not the representation of a tomb where hundreds of thousands lie dead. It is the celebration of excellent organisation, youthful enthusiasm, devotion to duty, and National unity. I hope it will remind my generation of the hardship that was endured by our grandparents to preserve the British people and their traditions which could so nearly have been irrecoverably lost to fascism