The Twentieth Century Society

War Memorials

London: Fleet Air Memorial

Architect: James Butler, 2000
Location: Embankment Gardens, London

The Fleet Air Arm is the operational group of the Royal Navy, responsible for the operation of the aircraft on board their ships, as well as search and rescue. It was first established as the RNAS in 1914 for reconnaissance missions. At the onset of World War II the Fleet had only 20 squadrons comprising 232 aircraft, by VJ Day the total was 3,700 with almost 60 aircraft carriers, strike weapons in their own right. The ‘Sea Vampire’ was the first jet to land on a carrier in 1940. Today the Fleet comprises 15% of the Royal Navy with 200 aircrafts. The memorial is the result of fundraising by the Fleet Air Arm Association and other bodies; it was unveiled by Prince Charles in the summer of 2000.

The winged figure appears as an angel from a distance, perhaps a guardian of the skies. Closer, his bare arms and strapped wings instantly draw a comparison with Daedalus, the legendary Greek inventor, designer of the Labyrinth and father to Icarus, the boy who tragically flew too close to the sun. Like Daedalus, the winged character appears not mid-flight, but to stand nobly as if over a cliff drop, as if carrying the weight of his responsibilities or suffering for those that have taken to the skies. The pilot’s face is raised and turned, his oxygen mask hanging low as his mouth gapes silently, almost in horror. Although in flight kit, the pilot’s arms are bare. The exposed limbs, and curling biceps signal the human fragility of the subject and the physical energy required in take-off.

James Butler RA (St Martins and RCA) trained as a stone carver before exploring cast metals, specialising in portraits and female nudes. His works include re-carving the Queen’s beasts in Kew Gardens and the figure of John Wilkes in the City of London. Other recent war memorials including Green Howards D-Day memorial (Crepon, Normandy) and Field Marshall Earl Alexander in Wellington Barracks. He has also worked for the Royal Mint.

Jon Wright