To the common hero

Watts memorial

Under the heading of ‘ANOTHER JUBILEE SUGGESTION’ a letter from the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts was published in the Times on 5 September 1887. Watts wrote:

Sir,—Among other ways of commemorating this 50th year of Her Majesty’s reign, it would surely be of national interest to collect a complete record of the stories of heroism in every-day life.
The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should never be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.
The roll would be a long one, but I would cite as an example the name of Alice Ayres, the maid of all work at an oilmonger’s in Gravel-Lane, in April 1885, who lost her life in saving those of her master’s children.
The facts, in case your readers have forgotten them, were shortly these :—Roused by the cries of “Fire” and the heat of the fiercely advancing flames the girl is seen at the window of an upper storey, and the crowd, holding up some clothes to break her fall, entreat her to jump down at once for her life. Instead she goes back and reappears dragging a feather bed after her, which, with great difficulty, she pushes through the window. The bed caught and stretched, the girl is again at the window, a child of three in her arms, which with great care and skill she throws safely upon the mattress. Twice again with still older children she repeats the heroic feat. When her turn comes jump, suffocated or too exhausted by her efforts, she cannot save herself. She jumps, but too feebly, falls upon the pavement, and is carried insensible to St. Thomas’s Hospital, where she dies.
It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty’s reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.
The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
Yours faithfully,
Little Holland-house, Kensington, W.

At the time he wrote this letter Watts was one of the most famous artists in the world, greatly admired for his portraits and symbolist paintings, and yet, as far as I can tell, his proposal gained little or no support. In the end, Watts funded and organized the monument himself, and thirteen years after he’d written to the Times, the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was erected in a corner of Postman’s Park in the City of London.

Watts memorial

At first sight, from a distance, the memorial looks distinctly unheroic. Designed by Ernest George, the wooden loggia with tiled roof looks more park shelter than pantheon. The form is all the more surprising given that back in the1850s Watts had written several essays advocating large-scale murals on public buildings, seeing them as a means of ‘awakening a national sense of Art’ and of ‘developing these qualities which would place British artists by the side of British poets, and form a great national school’. Watts himself produce several frescoes, including one of St George for the new Palace of Westminster.

Why no great fresco to commemorate the heroes of self-sacrifice? Perhaps Watts was unable to find a suitable site or perhaps, now in his eighties and in poor health, he simply lacked the energy for such an undertaking. In any case closer up, the simple workaday form of the monument comes to seem more appropriate to its subjects. The courageous acts recorded on the tablets, manufactured by William De Morgan and by Doulton of Lambeth, are those of ordinary people, working-class people, people whose lives would have carried on, obscure and unremarked, if not for these extraordinary acts.

Sarah Smith Watts memorial

Something about the concept of heroism seems to have changed in the nineteenth century. Traditional heroes — Achilles, Alexander, Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, El Cid, Lord Nelson — achieved their heroic status in combat, demonstrating not just courage and resilience but the will to kill and triumph over their enemies. I know nothing about the history of this idea but it seems to me that heroism was democratized in the nineteenth century. One example of this is the institution in 1824 of the gold and silver medals of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Saving lives, rather than taking them, became an attribute of the hero.

Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice is above all a tribute to the heroism of ordinary folk. Here are maids and sewage workers, gas fitters and stationers’ clerks, signalmen and labourers, as well as the more obvious policeman, firemen, and doctors. Here is Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste at the Prince’s Theatre, who ‘died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion.’ And here is Ernest Benning, compositor, who was ‘upset from a boat one dark night off Pimlico Pier [and] grasped an oar with one hand supporting a woman with the other but sank as she was rescued’.

Ernest Benning Watts memorial

The nineteenth century may have democratized heroism, but our own century has debased the concept to the point of absurdity. Extraordinary deeds, extraordinary courage, are no longer required. Simply doing one’s job is apparently heroic. There are Classroom Heroes and NHS Heroes. Voluntary work also counts as heroism, with the acclamation of Litter Heroes and Community Heroes. Heroes are no longer exceptional human beings. They’re no different to you and me and no better really. Aren’t we all heroes for simply making it through the daily grind? Equality trumps excellence, as it always does in our screwy culture.

[The images for the tablets for Sarah Smith and Ernest Benning are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]