Saturday saw the unveiling of a new piece of public art, set up to commemorate the story of the Belgian refugees who arrived in my local area in 1915. I was one of the founding members of a group set up to research the history of the refugees and devise a way of reviving and celebrating it as part of the national commemoration of World War 1. Since I started the MA, I have been less involved but I can claim credit for proposing the overall idea of the piece, putting together a design brief and identifying and commissioning the artist.
At least 250,000 Belgians fled to the UK ahead of the advancing German army in 1914. Around 6,000 of them settled where I now live, in East Twickenham, where they formed such a significant enclave that it was known as la village Belge sur la Tamise. The community grew up around a munitions factory, set up by a Frenchman, Charles Pelabon, who had had such a factory in Antwerp and had fled with most of his workers and a fair bit of machinery. They had Belgian shops, a Belgian department in the local school and even a newspaper. At the end of the war, almost all returned to Belgium and the whole episode had been more or less forgotten by the early years of this century.
My idea was that rather than have a typical municipal memorial – a plaque or an information board, or a ‘war memorial’ sculpture – we should aim for a piece of public sculpture which would act as a permanent celebration of the lives of the refugees. I was aware of the strong history of letter-cutting in Belgium and thought it would be appropriate to look for a Belgian artist to make it.
The essentials of the design brief were that the work should:
- be roughly ‘human-size’ like a small standing stone – a permanent marker in the landscape
- contain an inscription in English, Dutch and French – the languages of the refugees and the local community
- demonstrate through the layout of the words the intertwining of the communities; and
- be easy to maintain – so that it will remain an enhancement to the area and not become the thing everyone wishes had never been put up. This ruled out, for instance, any painted element in the decoration.
In the event, we have a rough hewn, faceted column of Belgian Bluestone, a dark grey limestone, about 1.5m high made by Kristoffel Boudens, who is from a well-known family of letter-carvers. The words carved into it were taken from a poem by a local schoolgirl, generated in a workshop about the refugees: Memories flow through me like boats on a river. This was then translated poetically, rather than literally, into Dutch and French. The three versions start at the top of the work and flow round it meeting each other.
The stone is very hard with low porosity so needs very little maintenance and our local authority not only gave planning permission for the work but have also ‘adopted’ it so they are responsible for any maintenance that is needed.