Some lost at sea memorials are touched by genius. The images they convey are timeless and universal – like all great art. The designer and sculptor of this unforgettable memorial in Wales is Brian Fell.
Approach the sculpture from one side or from the rear and you see a hull section of a merchant ship resting on a beach or the ocean floor, torn from the rest of the vessel, the ship’s framing exposed to the sea or the elements. Walk around to the other side and you see the face of every human lost forever to the sea incorporated in that same hull section. Expand the photos above to better appreciate this amazing piece of art.
Amethyst Marine Services Limited is the sole guardian of the memorial – a task in which they take great pride. Mr. Peter Haines of Amethyst Marine has been most generous of his time in providing me with some of the history of the sculpture and the mosaic of Italian marble on which it rests.
The memorial was commissioned in 1994 by the Cardiff Bay Arts Trust (CBAT), a charitable organization that was first established in 1991, as part of a public art effort in the Bay. Mr. Wiard Sterk of CBAT was instrumental in establishing a commission for an art piece honoring those who died in merchant service from the Cardiff Bay area. A design contest was held and the commission was awarded to Brian Fell, whose father was a merchant seaman, and who told Brian stories about ship construction methods during World War II. Once awarded the commission, Brian found the last hydraulic riveting workshop in Britain and taught himself the skills necessary to seam steel sections together to form the ship’s hull with its two very distinctive aspects. Brian’s wife served as the model for the face. The hull rests on a circular mosaic by artists Louise Shenstone and Adrian Butler. Inscribed around the edge of the mosaic are the words:
“IN MEMORY OF THE MERCHANT SEAFARERS FROM THE PORTS OF BARRY PENARTH CARDIFF WHO DIED IN TIMES OF WAR”
Peter Haines advised me that the memorial would not have happened without the efforts of the late Mr. Bill Henke MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Mr. Henke was the founder of the Merchant Navy Association (Wales). He spent years raising funds for the construction of the memorial. A plaque recognizing his efforts is located just outside the circular mosaic base of the memorial – and the sculpture itself is located just outside the Welsh Senedd (parliament) building, which was built after the sculpture was erected.
The memorial is the subject of hundreds of fine photographs on Internet photo streams. Avail yourself of a look on Flickr, Flickriver, Paroramio and others. The memorial takes on different personalities under different lighting conditions, filters, and exposure levels.
I’ve spent several months researching the memorial for this short post. Two thoughts seem to run through my mind constantly about the memorial. The first is the elegant creativity of Brian Fell’s design. Few memorials possess the emotional impact of this brilliantly formed piece of riveted galvanized steel.
The second thought derives from a single line in an email from Peter Haines. When discussing Bill Henke’s essential contributions to the memorial, Peter added one final fact, which I’ll quote: “Mr. Henke actually died right next to the statue he had spent years fighting to build.”
I believe that Mr. Henke was in his early 80s at the time of his death – most of his last six decades spent serving as an active merchant seafarer, or in preserving the memories of those he knew and those he never met, but who also served at sea. I suspect late in life he took great comfort in gazing at the steel frames and riveted plates that magically form the peaceful image of friends long gone, but not forgotten. I also suspect he died at the exact place he would have wanted to be when his fellow shipmates called him to his final voyage…