Clash over memorial to Britain's animal heroes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A celebrity-backed project to commemorate all creatures great and small who went to war for Britain in the 20th century is entrenched in artistic squabbles and red-tape.

A celebrity-backed project to commemorate all creatures great and small who went to war for Britain in the 20th century is entrenched in artistic squabbles and red-tape.

A ferocious storm is brewing between the Animals in War Memorial Trust and Westminster City council over the quality of the intended sculpture.

A site in London has been agreed, on the extensive island in Park Lane south of Marble Arch, but for months the council has been quibbling over the design. Colonel Ronnie McCrum, executive director of the trust, has demanded a meeting to resolve the differences.

The saga began nearly three years ago when the cook and newspaper writer Prue Leith asked readers what they would like to see on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Many letters suggested a monument to all the animals that suffered or died in war.

Ms Leith passed the postbag to Major-General Peter Davies, director general of the RSPCA. He contacted a friend, Andrew Parker Bowles, officer commanding in the Household Cavalry in 1982 when seven horses were killed by an IRA bomb. In turn, he spoke to the author, Jilly Cooper. They formed a committee, then a trust.

Several public figures became trustees. Field Marshal Lord Inge was appointed president, with Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Kate Adie, Joanna Lumley, Dame Vera Lynn and Nicholas Soames as vice-presidents. To get the project off the ground, the RSPCA, Blue Cross and Pet Plan Insurance made generous donations. The committee asked 40 leading sculptors for portfolios of their work. Twelve were shortlisted, and each submitted a drawing.

From the dozen sketches the committee chose four and commissioned the artists to make maquettes of their designs, which were shown to representatives of English Heritage and Westminster council, and well-known figures in the art world.

Guided by their advice, the committee chose the sculptor David Backhouse. His concept is striking. The southern side of it is like an amphitheatre, bounded at the back by a curved wall of Portland stone. The wall leans in at an angle of 10 degrees, and on it are carved images of all the animals and birds used by the British in war, including a life-sized Indian elephant and a glow-worm.

In the centre of the wall is a gap, with steps up through it. Two, three-dimensional bronze mules are labouring, heavily laden, to the opening. On the northern side, at a higher level, there is an Elysian grass field on which a horse and a dog are cavorting, and on the outer face of the wall are ghostly images of other animals. The finished memorial will be 60 feet wide and 40 feet from front to back.

Park Lane was the first site chosen, but Westminster City Council suggested the memorial might be better placed on the central island at Hyde Park Corner. The trust jumped at that idea and asked Backhouse to modify his design to suit its new surroundings. This he did. Then the scheme fell foul of yet another plan, a proposal to erect Commonwealth memorial gates across the top of Constitution Hill.

Faced with a delay of at least six months, the trust reverted to the Park Lane island. The move meant further expensive revisions to the design, and now, though these have been made, the council is still objecting to it. The whole thing was too bulky, the planning committee said. The wall was too high. And what did the trust propose to do about graffiti? What has incensed the trust is that the council appears to be speaking with two voices.

On one hand, it is making practical objections and demanding further alterations. On the other, it is saying the design is not good enough, and should be thrown out.

That enraged Col McCrum. "To make this sort of comment, at this late stage, is unacceptable," he says. "They know perfectly well we went to enormous trouble to select our artist. They also know his design has been enthusiastically endorsed by many leading figures."

The council has been sent letters supporting the trust from more than 60 prominent people, including the Gulf War commander General Sir Peter de la Billiÿre, the art historian John Julius Norwich and the author and barrister Sir John Mortimer.

Col McCrum says he suspects that someone on the public arts panel in Westminster is "infecting the planning committee and demanding something more abstract". When all the details are settled, the trust will launch a public appeal.

Two years ago David Backhouse costed the entire project at £600,000. But, with inflation and all the alterations demanded, he estimates the total needed will probably be nearer £1m.