FEATURE: War memorial statue is ‘a legacy for generations to come’

Battle's war memorial statue.
Battle's war memorial statue.

It’s a cold, crisp and bright November morning and the residents of Battle have gathered for the annual Armistice Day service.

Sculptor Guy Portelli with his masterpiece.

Sculptor Guy Portelli with his masterpiece.

As the procession formed and made its way up to the top of the High Street, all eyes were on the striking statue, standing proud on the roundabout.

For this statue is the result of many hours of hard work and a relentless crowdfunding campaign to create this ‘monument of the people’.

What started as a sculpture to commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings has morphed into a war memorial for all those who lost their lives in the bloody clash in 1066 and in all subsequent conflicts.

So it was only appropriate that November 11 was chosen as the day for the dedication of this memorial.

The Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex Peter Field cut the ribbon on the towering sculpture

The Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex Peter Field cut the ribbon on the towering sculpture

The statue depicts an opening scene from the Battle of Hastings, where a lone Norman on horseback was sent to test out the enemy lines.

The gallant troubadour Taillefer, Duke William’s own minstrel, led the charge.

To him, he had been granted the privilege of striking the first blow among all the chivalry.

As his horse ascended the slope of Senlac, far outdistancing those behind him, Taillefer juggled his sword while singing verses from ‘The Song of Roland’, infuriating the Saxon soldiers.

Members of the public were invited to put mosaic tiles on the soldiers' shields

Members of the public were invited to put mosaic tiles on the soldiers' shields

Two were slain by Taillefer before a third brought his axe down upon him, toppling Taillefer from his horse and cleaving him from shoulder to belly.

In the shadow of the axe-wielding huscarl, the Dean of Battle, The Very Reverend Canon John Edmondson delivered a short speech before the Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex Peter Field cut the ribbon on the towering sculpture.

The Very Reverend Canon Edmondson told those gathered last Friday: “The statue challenges us to assess the cost of conflict to people and to all of creation.

“It challenges us to link the events and loss of history to the Europe and World of today.”

Guy Portelli and Battle mayor David Furness

Guy Portelli and Battle mayor David Furness

He added: “It challenges us also to consider when people today who are maybe victimised or oppressed, who might need our protection from evil.”

The man behind this thought-provoking work of art is Tonbridge-based sculptor Guy Portelli.

Guy is a familiar face to many following his 2008 appearance on BBC’s Dragons’ Den, where he persuaded the multi-millionaires to part with £80,000 to back his Pop Icon collection.

Guy has a long association with Battle.

His work has been displayed at various art fairs in the town, and he has been a resident artist at the Saffron Gallery since 2010.

Last year he was chosen as the Battle Festival’s first artist in residence.

In a cosy corner of the Bull Inn, following the grand unveiling of Battle’s newest landmark, Guy recalls how the creative process led him unexpectedly from creating a commemorative historical statue to a very modern war memorial.

Guy said: “It’s like your child.

“You start off leading them, encouraging them to do all the right things and then they take the lead.

“In the end, with a good piece of art, you follow it.

“It tells you where you want to go.

“You end up becoming a servant to the work.

“The thing that I found quite interesting is it started off as a project of historical relevance.

“More and more it became real and it became a piece of history that people could relate to and I did not expect that.

“I did not expect it to suddenly be thinking of all the soldiers on the battlefield.”

He added: “It’s quite a raw piece of art.

“It does not hold any punches.”

Perhaps rather surprisingly for a piece of modern art, there have been no objections from the public to the new addition to the roundabout, with feedback from residents being overwhelmingly positive.

Guy said: “We have had no dissenters, which is amazing.

“Although it’s a very contemporary piece in some ways, people can associate themselves with it.”

The team behind the 1066 sculpture has done its best to involve Battle’s residents right from the very start of the project.

Last year a competition was held, inviting members of the public to submit their design for the statue.

The winning design was picked from 60 entries and a crowdfunding campaign was launched in a bid to raise the £41,000 needed to turn the vision into a reality.

Battle residents were even invited to get ‘hands on’ in the creative process, by fixing mosaic tiles onto the soldiers’ shields during public workshops.

Guy said: “The other aspect is we have managed to use a lot of local skills, like Anvil Tubesmiths in Sedlescombe, who bent the metal for us, and the mosaic which has been contributed to by local residents who came through The Almonry and were involved.

“And this is across many generations.

“Young children were helping out, working on it, right through to pensioners.”

He added: “I think in the future a lot of people will be able to say that they had an opportunity to place their mark.

“It’s very important to me that it is a community project.”

Although the statue was completed in just a few months, Guy says the project has been in the making for many decades.

He said: “In reality, the whole project started 50 years ago with the first re-enactment for the 900th anniversary and Kenneth Higgs’ poster, which became the inspiration for the finished work.”

Kenneth Higgs was the man behind the first ever Battle of Hastings re-enactment in 1966.

The retired architect’s design, featuring this opening scene of the Battle, was featured on the front cover of the programme produced to accompany the event.

The octogenarian entered this design into last year’s competition and was picked as the winner.

Guy may have only just finished his project, but he is already looking forward to the next chapter in the life of the sculpture - an accompanying book.

He said: “As you drive in to Battle and you see the sculpture on the roundabout, it defines the historic aspect of the town.

“And I think that we want to pass on that education by creating a book so that tourists and visitors to the town can take away something of historical relevance.”

As well as proving a hit with the residents of Battle, Guy’s statue is making waves in the art world.

Cav. Romeo Di Girolamo from Sedlescombe was the president of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) for 11 years and spotted Guy Portelli’s potential early on.

He said: “When I first met him I was very impressed with such a kind, kind personality who wanted to help lots of other artists.

“This is quite unusual in the art world.

“He’s very generous in that way and I liked his work very much.

“When I came across his work, I had to work quite hard to get the RBA to accept new ideas. They tend to be very traditional.

“I was very impressed with his work and eventually we made a number of awards to him at the society and he did in fact become vice president of the RBA.”

Speaking about the memorial, he added: “The piece of sculpture is very impressive indeed.”

Sculptor Megan Di Girolamo added: “I feel he does really interesting work in that he looks for something different instead of being very figurative and specific about what he does.”

Of course it would be amiss not to mention the man whose vision, passion and determination kick-started the entire project.

For Battle mayor David Furness, Friday’s unveiling was the culmination of months of hard-work and relentless fundraising for what he has previously dubbed ‘the monument of the people’.

He said: “There are many things I want to achieve as mayor of Battle during my term and a fitting war memorial was always high on my list.

“Time was tight, with only a year from vision to reality to deliver a sympathetic tribute to all the fallen and wounded, in all conflicts.

“Thanks to people’s generosity, both financially and in kind, we’ve been able to unveil this world-class memorial by a world-class sculptor, Guy Portelli, using no public money whatsoever.

“We continue to fundraise now so we can floodlight the sculpture and all donors will be recorded in perpetuity at Battle Museum.

“Meantime I am truly grateful to all those who have supported the project and helped us to make it a reality.”

One person who proved key in bringing Guy Portelli to Battle is Liz Honey, the owner of the Saffron Gallery, which moved from Battle to East Grinstead in September.

Liz said: “I’ve represented Guy Portelli at Saffron Gallery since 2010 and was a huge admirer of his work long before then.

“I’ve also spent three years working with David Furness on Battle Festival and have seen up close his drive and passion for promoting Battle within the UK and internationally.

“So it was a real pleasure to bring these two visionaries together and be involved in a project so momentous for the town.

“Guy Portelli and David Furness have left a legacy for generations to come, the narrative of which is as much about the present day as it is about the past.”

• There is still time to get involved in this historic project as the crowdfunding campaign is still open for donations.

You can donate via https://www.gofundme.com/1066Sculpture or make a donation at the Battle Town Council offices in The Almonry, High Street, Battle.