Over 800 years ago, Runnymede, now cared for by the National Trust, witnessed the feudal barons forcing King John to seal Magna Carta - a founding moment in shaping the basis of common law across the world.
Writ in Water, commissioned by the National Trust in association with arts producers Situations, celebrates the enduring significance of Magna Carta.
Set in the heart of this ancient landscape, Writ in Water reflects upon the founding principles of democracy, and through a meeting of water, sky and light, provides visitors with a space for reflection and contemplation.
Mark Wallinger has drawn inspiration from Clause 39 of Magna Carta and the fundamental principles of justice it embodies.
‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’ Clause 39, Magna Carta
The large-scale circular building emerges from the hillside at the base of Cooper’s Hill. The meadow it sits within is flanked by the River Thames on one side and an ox-bow lake on the other, itself a trace of the river’s earlier course.
Responding to this feature of the landscape, Writ in Water takes its name from the inscription on John Keats’ gravestone, which reads, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.
Built in cubits, the most ancient unit of measure, and using rammed stone from the site itself, Writ in Water sits at the heart of this ancient land.
An exterior doorway leads to a simple circular labyrinth, in which the visitor can choose to turn left or right to reach an inner doorway that opens out into a central chamber. Here the sky looms through a wide oculus above a pool of water, as reflective as a still font.
The sides of the pool are inscribed on the inner side, the water reflecting (much like the seal on Magna Carta itself), the reversed and inverted lettering of Clause 39 as the visitor moves round the pool to reveal its words.
Mark Wallinger comments:
“In Writ in Water, the use of reflection to make the text legible plays against the idea of a law written in stone. Magna Carta curtailed this divine right and issued the first secular writ.
“Keats though despairing of his legacy, was to become one of the immortals and his words live anew when learnt and repeated by every succeeding generation. Similarly, although Magna Carta established the law and the nascent principles of human rights, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. What seems like a birthright has to be learned over and over and made sense of. Whether the words are ephemeral or everlasting is up to us.”
Writ in Water has been commissioned as part of the National Trust’s contemporary art programme, Trust New Art, which is inspired by its places.
John Orna-Ornstein, National Trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement, said:
“Mark’s work provides an inspirational space for reflection in this ancient landscape and the final result is everything that we hoped for and more.
“Through Writ in Water, Mark has emphasised the continuing relevance of Magna Carta within a wider historical narrative, in a way that will enhance this special place for years to come.”
Baroness Helena Kennedy, leading human rights lawyer, said:
“Given my involvement in human rights law, it is natural that this work strikes a particular chord with me.
“Magna Carta in essence formed the roots of our rule of law, and ingrained such a strong tradition of civil liberties in Britain, that it was never considered necessary to have a formal, written constitution. But the rights and traditions embodied in Magna Carta are indeed ‘Writ in water’.
“Mark’s work creates a space for us to celebrate the founding tenets of democracy, and contemplate the wider issues of defending the spirit of Magna Carta, something that can only be applauded and supported.”
Mark Wallinger was selected through a competitive process led by Situations, who developed the work with the artist in collaboration with London based architectural practice Studio Octopi.
Writ in Water has been made possible with National Lottery funding through Arts Council England and the generous support of Art Fund, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Henry Moore Foundation and Lord and Lady Lupton. With additional support from Iwan and Manuela Wirth, Valeria and Rudolf Maag-Arrigoni and Harris Calnan.
Writ in Water is open seven days a week from Saturday 16 June 2018 and is free to enter.
For further information about Runnymede visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede