On October 14th 1918, Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer wrote to his close friend and fellow architect Robin Dods “I was asked rather suddenly to take up the job of Principal architect to the Imperial war graves commission for Italy + Egypt.” Likely to have been recommended by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, Lorimer was appointed Principal Architect to the Imperial War Graves Commission.
Between 1919 and 1927, he designed over three hundred war memorials in Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, Palastine and one in Queenstown in South Africa. He made eleven tours of duty in Europe and the middle east, first leaving for Italy a week after being appointed, writing to Dods “I don’t believe anyone has seen so much of Italy in fourteen days as I have.”
Travelling through Europe before the war had ended, the shell fire was so close at one site in Italy that he was made to wear a heavy tin hat. He later wrote to Sir William Burrell, friend and fellow antiques collector, “I have witnessed the agony, the desolation, the ruin caused by the war, how half of Europe is one vast graveyard.”
“No tongue can tell, no pen describe, no picture convey any - not the remotest idea of the appalling scene of desolation that extended mile after mile after mile, every yard current up by shell fire, any remnants of trees, mere tortured stumps… To think that this country has been fought over again and again - how human beings, how either side could ever stick it will remain a mystery.”
- Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer to Robin Dods, 14th October 1918
Letter from Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer to Robin Dods (14th October 1918) , Photo: © University of Edinburgh
“All really great works of art are public works - monumental, collective, generic - expressing the ideas of a race, a community, a united people”
- Walter Crane
Over a quarter of Scotland’s soldiers did not return home after The Great War. Proportionally, Scotland lost more of its people than any other country in the British Empire: almost 150,000 people of a population of under 5 million. The Scottish National War Memorial, designed, built and funded by Scots, is the lament of a nation, not only for the tragedies of WWI but for all Scotland’s wars.
The ambition, leadership and respect for tradition, craftsmanship and proportion of Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer raised the Scottish National War Memorial, the culmination of his career. Robert chose and directed a team of over two hundred people to build the memorial which holds over sixty separate works of art. Thomas Beattie carved several inscriptions, while the brothers William and Alexander Clow carved St Michael who stands triumphant above the wrought iron gate made by Thomas Hadden; the craftsmanship of over thirty years of experience and friendship with Robert. Robert continued to work with the sculptors Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson, Alice Meredith Williams and Phyllis Bone after the memorial was completed. Jackson modestly said “I may not have been the best sculptor on the Scottish National War Memorial but I was certainly the busiest,” called “captain of the band of carvers” by Sir Lawrence Weaver. Meredith Williams modelled St Michael and the great frieze, working from sketches done by her husband Morris, many made during the war. Bone remembered the animals who “served and died” and made the handles of the Scottish oak door.
The crowds when the memorial was opened on 14th July 1927 by Prince Edward stretched all the way down the royal mile from St Giles Cathedral, where Robert had first worked with Douglas Strachan. Strachan designed fourteen magnificent stained glass windows for the memorial, his summer window woven with honeysuckle and thistles, the autumn window depicting the farewells of family’s to the soldiers at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. Together, the two Scots endlessly discussed the details of the memorial.
The memorial actively engages the people, “lest we forget.” The secular iconography is understood universally. The ancient pelican who sacrifices her own blood to feed her children was considered the emblem of the whole memorial by Robert. It is not a memorial which you can walk past, it is a building which you choose to enter; the names of the dead are not recorded on walls which can be glanced over, but recorded in leather books which you choose to open and read.
Robert recommended to the Duke of Atholl, key in the memorial’s organisation, that Douglas Strachan, Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson and Alice Meredith Williams be put forward for knighthoods, proposals which were denied. However, Robert’s own knighthood for the Thistle Chapel and KBE for the Memorial recognise not only his achievement as a leader, but the achievements of the people he led.
Listen to the account of the Scottish National War Memorial by Charles
d'Orville Pilkington Jackson, read by his granddaughter Kirsty Jackson.
Watch the opening ceremony of the Scottish National War Memorial
Scottish National War Memorial (1927), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Edinburgh Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The Pelican in her Piety (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams, gilded by Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Sketch of interior, gates leading to the Shrine (c.1927), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, gates by Thomas Hadden, Photo: Scottish National War Memorial
St Michael (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams, carved by William and Alexander Clow, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Panel from the Shrine (1927), modelled by Alice Meredith Williams from sketches by Morris Meredith Williams, Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Hall of Honour (1927), Scottish National War Memorial, Photo: © Antonia Reeve
Robert designed over thirty-three war memorials in Britain. Many incorporated wrought-iron gates from Thomas Hadden and sculptures from Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson and Alice Meredith Williams, while the Westminster School memorial screen was carved by the Clow Brothers: the family of craftsmen travelling the country together to remember their countrymen.
History repeated itself when his son Hew was commissioned to do a WWII memorial. The importance of lettering, first impressed on Hew by his father, was reinforced during his apprenticeship with Eric Gill. Hew’s teacher Alexander Carrick replied to a letter writing “I am glad to see that you are taking advantage of lettering under Mr Gill. It must be fine to get his knowledge direct instead of from books and plaster casts such as I got it. […] It is one thing admiring a good piece of mason work and another thing understanding from the point of view of the craftsman.” Lettering for plaques and headstones was Hew’s main source of income. The sailors, soldiers and airmen are remembered with gentle words, elegantly carved into the stone.
Plaistow War Memorial, Hew Lorimer, Photo: © The National Trust for Scotland