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Islington Green War Memorial Project

Location: Islington Green, London, UK

Artist: John Maine


The Islington Green War Memorial commission grew out of a project initiated by the local authority, London Borough of Islington, to improve the landscape and setting of the Green, a key public space at the junction of two busy north London roads. Very early in the landscape design process, it became clear that the existing war memorial, a traditional obelisk which had stood on the site since 1918, needed replacing.

The artist, John Maine, was brought into the project to design a new memorial, working closely with J & L Gibbons, the landscape architects on the scheme. Through a two year process which included a great deal of consultation with stakeholders including the Royal British Legion and local conservation groups, a completely new memorial was designed, fabricated and installed, complementing the setting of a revitalised Islington Green. The client was Greenspace, at London Borough of Islington, and the Arts Consultant was ArtOffice. An accompanying programme of temporary and participative works by a number of artists was also commissioned.


The London Borough of Islington’s Greenspace department develops and implements an ongoing strategy of upgrading public spaces and parks in the borough which are not serving the needs of their community. It had been acknowledged for some time that Islington Green was in need of improvement, and with funding in place, a project was embarked upon in 2004. J & L Gibbons Landscape Architects, who had already worked on a number of successful projects with Greenspace, were appointed. The client was keen to work with a practice that knew Islington and were also sympathetic to the importance of consultation.

The War Memorial was not part of the original brief – the original, traditional obelisk had been erected in the Green by Sir Charles Higham, a local philanthropist, in 1918 as a temporary memorial, expecting a more permanent structure to be created in the future. By the 21st century, it had become obvious that it needed replacing – J&L Gibbons suggested a specialist survey by expert conservators; this showed serious and terminal cracking in the structure. In addition, there was restricted space around the base and setting of the memorial, which caused difficulties for the annual Remembrance Day event held here.


After discussion and consultation with local stakeholders including the Royal British Legion, it was agreed that a new memorial should be commissioned, and on the advice of the landscape architects, that an artist should be brought in to carry out the work, with the process managed and advised by arts consultant ArtOffice.

The objectives of the scheme were ostensibly very simple – upgrading and improving Islington Green to make it more attractive and better used, to ensure that the health of the significant mature trees was secured, and in the process of redesign, replacing a War Memorial which clearly needed to be removed for safety reasons. In the end, the solutions are indeed beautifully simple, with a landscaping scheme which opens out and simplifies the space, enhances visibility, encourages people to walk through and spend time there. This clean and unfussy space is complemented by a memorial sculpture of minimalist, quite timeless lines.

The straightforwardness of the outcome belies the very long-winded and at times complicated process which was followed – Stephen Crabtree, the client at Islington Greenspace commented - “as a project to broker, it’s the most difficult one I’ve ever done”.

The commission

A Steering Group was set up for the memorial commission, which included representatives of the local branch of the Royal British Legion (RBL), a representative from the local conservation organisation (The Canonbury Society), a local architect and member of an advisory panel to the conservation officer, the chief planning officer and Stephen Crabtree, the client. ArtOffice advised on the selection process, developed an outline artist’s brief and researched an initial long list of artists. With the Steering Group, this was reduced to a shortlist who were commissioned to make initial design proposals, based on a fairly open brief. John Maine’s proposal for a ring form was selected unanimously.

The artist was contracted direct to the local authority to work up the detailed design, in close consultation with the landscape architects and the main contractor. The working relationship went very well, allowing the client to feel confident in taking quite a hands-off approach in terms of strict contractual management. Much of the design discussion centred on how to site the sculpture in the space – John Maine was keen to see it “presented in the landscape in an effortless way”, and so the sculpture seems to lean easily against the Portland stone wall which runs through the area. In reality loadings, angles, fixings and anchors all needed to be meticulously developed and researched.

Consultation and planning permission

Consultation was an ongoing process throughout the design development, because of the sensitive nature of the work, and through this some quite major design decisions were influenced. In particular, the decision to split the limestone wall behind the sculpture, to allow the piece to be more open and seen through from both sides came out of discussions with the various stakeholders during the design process.

There was an ongoing underlying anxiety from some quarters at the non-traditional nature of the work – although the notion of a wreath was helpful in making a connection, some of the older Royal British Legion members could not quite come to terms with the departure from the traditional obelisk shape. By contrast, some members were very keen to see a new approach, and in particular wanted to see something that could engage with younger people, and have meaning for more recent conflicts, not only the two World Wars.

Consultation also included councillors from the local authority, and a number of detailed presentations were held to show progress and explain the scheme and the work. The landscape architect Jo Gibbons remembers one meeting where she and John Maine painstakingly measured the meeting room so that the exact dimensions of the work could be demonstrated, to help those present to appreciate the scale of the work.

Unfortunately, despite the extensive consultation process, the project was not given approval at the first planning committee it was presented to – due to key members feeling unsure about the contemporary approach, and worried that there was sufficient community support. Stephen Crabtree acknowledges that with hindsight, it was clear that not all members had been to site visits and meetings, and non-attendance did not necessarily mean they were in agreement with the scheme. Fuller briefings, and supportive attendance by war veterans, helped the project finally gain planning permission at its next attempt.


The fabrication of the work entailed a great deal of research to find the right stone for the job. The procurement contract was kept separate from the competitive tender for the landscaping works, in order to allow John Maine to find exactly the right supplier. His design and thought process had arrived at a point where he was sure the work should be made from one solid piece of stone, and he was clear on the size, texture and colour that he wanted. Very few places in the world could provide a granite slab of the quality and size required, within the timescale. In addition, John was clear that he didn’t just want to send out a maquette for someone to copy – he wanted to go to the source and make the work with local craftspeople on site. Through contacts in the stone industry, he found the right quarry in Fujian province, China, and over a number of visits, the huge slab was carved, with the local masons, into the final eight-ton ring. John was keen that the work did not appear too polished, and many of the original chisel marks remain, testament to the hand finished process which had taken place so far away.

The artist’s management of the fabrication and procurement included arranging for transport from China to Islington Green – it was “very emotional” to see the container arriving at Felixstowe. For Stephen Crabtree, the high point was its arrival on site, “this immense thing which looked amazing” being craned in over the trees.

Once the sculpture was finally installed, and surroundings completed, the letterer Gary Breeze inscribed the original text from the old memorial into the stone in front of the work – “In Memory of the Fallen” and on separate slabs “Land”, “Sea”, “Air” and “Home”.


The total project budget was £490,000. £290,000 of this came from Section 106 agreements with private developers (in which local authorities secure a financial or other contribution to the local area); the other £200,000 was from Islington Council's capital budget. The cost of the memorial was approx. £100,000 which also included the apron and stone walls on which the memorial rests.

The non-capital element of the budget i.e. fees for designers etc, was £65,000 from the total of £490,000.

Supporting programme

A number of artists were commissioned to make a diverse body of work around the memorial project, as part of raising awareness, spreading information and investigating the themes of war and remembrance. This project, supported by a separate grant from Arts Council of England, aimed to make contact with people from all sectors of the community, particularly of different ages and cultural backgrounds. Artists included Claire Waffel, Adam Dant, Duncan McAfee and Deborah Levy, with photographic documentation by Brent Darby. A forthcoming book “Art and Remembrance” published by ArtOffice will document both the memorial project and the supporting programme in detail.

Although he was unable to fund this programme from the capital budget, the client Stephen Crabtree felt that this work was “invaluable, to get people involved on the ground who will use the spaces."

Key issues

Sensitivity of subject matter

Putting a new work in a busy public place is always difficult. When the subject matter is as sensitive as a war memorial, the commissioning process becomes extremely complicated – Isabel Vasseur from ArtOffice found that this project generated a “multiplicity of demands” and would not have undertaken it but for her confidence of the quality of the client and the landscape architects who were already on the scheme. The key to resolving the difficulty seems to have been extensive but sensible consultation, making sure that key players were involved from across the spectrum of potential users and that there was enough time to do this properly. The skill of researching the right artists was also invaluable – although John Maine was eventually selected unanimously, the selection panel felt that all of the artists who made proposals had reacted appropriately.

Planning process and consultation

Despite the best efforts of all involved, planning permission for this project was initially deferred. It is understandable that a great deal of effort was expended on getting organisations such as the British Legion on board, with repeated meetings and discussions. However, it is key to remember that final permission will actually be granted by elected members, and both Stephen Crabtree and Jo Gibbons acknowledge that with hindsight, this initial deferral might have been avoided had more direct briefing of councillors taken place. The experience of this project has helped refine the processes that Stephen Crabtree follows in carrying out his projects, particularly in terms of getting council committees informed early on in a scheme, and getting a continuing mandate from council members as a project progresses.

Contact details – landscape architects - client - arts consultants,115,AR.html - John Maine, artist

© Copyright Hazel Colquhoun, 2008


Since this case study was written, a publication about the project has been issued.

Art and Remembrance: An illuminating record of the commissioing of the new Islington Green War Memorial Sculpture by John Maine RA. Published by ArtOffice, October 2008; edition limited to 1000 copies £12.95 - ISBN 987-0-9543608-2-5. Available from