A Lecture by Dr Chris Mullen Norwich 1984
"From Grave to Temple: The Life and Work of Dalton Moncrieff"
In one way or another, Dalton Moncrieff’s Life has been a constant awareness of Death. No other sculptor, with the exception perhaps of Henry Moore, has concentrated so much on the celebration of the funerary arts.
Yet this photograph of the man (above) restores a certain levity to this talk. You can’t get too solemn in the presence of this puckish and mercurial figure. "It is the worst single picture of me, " he wrote to Cecil Beaton,"I look a right old lag!" Even when designing the most solemn of graves in his youth, or working on the Star Temple at Winterton, he could spare time to play the most outrageous of practical jokes, set up fearsome booby traps or spring devices.
It’s best to start at this positive side of the question – much of the critical neglect from which the sculptor has suffered has been caused by a belief that he was a lugubrious and melancholy man involved in a macabre side of sculptural activity. He had after all imagined Monuments in his student days in Pennsylvania, created over thirty major tombs in the Pere La Chaise Cemetery in Paris in the years before the First World War – and even in his period of withdrawal and contemplation during the Twenties, he was secretly involved into detailed research into the burial rites of the ancient civilisations. During the most fruitful period of his life- the 'Thirties and the 'Forties -he was busy at the Great Star Temple Number One at Winterton on the east Norfolk coast.
Yet photographs taken of him just before his death in 1960, show him cheerful, bustling and relishing the new spirit that his secretary and housekeeper, Gerald Desperes – brought to his austere life. "He was a veritable Dapper Dan,"Gerald told me, "even on a State Pension."
Here by the way– one of the funerary pieces that he had kept with him, The Young Bowler. From his charming garden in Norfolk he would daily walk through the wicker gate to the working area where cement was mixed, an area of his plot called The Margin. Beyond this, lies that extraordinary collection of cubic shapes and concrete posts that form the basis of the Great Star Temple Number One – the attempt to create a Stonehenge for the present times – a cosmic battery that would draw the energy of the junction of the land and the sea, to use it for an eternal contemplation of the Throne of God.
So this talk today is about a man who found direction in his life, but tragically found it too late. “I was sifting through the dust,” he wrote,” Gone in the knees and soft in the bones. I sifted the dust and couldn’t see the Heavens. When the stars above shone clear, I was no longer possessed of the strength.” This is not as negative as it might sound. It says much for Moncrieff’s tenacity of purpose that, despite local apathy, governmental neglect, and personal ill-health, he continued to pour cement on the line of nine cubes, the Parallel Approaches, and completed the Great Intersection area, together with a large number of the ‘Outriders’.
Dalton Fastnedge Moncreiff was born in 1883 at Scenery Hill in the State of Pennsylvania. He grew up with the boy who was to be known later as Patrick Henry Bruce. They both went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Painting.
Let’s look at an early work of the Pennsylvania period to show him coping adequately with an exhausted and intellectually bankrupt stylistic tradition, The True Queen, marble group, 52”high and exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Pittsburgh in 1906. The full title is, “The true queen is on her throne when her elm is one her lap.”
One of a projected series to be called ‘Affirmations’, exploring the relationship between Mother and Child, from infancy to puberty. Apart from the sheer scale of his ambitions, there is nothing significant in this work with its clumsily disposed planes, its sugared confections, the distant echo of the Beaux Arts tradition, the concentation on drapery folds etc. The saccharine sentiment cannot be defended even by the most enthusiastic of his supporters, although Moncrieff was later to claim in the unpublished manuscript of his autobiography, On the Margin (from which most of the quotes here have been taken) that he had consciously and deliberately introduced a note of dissonance into the work by having a complete contrast between the Baby that, on the one hand responds to its Mother’s affection, but on the other recoils in reulsionat the the security and warmth offered by the pushing arm. But perhaps you will agree that this is too far-fetched, an attempt made during a period of pessimism to inject a note of despair into an otherwise carefree work. I think we can also reject the recent interpretation, perhaps put forward with tongue in cheek, that the sculpture is an allegory of Moncrieff’s and Bruce’s relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, or PAP, as Moncrieff himself was to call it so laconically later on.
In 1906 Moncreiff and Bruce went to live in Paris, Bruce to study under Matisse, and Moncrieff under the now forgotten French Academic sculptore, Henri Gervex. What exactly caused Moncrieff to abandon his ‘Affirmation’ series we will never know – perhaps it was that furious row he had had with Bruce, what Moncrieff was to look sadly back on as “ a terrible fight over something silly and small…”; perhaps it was the competing influence of Gervex with his rather precious Art Nouveau stylisations; perhaps it was the increased demand in Paris for something funerary sculpture.
The turning point in his life was The Last Embrace (1907) only a year after The True Queen. Although Moncrieff cannot be said on the evidence of this work to have found a sense of direction – the sugary blandness of the Queen has been merely drawn out into a flame-like flicker, the creation of a chic patina, and a modish sexuality, a developing obsession with the pubescence, almost hermaphroditic forms of young girls. But what is important is the change of subject matter – the Mother no longer supports and protects. She is now the Shade of Oblivion, snuffing out Life before its maturity, here in a sort of depraved Crucifixion – 78” high and shown at the Paris Salon of 1908. The work was an immediate success, The area around the sculpture was roped in, and a gendarme posted to prevent damage. There was much demand for modified facsimiles of the work, and royalties of this edition were to pay for much of the Winterton Star Temple.
Moncrieff was lucky in that his fame coincided with an increased demand for funerary sculpture – the major reason being the expansion of the Cimitiere de l’Est, the Pere La Chaise cemetery, the largest and most spectacularly ornamented of the Parisian Burial Grounds, laid out in 1804 and named after the Jesuit confessor of Louis XIV. In 1902 the restrictions on the Tomb size and scale were lifted and immediately the rich bourgeoisie rivalled each other in the erection of fabulous, even bizarremonuments. With The Last Embrace Moncrieff announced himself as a prospective candidate for these commissions. He had become one of that group of French sculptors known as ‘les marchands de morts’, or the Merchants of Death.
Despite the urgings of his more ostentatious clients he preserved much of the passive and non-assertive qualities associated with his Pennsylvania style here a radical simplicity of form, a reflective dreaminess.
Madame Cabanel, where he sought the understatement of a stereometric form set, as he put it, in ‘ turbulence of greenery.” Madame’s bust was to be set at one end of the plot while her husband gazed back to her from the other. Both were enmeshed in vegetation, the finality of Death made imprecise.
The Tomb of M.Cabanel ( before 1907). for some reason the companion piece was never established. Moncrieff dimly remembered some upsetting wrangles with the residuary trustees. Here it is seen in M’s garden, the balance between the sculpture and the vegetation here a little disturbed and now, because of neglecty, completely lost in the wilderness his garden has become.
The development of the early years was a dead-end reached in pursuit of the rhetorical and narrative, an attempt to convey the true spirit of the deceased rather than merely freezing a physical likeness, combined with a great flexibility of style.
The Visconti Memorial 1912. To commemorate one of France’s most distinguished Generals and less successful Ambassador to Turkey, here portrayed in a an emblematic pose of melancholy- almost to the extent of a sleeper on an oriental divan, a figure turned in on itself – overlooked by the head of the Guardian of the Tomb, the muse figure of a beautiful young boy, gazing implacably up to the Heavens. There is a sort of irony at work here, the banker bursting forth from his tomb, reaching out for Paris and the skies, the military man set to rest on a Divan – the one modelled with sensitively modelled planes – a formidable semnse of couleur, the other realised in the chill formalities of late eighteenth century sculpture.
The many tombs he was charged with assembling necessitated an extension to his studio in 1914. At the height of his success in 1917 and, at the peak of his powers, he broke down, and for many months was critically ill. The nature of this illness he never revealed. There are hints that he may have found himself unable to move.
The huge pressures of his industry, the administration of his Workshop, the arrival of the War Dead, the War itself. Whatever caused this collapse, he was never to return to Pris – was never to go into a cemetery again and abandoned figurative sculpture for good. Before going on to discuss his barren period I think it is possible to see in his last works of 1917 before his collapse the beginnings of a revulsion from representational sculpture, as if his later purely abstract style was in existence on the other side of the watershed, that the Solar Temple was in embryo within.
The Jarigold Slab, where the usual rhetorical figure or reclining odalisque has been distilled the mute classical capital and swag of material, This is particularly pronounced in the most extraordinary of his tombs, the one he was working on when he collapsed – indeed he was found senseless at its side. Here a pre-figurement of his later preoccupation with with geometry, abstraction and stereometric forms. The Ramon de Sezes Plot – no flourish, no sentiment and without any sense of geographic or historical location and most importantly no location in time. Moncrieff was later to recall the despair in his mind while working here,
He ends with a vast understatement.
That brings to an end the first period of Dalton Moncrieff’s life. I don’t apologise for spending such a time getting up to ‘the new Stonehenge’, but to understand the implications of the Star Temple the Passage to the Stars, we have to understand that period of his life when Death was to him a subterranean bondage.
Moncrieff recuperated with his friends in Paris but memories and associations became too painful for him. “I would cross the road to avoid a priest , walk miles out of my way to avoid a cemetery and curse the mortuary chimney.”
He fled to North Africa in a sort of suicidal plunge into the world of the senses, a frenzied rejection of the austere. But even here he began to regret the meaningless of his life. As he wrote to Sir Herbert Read, the English writer, “I am slaked, oiled and exhausted, this place is tjhe Land of the Plastic Lotus…”
His return to sculpture dates from a new esserntially amateur interest in the funerary rites of ancient civilisations, Sumerian Ziggurats, Mayan temples, Egyptian pyramids and most important of all the spectacle of Stonehenge.
His obsession needed his own practical realisation and it needed a focus. Paris was lost. Tangiers was too tempting, a return to America was regressive – Germany was materialist. So in 1927 he came to England, first to Walberswick, and then to Hunstanton in Norfolk, there to begin calculation for the exact assemblage of stone and cement known as the Star Temple Number One.
He first measured up a ten acre plot of land at Hunstanton but the beach, its curious holiday makers made his life a misery.
And then he found Winterton on the East Coast,(see his copy of Walkers' Norfolk) “There - no people – only their debris…” He threw himself into the project with a sense of purpose that had been completely lacking in his money-earning days, “Then life was a clinical affair – I didn’t care who died, not a jot, many indeed were better under s ginat slab. All that mattered to me was that somebody was left to pay the bills. My assistants began to take over, even the Grand Monument des Morts was what we call studio work. It was shameful."
As if to pay off these old debts he concentrated his failing energies on a Monument to all Humanity, a memorial to all the past achievements of Man, and a celebration of his Future.
This assemblage of blocks on a twenty acre site was a facsimile of the Great Star temple, a vision which came to Moncrieff in North Africa.
Elevation of the Great Globe of Heaven, the seat of all Majesty, and having at its centre the Throne of God , charged and harmonised by four revolving Star Temples in different parts of the Universe in constant contemplation of the Eternal Creator
The transfer of the idea into form is best seen in the Great Plan which gives the dots and the dashes and a more meaningful idea of the ultimate aim of the Temple beyond the Sun to the All Pervading.
These last two slides show the plans that Moncrieff offered to the Nation and then when rejected to the Winterton Rural District Council. Moncrieff often complained of the lack of vision shown by what he called these ‘little men’. And there the matter might have rested, another contribution to the conceptualist/fantastics of anti-functionalist theories, had it not been for Captain Guy Baker who saw in the scheme a Memorial to his Mother Lady Howard of Penspring killed in the First World war.
Here, a group photograph, Guy Baker, the People’s Chaplain T.Harker and two representatives of the WRDC.
The theory, the mystical basis of the Star temple is difficult to fully comprehend, so richly did Moncrieff draw from his sources.
As he himself put it, “I come not to reason but to create!!”
The Star Temple Number One consists of three lines of nine cubes each, two of which are adjacent and parallel, the cube units are three feet cubed. The three lines meet at a juxtaposition he called The Intersection which generates potential energy’ to charge the observations of the God-Head. Around this linear structure are dotted,seemingly at random, posts and stumps, which he referred to as ‘outriders’. These subsidiary terminals to the Giant Battery come in three sizes.
What you’ll be seeing, remember, is only a pilot scheme undertaken by Moncrieff and three young assistants, as a result of Guy Baker’s patronage. One of the assistants was Gerald Desperes.
The primary Line – the Temple has no fabric like other buildings – it is as if a blueprint had been transcribed exactly to the land, its abstract language in two dimensions carried over into a natural site.
Let’s look first at the primary line as an axis between Sea and Land bringing Sea to the intersection
Here two parallel lines of similar cubes run in from the land to the intersection and again from the boundary of the plot, where a coastguard station had been built from the intersection.
Here, the intersection itself where the mind of the believer stands and stares out over the horizon to the Throne of God. Beyond- a ramp, the escape that is. Down to the sea and its accompanying outriders.
This image does reinforce an aspect of Moncrieff’s sculpture rarely emphasised – the polished mirror-like smoothness of the blocks – the perfect coordination of the one to the many, and with only one exception, set firmly on their bases, on this most unstable of foundations. Standing in the maze of cubes particularly in the gloom of twilight can be a dramatic even harrowing experience – the rigid knife-sharp edges, grey featureless planes, guiding the eye out to the stars.
Here the concerete mixer. On a technical level – each block was constructed by hand, the pouring of the cement, supervised by Moncrieff himself, and often mixed by his own hand. And carted by barrows over walkways down to the to the prepared site where specially welded armatures were suspended within the shaping boards – a great cubic mould. The armatures were unloaded at the village and brought down to the Margin singly. Moncrieff also supervised their stacking and such was the power he derived from them one structure was left exactly as it stood.
For years Moncrieff had been failing in health. He longed for the Sun and the distractions of North Africa but the immenseness of his task kept him in England. Infection followed infection. He suffered much during the winters and, ironically, one November night in 1960, while shaping his Outriders by the Mixer he collapsed and died.
Tragically his vision remains only briefly to be glimpsed by us. With more encouragment and resources he perhaps would have achieved more. What remains is a testament to his stubbornness, his determination to survive, to point to the Stars.
When any local inhabitant of artistic development is celebrated for his East Anglian connections, don’t you think it curious that Dalton Moncrieff’s Star temple Number One has been so overlooked.
The first of the Lunchtime Lectures commissioned by Bruce Brown in the School of Graphic Design and given on April 1st, 1984