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THE STONE BOMB AND SCULPTOR ERIC BENFIELD

by Patrick Wright

120 Cheyne Walk
The 1935 anti-air-warfare monument in Woodford Green, commissioned by Sylvia Pankhurst and designed by Eric Benfield

Woodford Green, Essex, is not the easiest place in which to seek out a largely forgotten work of public sculpture. Driving north-east out of London, one can hardly miss the huge bronze figure of the constituency’s most famous MP, Winston Churchill.

Half a mile further on, however, it takes an act of faith to stop your car somewhere off the roaring High Road, and make your way along an ankle-breaking grass verge shaded by chestnuts and overgrown hedges. Yet a modest public monument is to be found there crowded out by shrubs, wind-gusted litter and even a red plastic bucket, presumably kept in this little visited place by a local resident who has yet to acquire a proper garden shed. Surrounded by iron railings, its plinth rises up to form a pyramid on which a stone bomb is mounted as if falling vertically from the air – the nose of the bomb set in the apex of the pyramid. The bomb is a small, harmless-looking object, no more than eighteen inches long, with weathered fins. It was, however, notorious in its time.

On 5 May 1936 the inauguration of this peculiar monument was announced in an Essex-based publication entitled New Times and Ethiopia News. 'In these days of ever threatening war, the necessity of effective and ceaseless opposition cannot be over-emphasised,' wrote the Countess of Warwick (a former mistress of Edward VII): 'The powers of Science have given aerial war a capacity of devastation and destruction without parallel in the history of mankind'. It was important, she continued, that people were 'made more fully alive to this danger' and, with this aim in mind, it was intended to 'erect a model in stone of an aerial torpedo bomb'. The monument would be the first of its kind.

Stone Bomb in 1935
A sketch for the design of Benfield's sculpture: slightly different from the finished result

'There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead, but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars. The people who care for Peace in all countries must unite to force their Governments to outlaw the air bomb. We must not tolerate this cruelty, the horror of mangled bodies, entrails protruding, heads, arms, legs blown off, faces half gone, blood and human remains desecrating the soil. We must not assent to this merciless destruction of men, women, children and animals.' Sympathisers were invited to assist with the cost of raising ‘this first Anti-Air War Memorial’, which was unveiled on 21 June.

Between Epping Forest and Ethiopia

By this time, the Anti-Air War Memorial had already been through the first phase of its existence. It had been raised the previous year, as ‘a protest against war in the air’, on land owned by the socialist feminist Sylvia Pankhurst. Together with her Italian companion, Silvio Corio, she was then living on the High Road in a ramshackle building called Red Cottage, which served as her campaign headquarters and the editorial office of the New Times and Ethiopia News, while also doubling as a café and roadhouse (‘On the way to Epping Forest’) offering teas, lunches and suppers to passing travellers and excursionists.

Red Cottage
Red Cottage: Sylvia Pankhurst's café – and her home for some years – in Woodford Green

During the first world war, Pankhurst had witnessed the first Zeppelin raids on London. In 1932, she had deplored Britain’s bombing of rebels in Burma and north-west India. In October 1935, she was further outraged by Mussolini’s assault on Ethiopia, the only part of Africa that remained independent and had joined the League of Nations. Unveiled that same month by a group that included Pankhurst and Zaphiro, the secretary of the Imperial Ethiopian Legation, the monument stood prominently outside Red Cottage along with a plaque dedicating it ironically to politicians who, at the World Disarmament Conference opened in Geneva in February 1932, ‘upheld the right to use bombing planes’.

Eric Benfield’s journey

The Anti-Air War Memorial was sculpted by a man named Eric Benfield. In some descriptions of the stone bomb, he is identified only as a ‘Modernist’, though even that brief label is rather misleading. Benfield had actually started out as a quarrier and stone-worker at Worth Matravers, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. By the late 1920s, the stone trade was dying, squeezed by the war-sped advance of concrete, and Benfield, like other Purbeck quarriers, was reduced to hacking out birdbaths or stone squirrels and owls for suburban gardens and the tourist trade.

Dissatisfied, he branched out to produce less conventional works, including a little man ‘fully pleased with his masculinity’, and leering female figures that irked summer visitors who knew what a lady should look like, with or without her clothes.

In Benfield’s account, the stone bomb was a response to the fact that, in 1934, the year after Hitler’s accession to power, a section of the press was 'making much of certain politicians who seemed to be boasting that they, and they alone, had prevented the abolition of bombing planes', proposed by Germany at the League of Nations Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932. The monument was treated as a provocation by fascist sympathisers. It was smeared with creosote on its very first night, and shortly afterwards it was stolen. Benfield promptly set about making a new one, and the publicity caused by the despoilers ensured that the second unveiling, which took place on 4 July 1936, achieved much greater interest than the first. Ethiopia was represented once again, but this time there were also representatives from Germany, France, Hungary, Austria and British Guyana.

Respected during the post-war decades by local Quakers who recognised it as ‘an ironic point of light’ (in Auden’s phrase), the monument rallied anti-nuclear interest in the 1980s. An annual Peace Picnic was held there, evoking the spirit of Greenham Common and ornamented by the white poppies of the Peace Pledge Union. Thanks to the initiative of Sylvia Ayling, a local resident, it was declared an immovable Grade II listed structure. It has survived at least one subsequent attack. Towards the end of 1996 a vandal, who is considered more likely to have emanated from the pub opposite than from the dens of Essex fascism, carried it off and lobbed it into Epping Forest, whence it was recovered, sandblasted (perhaps a little vigorously), and restored, this time as ‘heritage’, to its shady recess in a suburb now more threatened by acid rain.

Eric Benfield is almost completely forgotten. Convinced that ‘there is a field of endeavour to be worked in political sculpture which no one else yet seemed to have thought out,’ he continued ‘protesting in stone’ intermittently throughout the 1930s. Recalling his monument during the second world war, he wrote:

'(T)here was a strong Pacifist flavour about the unveilings; it was Anti-War, Anti-Bombing, Pacifist or what you will. Yet I knew that there had not been one such urge in its first stirrings in my mind or in its execution. According to a dictionary, to pacify means to soothe, to calm – anything rather than to fight. But I had no intention of soothing or calming anyone; it was my way to fight.'

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A longer version of this article, with more about sculptor Eric Benfield, may be found at http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-protest/article_1131.jsp
See also www.patrickwright.net

Prof. PATRICK WRIGHT is a writer and broadcaster with a particular interest in Eric Benfield, sculptor of Sylvia Pankhurst’s anti-air warfare monument of 1936. Patrick is author of a number of books, most recently Tank: the Progress of a Monstrous War Machine, and Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War. He is currently collaborating with film-maker Patrick Keiller on a three-year project concerned with the British landscape. Patrick Wright is a Professor at the Institute of Cultural Analysis, Nottingham Trent University.

→ More in this 'The Stone Bomb' sub-section:
The Stone Bomb: Introduction; The Unveiling of the Stone Bomb, by Cllr George Miles; The Stone Bomb and sculptor Eric Benfield, by Patrick Wright; The Stone Bomb: the story since, by Sylvia Ayling