Monday, 15 June 2009

The Horner Statue. Note 22.

The other day I was lent the Memoirs of a Veterinary Surgeon by Reginald Hancock (1952). This slim volume has woodcut illustrations and vignettes by Elaine Hancock. Part of the book is an account of Hancock's work during the Great War of 1914-1919: accounts of the horrors that many horses endured and of the many thousands that perished. The faint-hearted should skip these chapters! However, the book also recalls the author's friendship, if that is the right word, with Lieutenant Edward Horner whose memorial equestrian statue by Alfred Munnings stands in St Andrew's Church, Mells, Somerset. Both Hancock's description of Horner and his thoughts on the figure subsequently portrayed prompted me to re-visit Mells two days ago. I had heared that the statue had very recently been moved from its cramped position in the Horner Chapel to the main part of the church where it now stands and can be admired properly.

Edward Horner was the eldest son of a family that had lived quietly at their Mells estate for many generations. Hancock describes Edward as having "one of the finest brains of any man I have ever known." He was brilliant at Oxford before entering the law chambers of Lord Birkenhead - who earlier had recognised Horner's promise. Since he was tall, fair-haired and handsome, the term 'gilded youth' comes to mind but, like so many of his time, Horner's life was to be cut short. He was severely wounded at the battle of Ypres. Once recovered, he was posted to a Reserve Cavalry Regiment at Tidworth Barracks, Hampshire, awaiting his return to the front. Horner had arrived at the barracks "complete with his own valet, groom and charger." After two years in France, Hancock too was posted to Tidworth. He was conscious of being from a very different mould to the Mells' heir with whom he was to share a room in the Officers Mess. It was unfortunate that as Hancock was unpacking his belongings the approaching Horner was heard protesting that he was now having to share his room with "some bloody awful vet."

While initially somewhat aloof, Horner apologised for his unforgivable outburst. One night, after a heated argument on the merits or otherwise of the composer Wagner (Horner, against; Hancock, for), a friendship was born as the cavalryman realised that there was a great deal more to the "bloody awful vet" than he had first assumed. When leaving Tidworth to join the Eighth (Queen Mary's Own) Hussars, Horner said goodbye to Hancock with the words: "You have been such a delightful companion." Edward Horner died of wounds sustained at Noyelles, Picardy on 21 November 1917, aged 28 years. He was the last male heir of the Horner family. A 16-year-old younger brother had died in 1908, and his sister, who eventually inherited the estate, had suffered the loss of her husband, Raymond Asquith, who was killed in France in 1916 while serving with the Grenadier Guards.

Turning now to the Munnings statue. This was commissioned by Lady Horner, Edward's mother, through the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens had close links with the Horners and Mells where he had designed the grand, outdoor memorial to those from the village who fell in the Great War, (he also designed the bus shelter!). The statue was the first work undertaken by Munnings after he purchased Castle House at Dedham, to where his sectional, mobile studio was moved from Swainsthorpe. I am not sure which usually comes first: a statue or its plinth? In this case Lutyens gave Munnings the dimensions of the plinth base: 5 feet by 3 feet, 6 inches, (it is approximately 5 feet high). In relation to this plinth, Munnings decided the horse carrying Horner should be seen as about the size of a deer. He had photographs from which to work, and he would also have known that Horner was very tall. Munnings was assisted by a sculptor friend named Waters, about whom I can find no further information. After making two small statuettes for Lady Horner's approval, Waters and the village blacksmith built the armature on which the former and Munnings applied the clay. Unusually, the plaster-cast was also made in the studio, and a full account of the work can be found in the second part of Munnings's autobiography, The Second Burst (1951).

For more than 85 years the statue stood in the Horner Chapel in Mells church. The plinth covered much of the accessible chapel floor, itself only 18 feet by 13 feet, including a 2-foot deep table monument running down the long side. This meant that it was virtually impossible to 'stand back' to admire the bronze, let alone take a good photograph if one wished to do so. Hancock remarks in his book that he "would like to see it [the statute and plinth] brought out some day into the body of the church where one can see it in a more spacious setting." Admiring the statue immensely and finding the horse and the youthful Horner's features beautifully portrayed, Hancock makes only one critical comment. This is that Munnings has failed to take account of the "extraordinary length of his (Horner's) limbs" which, even when riding a seventeen hands horse, reached "groundwards far further than those of any horseman I have ever seen."

After some resistance and argument, the statue has very recently been moved into the north side-aisle of the church, surrounded by other war memorials. Hancock, and I am sure Munnings, would be pleased that the figure can now be studied at full length and from all angles. It is signed: A.J. Munnings, Dedham, Essex, 1920. It is a remarkable bronze by an artist who rarely practised sculpture, (although the Horner statue led to a commission from the Jockey Club for Munnings to model the racehorse Brown Jack). Should you be in north Somerset, try to visit Mells.

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