Last year I visited an extraordinary artist's installation on HMS Belfast,h1 moored on the Thames by City Hall: Hew Locke's The Tourists. Anticipating a visit of no more than two hours, we ended up staying on board for over three; it was an inspirational visit, and has stayed in my memory ever since. So on hearing about Hew's public art commission to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, I was determined to go, although it wasn't until 2016 that I achieved this. As Runnymede is only just beyond the M25, it felt like a legitimate choice for this issue's 'Looking out for Art'. Near Egham, it is only 40 minutes from Waterloo after all!
Hew Locke, whose work explores symbols of power, colonialism and culture, was commissioned by Surrey County Council and the National Trust to create this significant work of art, which was produced in association with arts organisation Situations, and cast at Meltdowns foundry in Ramsgate. Set in the historic meadows where Magna Carta was sealed by King John and the Barons, The Jurors was unveiled on 15 June 2015 at what was described as 'an international state occasion', part of The Foundation of Liberty through Magna Carta celebrations.
Looking across the field from the Magna Carta tea room, a formal arrangement of upright seats appears somewhat incongruously in the middle distance. On closer inspection, the twelve chairs are made of bronze, their surfaces — back, front, legs — adorned in a wealth of detail, symbolic and decorative, all relating to issues concerned with the rule of law, human rights and the fight for justice, freedom and imprisonment, and the establishment of codes of practice. The artist encourages the viewer, or the sitter, to spend some time here, to consider human actions and events covering many centuries and to look forward to the future. There is much to examine: each chair back and front depicts a separate topic or scene, crossing cultures and spanning eras. The principle of the right to trial by jury found in legal systems world-wide is represented by a quotation from Clause 39 of Magna Carta, and of course the number of chairs reinforces this. Outstanding individuals whose actions resulted in changes in the law around such issues as anti-slavery, emancipation and human rights are celebrated, as are those imprisoned for their activism, beliefs or sexuality. Mass protests or collective action that highlighted injustice and led to change are depicted, and the adoption of new codes of practice following horrific incidents that gave rise to public outcry are shown, such as the 133 African slaves thrown overboard from The Zong slave ship in 1781, and the environmental disaster when the Exxon Valdez tanker disgorged its cargo of crude oil in 1989. Among these are representations of ancient principles relating to justice, including Chinese and Ancient Egyptian, as well as recurring motifs — flowers such as coltsfoot, black-eyed Susan and horse-chestnut that symbolise justice, and hop for injustice; keys, including that to Mandela's cell on Robben Island, and to the Bastille that triggered the French Revolution, one of which was given to George Washington; the ermine, whose fur edges judicial dress and denotes incorruptibility.
Hew Locke's intention was to create a discussion piece and not a memorial. Once he had been awarded the commission, he spent time at Runnymede, wanting to make a work that would be in sympathy with its surroundings. The depth of research undertaken is immense and the delicacy of the modelling is fascinating. Inviting interaction, both mentally and physically, The Jurors has attracted considerable numbers of visitors. As a result, a year since its inauguration, the grass beneath the chairs is somewhat worn, and parts of the bronze shine with handling.
The backdrop to the historic Runnymede meadows is the rising woodland of Cooper's Hill, in which a number of other interesting memorials are located. The Kennedy Memorial, designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, is set within an acre of land given by the Queen to the citizens of the USA in 1965 in memory of their assassinated president. A path of granite steps winds up through woodland to a vast block of Portland stone, inscribed with words from Kennedy's inaugural address. Nearby, in another area of landscaping, the Magna Carta Memorial also has a US connection in that it was erected by the American Bar Association in 1957. Designed by Sir Edward Maufe, it takes the form of a diminutive Greek temple set into the hillside, in which stands a granite pillar inscribed with the words 'Symbol of Freedom Under Law'. Venturing further up through the woods is another memorial, this time on a grand scale and also designed by Maufe, the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial of 1953, which commemorates over 20,000 airmen and women who died in World War II with no known grave.
Runnymede itself is a memorial landscape: saved from the threat of sale in the 1920s, it was purchased in 1929 by Lady Fairhaven, who in 1931 donated it to the National Trust in memory of her husband Urban Broughton MP (d.1929). She commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to create monuments to commemorate both her husband and the significance of Magna Carta, which take the form of a pair of lodges and plinths on the northern edge of the meadows and a pair of small kiosks in the south-east corner. It is fascinating to know that the fight to save the site of Magna Carta was spearheaded by the first female barrister to practise in England, Helena Normanton, also a campaigner for women's rights.
We found other evidence of Magna Carta on the riverside walk from Egham station, with a quotation inscribed in the paving in the Runnymede Pleasure Gardens, and the National Trust sign with the legend 'A Home to Politics and Picnics for 1000 Years' is a reminder that Runnymede was also famous as a place of recreation, with the Egham Races drawing great crowds between 1734 and 1884.
Information about Hew Locke's The Jurors can be found at http://artatrunnymede.com. As he says at the end of the short video about the work: 'Come and Sit!'