At Hyde Park Corner
This is the view of a statue in London that, before lockdown, I used to drive past on my coach tours. There is so much else to talk about where this memorial stands that he rarely gets a mention on the tours. His beautiful bottom peeps out above the stone wall as we drive by. What’s his story?
At the beginning of WWI military leaders thought that the machine gun would be useful as a marginal weapon. They soon realised that the weapon was not of marginal use and in 1915 the Machine Gun Corps was established to train men to use these relatively long-distance weapons. The Corps were often based in forward, exposed areas and were nicknamed the Suicide Club.
It was sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood (1871-1926) and was unveiled in 1925. The 2.7m (9ft) high bronze figure stands with his hand on his hip and holds a huge sword. Why a naked man with a sword to represent machine gunners?
Well, he’s not the first warrior to be represented like this. The first sculptor to do this was Donatello. He made a bronze figure of David to stand in the courtyard of the new house Cosimo di Medici was building in Florence. It was one of the first bronze statues to be made since Roman times. We don’t know the exact date but it would have been around 1440. David wears a laurel wreath in his hat and stands on the head of Goliath which has a laurel wreath underneath it.
Our statue is flanked by laurel wreaths inside which are Vickers machine guns. The warrior’s stance, with his weight on one leg giving a sway to his body was first used in the west by the Greeks in C5th BC. It makes sculptures look more life-like, if they can rest on one leg, they could perhaps turn and move away. They are not standing stiff and upright. It’s called contrapposto and it wasn’t used in western art for many centuries after Roman times until it was rediscovered during the Renaissance when artists like Donatello were working.
Back to the Machine Gun Corps memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Its sculptor, Francis Derwent Wood was 41 at the outbreak of WWI. Considered too old to fight, he volunteered to help in hospitals. He was based in the Third London General in Wandsworth which had been built mid 1800’s as a school for the orphaned daughters of servicemen but was turned into a hospital at the outbreak of WWI. It is now apartments, a drama school and exhibition space.
Derwent Wood worked with men who had suffered facial disfigurement. He sculpted metal facemasks for the men to wear based on photographs taken of them before they were injured. The masks were painted to match the colouring of the serviceman and were held in place with spectacles. The masks gave the men more self-confidence although, as one can imagine, they were not comfortable to wear.
Here are more sculpture in London by Francis Derwent Wood. Maybe you know where they are? Answer at the bottom of the page