Charing Cross denotes the junction of Strand, Whitehall and Cockspur Street, just south of Trafalgar Square. It is named after the Eleanor Cross that once stood in the hamlet of Charing. In 1290, Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I had died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. The places where her body rested on the journey south to its tomb in Westminster Abbey were each marked by stone crosses. The site of the Charing cross is now occupied by an equestrian statue of Charles I.
There are countless paintings and drawings of Charing Cross and its famous bridge. The view produced by one artist, however, has become iconic. When Claude Monet visited London in 1870 he became intrigued by the metropolis. Capturing its muted colours and moisture-laden atmosphere became a challenge he was not ready to risk as yet. His desire to paint these distinctive effects of light and tonal nuance was rekindled three decades later when he travelled to London later to visit his son Michel in the autumn of 1899. The sight of the city’s buildings looming in the fog inspired him to return the following year. He painted boats on the Thames from a position on the Charing Cross Bridge as well as the massive silhouette of the Houses of Parliament in every conceivable weather condition. He struggled to capture what he saw, working on as many as fifteen canvases at a time. Monet painted his ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ in 1900. This view of the bridge, with its misty atmosphere and the merest suggestion of shapes for the boats on the water, recalls earlier and pioneering work. His ‘Waterloo Bridge’, painted in the same year, is an evocative portrayal of London’s infamous overcast climate in which the artist restricted his palette to a range of blues, modulated with yellow into green, in a dramatic expression of obscured light.
In his letters from London, Monet often complained about the English weather. The fog, the rain, and the damp all threatened to impede his progress, and he often worked in his hotel room, looking out the window. But the volatility of the weather also inspired him. He set out to capture every type of weather in paint, including his 1903 work ‘Pont de Waterloo, Jour Gris’. His 1903 foggy image of ‘Les maisons de Parliament’ was part of a series that had to be completed from memory rather than observation. Illness had cut short this, his third London campaign. In 1900, Claude Monet pushed himself to the point of collapse, and, in the following year, a severe bout of pleurisy forced him to cut his work short and return to Giverny. It was during this spell of physical recovery that he started his famous series (nearly 100 canvases) of water lilies floating in his pond.
Maintaining this Continental focus, Charing Cross appears in a significant manner in Ford Madox Ford’s modernist war poem ‘Antwerp’ (published in January 1915). Previously, just before entering World War I where he served as a Lieutenant until he was sent home following shell shock at the battle of the Somme, Ford had published his novel The Good Soldier. His Antwerp poem was inspired by the blackness of his experiences during the war. It was considered by T.S. Eliot to be the only good poem he knew on the subject of war. Ford, weary of English life, eventually settled in France where he founded The Transatlantic Review. He made Ernest Hemingway assistant editor, and they published authors such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys. Between the years 1924 and 1928, he published his four-volume novel, Parade’s End. The poet published ‘Antwerp’ under his real name of Ford Madox Hueffer. Son of a German journalist and music critic, he anglicized his name to Ford Madox Ford only after the war at the behest of his publisher.
An early episode in the war was the siege of Antwerp in the north of Belgium by the German Army. Ford’s poem deals with the desperation of Belgian resistance against the German invasion. It opens with these powerful lines:
An October like November;
August a hundred thousand hours,
And all September,
A hundred thousand, dragging sunlit days,
And half October like a thousand years …
That then was Antwerp …
To describe Belgian heroism, Ford uses parallels with the heroes of Greek or Norse legend. The final verses of the poem move the reader from occupied Antwerp to Charing Cross and the nightmare spectacle of Belgian refugees. In September 1914 the British government had offered ‘victims of war the hospitality of the British nation’, accepting the responsibility for the reception, maintenance and registration of Belgian refugees, while at the same time sought out assistance in housing the refugees with local authorities. British Naval Brigades were sent to Antwerp to the relief and evacuation of the city. It meant the beginning of an influx of refugees from Belgium. Charing Cross was the station where these refugees arrived in large numbers, frightened women, childrenand elederly people in desperate circumstances carrying their tiny bundles belongings done up in handkerchiefs. Ford paints a painful picture of the conditions awaiting those who had fled their home and country:
This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud….
And now!… That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another….
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders:
There is another strong reminder of the unfortunate role Charing Cross played during World War I. John Hodgson Lobley was official war artist to the Royal Army Medical Corps. Nowadays we send photographers to the front. During the Great War artists were commissioned to leave their impressions to posterity. In his capacity as war artist Lobley created 120 paintings, many of which are owned by London’s Imperial War Museum. These include scenes of rehabilitation in Queens Hospital for Facial Injuries in Sidcup (opened in 1917 thanks to the initiative of otolaryngologist Harold Gillies: more than 11,000 operations were performed on over 5,000 soldiers with facial injuries from gunshot wounds) ; of the Royal Army Medical Corps in training; and of casualty clearing stations near battlefields in France, including Douai. Probably the most famous of Lobley’s images is the 1918 oil on canvas painting entitled ‘Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916: Casualties from the Battle of the Somme Arriving in London’.