The Cenotaph

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, UKIn July 1919 a new and strange construction began to appear in Whitehall. Although meant to be a temporary structure built in lath and plaster it was designed by a leading architect. Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) had already begun work on the design of the new capital of imperial India, New Delhi, and was a member of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. What was needed, within two weeks, was a focal point at which the allied commanders could pay tribute to the dead during the parade commemorating the end of the Great War in the previous November and the Peace Treaty of June 1919. In spite of the extremely short notice Lutyens immediately and completely grasped the requirements of his task: ‘Not a catafalque, a cenotaph’, and made preliminary drawings that evening.

On completion Lutyens’ cenotaph fired the public imagination and provoked the insistence, almost a demand, that the temporary structure be rendered permanent. We can only guess at why the public appeal was so great, though a great deal must have depended on the genius of Lutyens’ design. It may have only taken him an evening but it embodied all his architectural experience and instinct.

He took his proportions from the Parthenon, creating a simple, strong, structure of vertical and horizontal planes supporting a stylised coffin. Like the Parthenon, the pleasing effect results from a piece of architectural slight of hand. The apparent vertical lines, appearing so clean to the eye, would in fact meet at a point about 1000 feet in the air; the horizontals are radii of a circle centred about 900 feet underground. The result is an appealing combination of solidity and lightness, so that the whole structure seems to float in its own space.

The flags, representing the armed services and the merchant navy, are now renewed every year. They were always part of Lutyens’ plan, though he had originally considered using coloured stone. As it is, their colour breaks up the brightness of the Portland stone, so that what might have been stark becomes genuine simplicity; their movement, however slight, turns the possibly clinical to a real stillness.

I tentatively suggest that within Lutyens’ conception is an area of spirituality, unnamed and unexpressed and so universal. It was always understood that the design itself would contain nothing of a religious nature. But look at Lutyens’ words on receiving his commission: ‘This is not a national memorial but The Cenotaph’. The definite article is important - the only focus of tribute and remembrance for the dead of war. Other places, groups and organisations may have memorials; this is unique and for all. Cenotaph (not Lutyens’ coinage) comes from two Greek words meaning ‘empty tomb’; the dead are not here. Here is where they are honoured, not mourned. What of Lutyens’ chosen inscription - “The Glorious Dead”? Not our glorious dead; rather we somehow belong to them. We can hold neither them nor their achievement which has taken them into an unstated beyond.

Clarence Rickards
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 17th June 2004