Where is our 1939-45 War Memorial? Help Us Find It!

Professor Joanna Bourke reflects on the story of Birkbeck’s missing war memorial. Have you seen this? Let us know and we’ll send you a £20 voucher.

Lost war memorial

Birkbeck’s lost war memorial created by sculptor, Ralph Beyer.

How can a large, very heavy sculpture made of solid stone simply disappear?

This is the question I asked myself while researching the history of Birkbeck. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the College recognised the need to commemorate the lives of thousands of Birkbeck students who had been killed, mutilated, and bereaved by the war. The man for the job, they concluded, was German-born sculptor Ralph Beyer.

Beyer had fled to England from Nazi Germany (his mother was killed in Auschwitz). Despite being only 16 years old and barely speaking English, he had quickly found a job working with the famous artist Eric Gill. When war was declared, Beyer was interned as an “enemy alien”, which is where he met fellow internee Nikolaus Pevsner, who lectured on art and architecture at Birkbeck. They formed a life-long friendship. Beyer was eventually released from internment and served in the British Army in the UK, France, and Germany. On his return to England, he was commissioned (thanks to the support of his friend Pevsner) by the College to design our war memorial.

The memorial was four feet high (excluding the plinth) and carved out of a single cube of brown Hornton Stone from Warwickshire. It showed a woman sitting on a rectangular block on top of a pedestal. The woman’s legs were close together, with her arms resting on her knees. She was draped in a flowing garment. While her hands and feet were large, her head was disproportionately small with few discernible features. Her posture and heaviness suggested grief or the mourning of a mother.

Not everyone approved. Some commentators complained that the war memorial was “at pains to conceal its identity” as a war memorial. “Are we to suppose”, one critic asked, “that the artist” was “more concerned with pleasing the living than honouring the dead?”

Pevsner came to his friend’s defence. He reminded its critics that a utilitarian memorial (such as a lecture hall) had been ruled out as “unsuitable to commemorate the sacrifice of so many young lives”. The commissioning committee had also decided not to simply inscribe the names of the dead on a tablet: too many men and women had “given” too much and any list would inevitably be incomplete anyway. Creating a stained-glass window was also dismissed because, as a College in which teaching took place in the evening, the “glow of colour and the composition would be lost”.

Pevsner also attempted to disabuse critics of the assumption that a war memorial “ought to be a soldier with a gun”. After all, war of the scale seen between 1939 and 1945 depended on “so many jobs of work, in different surroundings, and with different uniforms”, all of which “led to the same gateway of death”.

Pevsner argued that Beyer’s design was “both personal and universally valid”. The woman’s face “creates a sense of mystery and reverence”, he contended. Her hands “lie heavily on the thighs, as they do in archaic Greek statues of women, and that sense of weighing down is essential for the mood”. Pevsner concluded that the Birkbeck war memorial was “a piece of sculpture which is of today and yet at the same time of an undated rightness”.

Beyer went on to become a distinguished artist. He is best known for his design and carving of the lettering in Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1961+), which remains the most significant work of British public lettering in the twentieth century.

But what happened to his memorial to the dead and suffering men and women of Birkbeck between 1939 and 1945 remains a mystery.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History in the Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck and writing the history of the College for our bicentenary in 2023.

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3 thoughts on “Where is our 1939-45 War Memorial? Help Us Find It!

  1. You don’t say where the war memorial actually stood. The photograph shows a curtain behind it – but which room/hall was it in?

    I suggest that you ask your oldest alumni if they saw it whilst they were at Birkbeck. That would at least give you a date to work with.

  2. I attended Birkbeck both at Breams Buildings (1950-1951) and in the Malet Street building (1953-1957) and believe that I never saw this sculpture at either place.

  3. It was at the main entrance onto Malet Street. The screen behind the statue was in front of the main lifts. Enquiries with a few ex-employees suggest it vanished between ’67 and ’71. The wooden screen stayed longer and can be seen in pictures of the main entrance in the Birkbeck Image library taken in 1973.

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