The top of the obelisk. [Click on images to enlarge them.]by Sir William Goscombe John, 1860-1952. 1916. Granite, with gilding on the the sunrays in the middle and the torch flames at the top. St Nicholas Place, Pier Head, Liverpool.
This monument was originally intended to honor the engineering crew of the Titanic, many of whom came from Liverpool, and who bravely stayed at their posts and kept the ship's lights going as long as possible. But the monument's range was later broadened to include the new casualties of war — as the north-face inscription says, it is "in honour of all heroes of the marine engine room." We are exhorted, on the south-face inscription, "to emulate their courage and devotion to duty."
Memorial sculpture is always representational to some degree. The pose of the main figure or group and its apparel and accoutrements, and any adornments to the monument &mdash wreathes, for example, or bas-reliefs depicting important episodes in which the subject or subjects took part — are all representative. But John goes further here, in this richly symbolic tribute to the often-forgotten toilers of the steamship age. First come the large and impressive reliefs of the engineers and stokers themselves, two stokers on one side, and two engineers on the other, with the inscriptions on the other two sides. At the base of the obelisk crouch the four elements, with brawny arms and legs. Just above them, over the wavy lines of the water, rise gilded suns. Then, at the top of the obelisk, four maidens stand in flowing robes, suggesting the sea. Crowning the obelisk is a torch with golden flames, reported at the time to represent the triumph of fire (see Cavanagh 138) — that is, the victory over the water of the steam engines tended” by these indispensable heroes. Its symbolic richness offset” by muscularity and strong lines, this is indeed John "at his most 'modernist'" (Cavanagh 139).
John seemed to have a particular fondness for celebrating the common man: see, for example, his popular drummer boy on the King's Liverpool Regiment Memorial (1905) in St John's Gardens. War memorials gave him the perfect opportunity for doing so; this one is seen as "an exceptionally early monument to the heroic working man" (Pollard et al. 333). Such memorials also, it seems, gave him scope for experimenting with the architectural aspects of the design. He has been less praised for this (see "War Memorial ['The Defence of Home']"). Yet these monuments are amongst his most celebrated works. In the same year that he completed this one, he started his magnificent Port Sunlight War Memorial, not far away on the Wirral.
Photograph by the author, 2009. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]
Cavanagh, Terry. Public Sculpture of Liverpool. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.
Pollard, Richard, Nicholas Pevsner and Jospeh Sharples. Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
War Memorial ('The Defence of the Home')." PMSA (Public Monument and Sculpture Association site). Viewed 31 July 2009.
Created 1 August 2009
Last modified 11 February 2020