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The Road from Arras to Bapaume

The Road from Arras to Bapaume

The Road from Arras to Bapaume

Fiona MacCarthy in William Morris: A Life for Our Time, describes Morris recalling nostalgically the poplar meadows and little villages of the Somme as well as the long straight roads of Picardy seemingly stretching into eternity: “Those long straight roads of Northern France”, she wrote, “remained in Morris’s mind as they would remain in the memories of the English veterans of the First World War.”

The Road from Arras to Bapaume

Elaine and I recently traveled many of these same roads, which neither Morris nor the British troops would have difficulty in recognizing today, as the landscape is little changed, apart from the implantation of the now ubiquitous wind farms, and the chilling number of cemeteries and memorials to the British and Commonwealth war dead. As we drove through this wide open flat landscape two images kept coming into my mind; Harry Lauder’s poignant ‘Keep right on to the end of the road‘, adopted by the British troops as one of their popular marching songs, and C.R.W. Nevinson’s haunting (and daunting) 1918 lithograph The Road from Arras to Bapaume. It was, of course, the memorials that drew us to Picardy and Flanders, but given the pounding this area of Northern France suffered during two World Wars it was surprising to find that anything of antiquity still endures.

Following our stay in the lush Norman countryside our base for the last two days will be Arras, a remarkable city with two great cobbled squares – the Grand Place and the Place des Heros. The architecture of which – as indeed the cuisine – reminds us that we are now unmistakably in old Flanders, its towns and cities only ceded to France in the early eighteenth century. In June we will have unrestricted access to these squares and will be able to walk freely around, a pleasure denied to us because, true to their roots, the locals were busy setting up the round-a-bouts, hurdey-gurdies, and other trappings of a typical Flemish Christmas Fair.

In 1917, well before the end of the war, the British Government had the foresight to set up the Imperial War Graves Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Frederick Kenyon, paleontologist, biblical scholar and Director of the British Museum. In January 1918, Kenyon published his prescient and authoritative report: ‘War Graves: How the Cemeteries Abroad Will be Designed’, which established the architectural and administrative framework for the design of all the British and Commonwealth cemeteries.

Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Reginald Blomfield were appointed by the Commission as the Principal Architects, and Arthur Hill, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was appointed to devise the simple, sustainable and dignified planting of trees and shrubs. Despite these guidelines the architects’ job was no easy one as the combatants, to be memorialized side by side, were of all religions and none; their gravestones simply carved with their names in the Roman typeface specially designed by Macdonald Gill, brother of the better known Eric Gill, and along with their regimental badges. Lutyens designed the altar-like, but non-denominational, War Stone inscribed simply ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, which was placed at the heart of all the cemeteries, often in conjunction with Blomfield’s equally dignified non-denominational cross. Between them they give an overall unity to otherwise diverse designs.

le Maison des Communes.

In my last blog I described Lutyens’s late nineteenth-century domestic architecture at Varengeville-sur-Mer, and his inventiveness and playfulness with architectural forms, especially the triple-butterfly plan for le Maison des Communes. Here on the battle fields of the Somme, faced with the realities of mass slaughter, a hardness entered into his architectural vocabulary. His delight in the effect of contrasting architectural forms is still evident, but coupled now with a sense of grimness: his playfulness overlayed by a rigid austerity, emphasized further, in a number of instances, by the close proximity of serried ranks of identical gravestones.

Our June tour is devised primarily as an Arts and Crafts tour in the footsteps of William Morris and Lutyens, rather than a tour of the many cemeteries and memorials on the Western Front, so for these two days we have been ruthless in selecting those we will visit. These will include the four grandest – Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval and his Australian Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, Herbert Baker’s Delville Wood (also Australian) and Walter Allward’s Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

We will also visit Lutyens’s Daours Communal Cemetery Extension, which, in its modesty and human scale, reflects more closely his earlier Arts and Crafts ideals, which are also evident in Charles Holden’s nearby Corbie Military Cemetery. Herbert Baker, architect of imperial buildings in South Africa and Lutyens’s nemesis at New Delhi, exemplifies in his work that period progression from Arts and Crafts to stripped-down classicism and in addition to Delville Wood, we will visit his Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle which, in the diversity of its decoration, shows the eclecticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Walter Allward’s dramatic Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge is all together more starkly modernist, rising out of, and dominating, the landscape like some great pharaohnic obelisk. We were lucky enough to see it in the cold clear light of a setting November sun and, although the June days will be long, we will save this for the final experience on our last evening.

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Following in William Morris’ Footsteps in Normandy

Following in William Morris’ Footsteps in Normandy

Following in William Morris’ Footsteps in Normandy

Early last month Elaine and I did a preliminary reconnaissance for next June’s Normandy and Picardy tour. Starting in Chartres we followed William Morris’s route through Dreux, Evreux and Louviers to Rouen, revelling in those great gothic cathedrals which inspired not only Morris, but also Pugin, William Burges and others. Morris described the journey that he and Burne Jones made in a long letter to Cormell Price date August 10th, 1855, a severely truncated version of which I quote below:

Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres

Behold our itinerary. We started from Chartres quite early (six o’clock) with drizzling rain that almost hid the spires of the Cathedral, how splendid they looked in the midst of it! but we were obliged to leave them, and the beautiful statues and stained glass, and the great, cliff-like buttresses […] and went off, with the rain still falling a little, through the beautiful country to Dreux, for a distance of about 17 miles; there was plenty to look at by the road, I almost think I like that part of the country better than any other part of the lovely country we have seen in France; so gloriously the trees are grouped, all manner of trees, but more especially the gracious poplars and aspens, of all kinds; and the hedgeless fields of grain, and beautiful herbs […] looking as if they belonged to no man, as if they were planted not to be cut down in the end, and to be stored in barns and eaten by the cattle, but that rather they were planted for their beauty only.

Amiens Cathedral

So we went on through this kind of country till we came to Dreux, and the rain had cleared up long before we reached it, and it was a bright sunny day. […] Well, we had to stop at Dreux about an hour and we saw the church there, a very good one, flamboyant mostly, but with an earlier apse very evilly used, and with a transept front very elaborately carved once, now very forlorn and battered, but (Deo gratias) not yet restored: there is a delightful old secular tower at Dreux too, and that is flamboyant also, with a roof like the side of a cliff, it is so steep. So we left Dreux and set our faces as though we would go to Evreux; […] We had only a very short time to stay at Evreux, and even that short time we had to divide (alas ! for our Lower nature) between eating our dinner and gazing on the gorgeous Cathedral: it is an exceedingly lovely one, though not nearly so large as most of the Cathedrals we saw, the aisles are very rich flamboyant, with a great deal of light canopy work about them; the rest of the Church is earlier, the nave being Norman, and the choir fully developed early Gothic; though the transepts and lantern are flamboyant also by the way: […]

Church of Notre-Dame de Louviers

When we left Evreux we found that the country had changed altogether, getting much more hilly, almost as glorious in its way as the other land perhaps, but very different; […] so we kept on going, first winding up a long hill, then on a table land for a greater or lesser time, then down into the glorious lake-like valley, till at last we got to Louviers; there is a splendid church there, though it is not a large one; the outside has a kind of mask of the most gorgeous flamboyant (though late) thrown all over it, with such parapets and windows, it is so gorgeous and light, that I was utterly unprepared for the inside, and almost startled by it; so solemn it looked and calm after the fierce flamboyant of the outside; for all the interior, except the Chapels, is quite early Gothic and very beautiful; I have never, either before or since, been so much struck with the difference between early and late Gothic, and by the greater nobleness of the former.

So after we had looked at the Church for a little time we mounted the omnibus to go to the railway station where we were to take the train to Rouen – it was about 5 miles I should think from Louviers to the station. What a glorious ride that was, with the sun, which was getting low by that time, striking all across the valley that Louviers lies in; I think that valley was the most glorious of all we saw that day, […] it was all like the country in a beautiful poem, in a beautiful Romance such as might make a background to Chaucer’s Palamon and Arcite; how we could see the valley winding away along the side of the Eure a long way, under the hills: […] fancy, Crom, all the roads (or nearly all) that come into Rouen dip down into the valley where it lies, from gorgeous hills which command the most splendid views of Rouen. […] I had some kind of misgivings that I might be disappointed with Rouen, after my remembrances of it from last year; but I wasn’t a bit. O! What a place it is. I think Ted [Burne Jones] liked the Cathedral, on the whole, better than any other church we saw.”

Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais

Morris was, not surprisingly, right in his description of the church at Louviers: the West end is covered in a vast spider web of tracery, a masterpiece of the stonemason’s craft, while the interior retains the starkness and simplicity of early gothic. He was equally enthusiastic about Beauvais and Amiens, which we also visited and, despite the fact that the two World Wars ravaged much of this country, it is staggering what survives not just in terms of major cathedral architecture, but also in the half-timbered domestic streetscapes that surround them. Beauvais Cathedral Morris described as ‘one of the wonders of the world; seen at twilight its size gives one an impression almost of terror: one can scarcely believe in it.’ But it was the sight of Amiens Cathedral that decided him to abandon the study of theology in favour of architecture. It was also the great west porch of Amiens, adorned with a multiplicity of carvings of saints and other figures that inspired Ruskin to write his Bible of Amiens, which Proust later translated into French. Great as the west porch is, the sixteenth-century choir is almost more breath-taking, the stalls embellished with three-and-a-half thousand carved figures in oak. This is not generally accessible to the public, but the archivist has offered us a specially conducted visit. Just one of the personal touches that promise to make next June’s tour especially memorable.

Le Bois des Moutiers

I have concentrated here on the great Gothic Cathedrals, but as a stark contrast to the flamboyance, especially of Louviers, is the proto-modernism of Lutyen’s Le Bois des Moutiers and Maison des Communes at Varangeville-sur-Mer outside Dieppe, were we will be welcomed by the owners, but I will revert to them in detail in my next blog. The contrast between early, domestic, Lutyens – he was only twenty-eight when he designed Le Bois des Moutiers – and his War Memorials, especially the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval is equally dramatic. Elaine and I are going to Arras – Cathedral eighteenth century – in a couple of weeks time to visit several of the major memorials, including Thiepval and Villers-Bretonneux, both by Lutyens; Herbert Baker’s Australian Memorial at Delville Wood and Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapel as well as Walter Seymour Allward’s Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.


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