The Peasants’ Revolt – an interview with Matthew Bell

From time to time I’ve been interviewing people who have contributed to or commissioned public lettering.

I chatted to Matthew Bell, the driving force behind the recent Peasant’s Revolt Memorial in West Smithfield, London. The hand-carved slate memorial by Emily Hoffnung records the site of Wat Tyler’s momentous confrontation with Richard II. It was finally unveiled last year by director Ken Loach with Melvyn Bragg, Ken Livingstone and plenty more appreciative admirers.

Here, Matthew tells us about the history of the plaque, working with a lettering artist, and why the memorial’s installation is so timely.

What prompted you to start campaigning for a plaque commemorating the Peasant’s Revolt on the Smithfield site?

This area has had an enormous amount of things, mostly grizzly, happen here and for me, the most important was The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, something that could have changed – and was on the verge of changing – English history and society arguably for the better.  That there was no memorial to the final meeting here at Smithfield between the people and the crown, or the slaying of Wat Tyler and reneging on all that had been agreed upon by the king was, I thought, an important oversight.

Could you give some background about the plaque’s creation? How did you go about getting everything organised?

It started with my writing to The City of London, English Heritage and St Bart’s Hospital.  From first letters to the unveiling took about two years.  I wrote out the text and passed this on to Emily Hoffnung who designed and carved the piece.  I visited her two or three times to see how it was going but I knew that it was in safe hands.  The installation took a morning and involved drilling and cementing each stone into place, there were fixtures in the back of each to hold them in place…That was wonderful to see.

How important was it to get a piece of stone lettering by a professional artist, rather than some other form of memorial or medium?

Extremely important. I always had Emily Hoffnung in mind because I think (and I believe she has proved) she is one of the best.  It needed to fit in with the other memorials next to it (those of the Protestant Martyrs and William Wallace) and to that end, it needed to be stone and I felt that stone was very much in keeping with the subject matter.  It would have felt utterly wrong for it to be machine cut.

How did you go about choosing an artist, and can you describe the process of working with her?

I knew of Emily’s work and very much wanted her to make the piece.  Working with Emily was very easy. She came up with a couple of designs and then I passed on my choice to the various organisations who agreed with it without objection.  After this, I visited Emily at her studio a few times to see how it was going on.  The original design had a rounded top but this was too tombstone like. I thought that it would be better to retain the natural jagged stone at the top and this has worked very well.

How did you choose the content of the plaque? The text and images, for example.

I wrote the text, wanting to convey the most important points concisely.  John Ball’s quote running through the history is perfect. Emily came up with the weaponry and the idea of intermingling the texts, which does catch peoples’ attention.

How was the choice of material of importance?

Emily was able to suggest a few possibilities and then she went to the quarry in Caithness to choose the stone.  It was felt that this would be the right colouring for the wall and would age well in that location. It will also be durable for, I hope, many centuries to come.

How do you think the lettering contributes to the local architecture and people’s experience of the built environment?

I think it adds enormously.  The alcove in which the memorial is, had been empty for years and had almost been waiting for someone to do this.  The lettering is beautiful and is also affected by the changing light, the shadows can make it appear dark or also sharp white when the sun hits it from the side

What’s the best response to the plaque that you’ve received?

I don’t know what the overall response has been as nobody really knows that I had anything to do with it. It is now part of many historic walks, which pleases me no end. The nicest thing, I think, that happened was when I was in the local pub and someone had been speaking about the memorial to the barman, who pointed me out as the person who was behind it.  He came up, shook my hand and thanked me for it as he said it was a lovely gift to the people of England and to those who died.

Interview 19/12/2016