Writ in Water, is a major architectural artwork by Mark Wallinger, in collaboration with Studio Octopi, for the National Trust at Runnymede, Surrey. The artwork celebrates the enduring legacy and ongoing significance of Magna Carta.
Over 800 years ago, Runnymede witnessed the feudal barons forcing King John to seal Magna Carta - a founding moment in shaping the basis of common law across the world. 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.
The 15.4m diameter 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.
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, the walls are constructed of rammed stone from the site itself, with a dark stained softwood roof and crushed gravel floor.
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 shot blasted stainless steel sides of the pool are inscribed on the inner side, the water reflecting the reversed and inverted lettering of Magna Carta Clause 39 as the visitor moves round the pool to reveal its words.
Artist Mark Wallinger comments:
“In common law, a writ is a formal written order issued by a court. In Writ in Water, the use of reflection to make the text legible plays against the idea of a law written in stone.
“Keats 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 Curation and Experience said:
“This artwork marks a significant moment for the National Trust as part of a larger project to reimagine and reinterpret this important site. It shows how we can bring together contemporary culture and ancient landscape, and wider historical narratives with the detailed context of individual places, in a way that will enhance this special place for years to come.”
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.