Home > Architecture & Urban Design, London, People, Things I Like... > The Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens: Entasis in Action…

The Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens: Entasis in Action…

November 15, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

With this years Remembrance Service at The Cenotaph in central London being somewhat hijacked by the shamefully childish and pathetic (but sadly typical of the right wing press here in the UK) “how respectful was the bow” debacle, I thought it might be worth thinking about the actual monument itself, highlighting an aspect of its design of which you may not be aware…

Orighinal wood and plaster versionOriginally commissioned by the then prime minister David Lloyd George just two weeks before the London Victory Parade (or Peace Day Parade) planned for 19 July 1919, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ design was necessarily simple and quick. Famously taking only six hours from that initial meeting to acceptance of sketch proposals, the appointment of a suitable contractor followed within days, and a full size temporary timber and plaster structure was constructed in time for the event (see photo to the left).

It was the simplicity of the design, a 35ft (11m) high, unadorned stepped block with an empty tomb at it’s summit and wreaths and flags around the perimeter, that visitors found so moving. Everyone who saw the monument (and by all accounts that was millions over the summer months) was able to project their own feelings of loss and grief onto the clean, unadorned planes, resulting exactly a year later and after huge public pressure, in the unveiling of an exact replica in portland limestone…

Very few people however knew that this permanent version, was not in fact an exact replica. Lutyens had used the intervening months to refine his original ideas, and although not immediately visible to visitors, the principles of entasis were in full effect…

Drawing by Andrew CromptonEntasis is the “application of a convex curve to a surface for aesthetic purposes” which at The Cenotaph, results in no parallel verticals and no flat horizontals. The base in fact forms a small segment of an imaginary 900ft (275m) diameter sphere buried below Whitehall, whilst the sides of the monument taper inwards and upwards meeting at a point 1000ft (300m) above the street.

So why would Lutyens go to so much trouble? Firstly he was supposedly something of a Theosophist, that is someone who seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe in terms of both the human and the divine. One key tenet of this belief is that everything is part of an eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration.

The curved bands of the Cenotaph’s base form part of such a circle, one that not only embraces us all, but whose center is rooted deep in the earth. At the same time the extended vertices of the upper block high in the air, create a direct connection between heaven and the grave.

Note also that the upper mass of the cenotaph could be seen to resemble the hilt of a sword. Andrew Crompton (whose article here fired my initial interest and from where the above drawing is borrowed) suggests that lines from Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 poem “The Kings Pilgrimage” (written two years after The Cenotaph was unveiled and after Kipling’s tour of the Cemeteries of Northern France) comes closest to capturing this aspect of the design…

And the last land he found, it was fair and level ground

About a carven stone

And a stark Sword brooding on the bosom of the Cross

Where high and low are one

This sentiment also links into the idea that Lutyens may have been influenced by that most English of heroic tales, King Arthur, with echoes of a hilt referencing Arthur’s legendary sword Excalibur, whose magical powers and ownership came to define the rightful sovereignty of Britain. Looking at the photo below, there could be something in the sword iconography…

Or maybe it was more mundane than either of these two concepts. When asked to explain his use of entasis, Lutyens replied that it was for aesthetic reasons, explaining that “The difference is almost imperceptible yet sufficient to give (The Cenotaph) a sculpturesque quality and a life that cannot pertain to a rectangular block of stone”

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind as to whether one of this countries foremost and gifted architects was playing clever games or had deeper, more secret intentions….

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