The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Click to see full size Photo © Gavin Stamp
First design perspective 1925
Photo © Gavin Stamp

War memorials

London: Merchant Navy Memorial – Great War

Status: Listed Grade II
Architect: Sir Edwin Lutyens, 1928
Location: Tower Hill Gardens, London

The Merchant Navy Memorial on
Tower Hill was designed by Sir
 Edwin Lutyens and unveiled in 1928. 
It was not, however, the design he
 had wanted to build, nor is it on the 
site he preferred. Lutyens had been 
appointed in 1925 by the Imperial
 War Graves Commission to design a
 memorial to 12,674 members of the
 Merchant Navy and fishing fleets 
who had been lost at sea. The site 
chosen was at Temple Steps on the
 Victoria Embankment overlooking
 the Thames. Lutyens proposed a
 massive beam supported on Roman Doric columns straddling two arched pylons. The design received assent from the London County Council but was rejected by the recently founded Royal Fine Arts Commission (of which Lutyens was a member) in 1926. The Commission felt the location was wrong and objected to the demolition of the grand arch on the Embankment designed by its creator, Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Lutyens blamed Sir Reginald Blomfield for this opposition and wanted to fight it, but Fabian Ware, director of the IWGC, wished to be conciliatory. Eventually a new site was chosen on Tower Hill, rather further from the Thames. Lutyens’ new design was for a sort of open Doric temple with a central monumental attic, traversed by a longitudinal tunnel, with the names of the missing sailors cast on bronze panels which were treated like rusticated stonework. It may well seem one of Lutyens’ less inspired war memorial designs.

Gavin Stamp

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