Earlier this month I was lucky enough to contribute an article towards the exhibition at the Lettering Arts Trust, Snape Maltings: “How do you want to be remembered?” The exhibition celebrates 30 years of the organisation Memorials by Artists which has evolved into the Lettering Arts Trust today.
The Lettering Arts Trust describe the exhibition as follows:
“We are drawn to capture a memory. For centuries, we have commemorated and mourned the passing of lives through memorials. Presenting a time capsule of beautiful memorials drawn and carved by hand by leading letter carvers, this exhibition will show how individual lives can be celebrated with sensitive design and beautiful lettering. The exhibition is designed to uplift and to prompt us to consider how we would like to be remembered.
We will present the working drawings and designs of lettering artists, as well as original works from our Art & Memory collection. Among the exhibits on display will be the memorial artwork created with the running vest of Stephen Lawrence, kindly loaned by the Lawrence family.”
The exhibition is well worth visiting: there are a great range of artworks from the 30 year period and each one is as unique as the person or people they commemorate.
How do you want to be remembered?
In Classical Greek mythology, the warp and weft of life’s rich tapestry was controlled by the Fates.
These three goddesses spun a thread for each human life, and then, at the allotted time, they
irrevocably severed that thread.
In this exhibition, curators Annet Stirling and Harriet Frazer have tied together countless such
threads. We learn about the 30 year history of Memorials by Artists, with key moments in its history
seen alongside carefully chosen examples of memorial art. As we weave between the banners we
are also, in a small way, working ourselves into the intricate network of relationships, memories and
stories which relate to each memorial.
Stitching stories together
These stories, which breathe life into stone, are not only those of the deceased – their
achievements, passions and foibles – but also of their families, friends and communities. Stories of
how the memorials came into being, of the relationship between artist and client, of grief and
healing. And there is also the story of the viewer: did they stumble across the sculpture one
September morning? Did it alter the course of their next conversation, or their day?
The stories of our relationships with our loved ones do not end with death. Private symbols or
messages on headstones, understood only between intimate friends, allow us to continue the
exclusivity of a relationship even under the gaze of strangers. A star and a winter tree, for instance,
feature on Stella Norman’s headstone designed by Bettina Furnée, while musical notation and lyrics
from The Who feature on Marc McRiner’s headstone by Robbie Schneider. Charlotte Howarth’s
design for Nic Drake features a relief carving of a sleeping couple, a detail his wife Lucy had initially
overlooked but which became increasingly meaningful in the ongoing story of their marriage. She
observes: “I suppose that is the crux of what the stone is about: a goodbye gift from the living to the
dead that is both personal and shared with anyone who sees it. If it wasn’t such a personal
statement, and given and made with love, it wouldn’t mean so much.”
This personal connection also extends to choice of materials. Artist Sarah More says of her private
marker for her father, Cornishman Roderick McLeod More: “English oak seemed the right material
for this memorial. It is tough and uncompromising, and rooted in the symbolic landscape of this
country.” A tactile Porphyry river boulder matches perfectly the undulating poetry on Nicholas
Heiney’s memorial by John Das Gupta. In the case of journalist Paul Jenks, Portland stone was
chosen as he was “a Dorset lad”. The receptiveness of the stone, and the elegant simplicity of the
lettering, cushion a stark message: “Remember Paul Jenks, who died for the truth”. (He had been
murdered by a sniper in Croatia at the age of 29). Paul’s mother wrote earlier this summer: “John did
a marvellous job making the lettering so like Paul’s personality – no flummery”.
One unusual and moving piece is Rosalind Wyatt’s artwork “A Boy Who Loved to Run”. Stephen
Lawrence is a name forever associated with racial injustice, politics and institutional failings.
However in this piece the artist brings us intimately close to the human being, the teenager who
loved his life. The artwork, appropriately, is Stephen’s running shirt, hand-stitched with the words of
his unfinished A-Level essay.
Private memories in public
Not all the memorials in the exhibition are of an individual nature. Public memorials are at the heart
of a far-reaching network of relationships, and must assuage both public and private grief. The
monument to the 2002 Bali Bombings by Gary Breeze and Martin Cook is a beautiful example of how
personal identities can be retained amidst the collective. This London-based memorial lists the
names of victims of all nationalities on a Portland stone wall. In front of this is a globe carved with
202 doves. While the dove is a universally understood symbol for peace, each one has been carved
uniquely, recognising the victims’ individuality. Although the monument itself is the result of an
indiscriminate event, the thoughtful design aspires beyond that tragedy, offering hope and
Sue Hufton and Hazel Dolby’s piece “Remembrance of People Past” commemorates the people of
ancient Rome, people who we cannot know but with whom we can connect emotionally. Their
contemporary artwork derives inspiration from memories long since forgotten: from slivers of
ancient lettering the artists have painted, embroidered and woven into fabric myriad names,
“exploring their part in the story-telling”. Felix, Hilara, Castor and Flavia are no longer archaeological
fragments – they are people whose names live on. The title of the piece is adapted from Proust:
“Remembrance of people past is not necessarily the remembrance of people as they were.”
Of course this prompts the question: what if a person wants to be remembered as an augmented
version of their former self – do we generously allow them to embellish the truth? I am reminded of
Charlotte Howarth’s poignantly humorous piece for the 2009 Art and Memory exhibition:
“Remember me – 36 26 34 – with fuller lips, and smaller hips, a flatter tum, a perter bum, with a
brighter more attractive smile”. At the time the artist said: “How do I want to be remembered? Do I
want people to…forget my worst traits and remember my best? Yes, this is definitely how I would
like to be remembered.”
So thinking about one’s own headstone need not be a moribund business, as Spike Milligan (“I told
you I was ill”) and Patrick Cauldfield (“DEAD!”) can testify. Writer Geoffrey Moorhouse seems to
have enjoyed himself too, not least because he cheated death for 17 years. He sceptically agreed not
to include an unfinished 1900s end-date on his headstone…which in the event saved his letter-cutter
considerable bother, since the Fates only caught up with him in 2009. Back in 1992 he wrote to
Harriet: “I think the design is smashing, and I’m so glad Charles [Smith] is going to be My Memorial
Artist (one refers to My Surgeon and My Cardiologist in the same way!)…I’m only sorry I’m not going
to see it in situ”.
Memorials by Artists
When we talk of stories, we cannot help but remember that Memorials by Artists also has its own
deeply personal one. Harriet Frazer founded the organisation in 1988 after the death of her step-
daughter, writer Sophie Behrens. The difficulties she faced in finding an understanding letter-cutter,
then navigating the bureaucracies of churchyard rules and regulations, prompted her to help others
in the future. (She eventually found artist Simon Verity who delivered exactly what was needed). The
organisation Harriet founded continues to match suitable artists to bereaved relatives, helping them
commission sensitive, well designed memorials. Working alongside a memorial artist to realise,
tangibly, how a loved one wants to be remembered brings comfort in achievement.
In 2009, Charles Gurrey contributed a piece called “Stone Memory” to the Art and Memory
Exhibition. Carved into Lincoln silverbed limestone, with its fossil traces, were lines from poet Pablo
Neruda: “But Stone Preserved the Memory”. Life, like thread, is delicate and impermanent. But
stone can be relied upon to endure. With a common understanding of love and loss, future visitors
to the churchyard will trace our stories, long after our ties with the living have unravelled with time.
(c) Michele Woodger and the Lettering Arts Trust