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The Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede

In creating a landscape memorial to President Kennedy the architect, Geoffrey Jellicoe, sought to lift the assassination of a US President at the height of his powers beyond daily events and personal idiosyncrasies, such that the memorial would incorporate universal principles.   The visitor is invited on a journey, resembling that in The Pilgrim’s Progress:  the journey of the visitor’s eyes through what is seen being mirrored by a deeper one into the unseen landscape of life, death and spirit.   

A number of related ideas influenced Jellicoe’s design of the memorial.   The inspiration for the conversion of the Pilgrim’s Progress analogy into landscape reality came from two early sixteenth century paintings.  These were The Allegory of the Progress of the Soul by Giovanni Bellini and The Tempest by Giorgione Castelfranco.   Further inspiration came from Jellicoe’s visit to Japan during part of the ‘gestation’ period for the design.   It was there that he learnt to appreciate the Japanese reverence for inanimate objects in their gardens, and became attuned to the inherent beauty of form in any craftsman-moulded piece of stone.   The resultant memorial is described by Jellicoe as “the visual impressions that all visitors find plus ‘the grey world’ of the allegory that lies behind it”.   He also commented:  “This highly sophisticated and precise design is fitted into a landscape that is very much the reverse…  There is no compromise of neatly cut grass and trim flower beds…  Much is known about the creation of a normal public park or garden, but little as yet about the re-creation of natural scenery in such a way that it survives the human element…”

A Journey into the Kennedy Memorial    As the visitor (the pilgrim) passes through the wicket gate from the meadow, he enters the allegory of life, death and spirit and begins to climb the steep pathway of granite setts winding through the woodland.   There are 50 steps, reflecting the number of American states.   Each step is unique and so is each of the setts which make up that step.   The 60,000 setts are a multitude of pilgrims on their way upward.   The woodland, surrounding and enclosing the path until it crests the hill, is an important element of the memorial, reminiscent of Dante’s ‘dark wood’.    Lightly managed by the National Trust to be typically diverse English woodland, the passing of the seasons here reflects life, death and spirit.   The wood also symbolises virility and the mystery of nature as a life force.   It is a natural ecological system that is largely self-regenerating.

The memorial stone itself is a seven-ton block of Portland stone (carved from a fourteen-ton block taken from the same quarry which furnished the stone for St Paul’s Cathedral).    It is imperceptibly curved in all directions so as to correct optical distortion and to give the impression of a great weight floating above the ground.  The sculptor, Alan Collins, spread the lettering across the entire stone to make it appear less like an inscription and more as if the stone itself were speaking.   The inscription is from the Declaration of Freedom within President Kennedy’s inaugural address of 20th January, 1961.  

Beside the stone is a hawthorn tree.  Some regard this as a symbol of President Kennedy’s Catholicism.   The legend is that all English thorns are descended from the staff planted at Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea, who buried Jesus in the tomb he had intended for himself.  Equally symbolic, the American Scarlet Oak standing guardian behind the stone comes into full, vivid red, colour at the time of Kennedy’s death in November.  

In front of the monument, the granite setts widen and shallow steps, again quarried at Portland from stone that is some 150 million years old, invite the visitor to pause.   The memorial stone itself rests on a granite cushion, representing the shoulders of the multitude; the burden of life can be put down.   At this point, all three elements of the analogy of life, death and spirit meet.  

To the right of the stone block is a terrace walk.   This is deliberately detached from the steps in front of the stone itself so that it appears to lead into the future, like Jacob’s ladder.  The walkway leads to two Seats of Contemplation, embedded in the hillside and symbolising the King-Queen, man-woman relationship.  Here the visitor can sit and enjoy the view, contemplate life and death, and look forward into the future.   A ha-ha runs parallel to, and below, the path, for there must be no apparent barriers between American and British soil.

The different elements of the memorial are intentionally an intrinsic part of a natural landscape.   “The peaceful scene is itself the memorial, and what has been fitted into it is no more than a statement of purpose – an intangible idea that is emphasised by the duality of the design.”  The pilgrim is invited to experience, as much as visit, the site.

Largely taken from the Guelph Lectures on Landscape Design given by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe.

Additional material from the Complete Landscape Designs & Gardens of Geoffrey Jellicoe by Michael Spens, Thames & Hudson 1994

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