Between the Thames, Windsor Great Park and the M25 is a series of lush meadows, knee-high in midsummer grass and buttercups, that were given to the National Trust in the 1930s. They are grazed by cattle and dotted with oaks, and would be pastoral and peaceful were it not for the A-road traffic churning by and the occasional aircraft coming into Heathrow. Somewhere here, in June 1215, Magna Carta was sealed.
Despite its many archaic clauses, and its revisions over the years, the 3,500-word document that King John’s rebellious barons forced him to accept stands as a statement of legal principles that continues to resonate in Britain and beyond. Its most important provisions include that justice should be done not arbitrarily, but according to the law of the land; that justice cannot be sold; and that no one, even the monarch, is above the law.
The National Trust is now opening a permanent commemoration of the charter, in the form of a new work by Mark Wallinger. Writ in Water, as it is called, is an entire building. The artist – who won the 2007 Turner prize and whose statue of Christ, Ecce Homo, was the first contemporary sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth – teamed up with architect James Lowe to produce what is his largest-scale single work to date.
As you approach it across the meadows, the first thing you see is a simple buff-coloured structure that seems almost flat, like a chunk of wall, but gradually reveals itself as a low, circular edifice. We are used to seeing odd structures on National Trust land – things that “seem to hold some promise”, as Wallinger says. It might call to mind the follies or temples at grand 18th-century estates such as Stourhead in Dorset. At the same time, it has an unusual solemnity and groundedness, almost appearing to be part of the little plateau on which it stands.
That is partly an effect of the material, which is rammed earth – sand and gravel quarried locally, compacted with a little cement and gradually built up. “It was important that it seemed to grow out of the land,” says Wallinger, “as if it was laying down its own sediments.” The process of building was “almost medieval”, adds Lowe. It was a complex project: the difficulty of building on a site that includes a flood plain, and dealing with what the artist calls “all the various bureaucracies”, means the project is opening three years late, on the 803rd rather than the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
The surface of the walls is rough, pebbly, even friable. “It invites you touch it, to explore it,” says Lowe. “We didn’t want anything polished.” When you step inside, through a simple rectangular opening, you are confronted with another circular wall, several feet ahead – or rather several cubits ahead, since everything is measured using this ancient system based on the distance between the tip of the middle finger and the crook of the elbow.
You can now turn left or right, widdershins or clockwise, the choice generally offered at the entrance of a maze. These structures have preoccupied Wallinger since, as a young man, he cycled from Paris to Chartres and saw the medieval labyrinth set into the floor of its cathedral. Travellers on the London Underground can spot his works depicting labyrinths in all 270 of its stations; each is different and each, in its rounded shape, subtly recalls the distinctive tube logo designed by Frank Pick in the early 20th century.
At Chartres, the labyrinth contains the idea of a meditative journey, or an acolyte’s progress, to Jerusalem. “I want this place to have a bit of a sense of pilgrimage, too,” says Wallinger, as we walk into a gloomy corridor, the darkness relieved by small apertures positioned regularly, like numbers on a clock face. Then, all of a sudden, an opening appears and we enter an inner chamber containing a round pool that’s echoed by a large opening in the roof – an oculus, as in the roof of the Pantheon in Rome.
Around the edge of the pool, laser-cut into its stainless-steel rim, are the crucial clauses of Magna Carta: “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.” But they are in mirror-writing, so they can be read only as they are reflected in the pool. They are writ in water, as the title goes.
The title was suggested to Wallinger by the words on John Keats’s tomb in Rome: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” – an epitaph that reeks with anxiety about the potential ephemerality of an artist’s work. Mirrors and reflections are another abiding interest of Wallinger’s, often because of the way they draw attention to the workings of the eye and the act of perception.
“There’s that moment when you are having your eye test,” he says, “when the optician says, ‘Which is better, the left eye or the right?’– and you can’t phone a friend. You are thrown back on to your own senses.” The image might also recall what actually happened at Runnymede: the king did not sign Magna Carta, but put his seal to it, an image that is reversed when pressed into wax.
Puns and wordplay are also important to Wallinger, not least the nominative determinism of his forename – in his role as someone who “makes marks”. The words that seem to dance across the surface of the water are a secular kind of “writ” but, despite their longevity, they are also intangible, unlike what might be carved into stone – a reminder that Britain lacks a written constitution.
“When I was proposing the work,” says Wallinger, “Magna Carta was invoked when MPs tried to block the government proposal to hold suspected terrorists for up to 42 days without charge. Magna Carta is the beginning of common law and the progress to what are now called human rights. These rights had to be fought for tooth and nail. They were never bestowed by benevolent rulers. These can seem like a guaranteed birthright, but they need to be learned anew and maintained through every generation. And we can see how threatened they can be by the appeals of populism or fundamentalism.”
Being inside this structure is like being inside a sanctuary. It is hushed – the rumble of the A road is dulled by the walls. It invites contemplation. The sky was grey and flat the day we were there, but I could imagine shafts of sunlight falling into the chamber, clouds rushing across the aperture, or even the moon hovering in the water’s surface. As it was, I could see oak branches from a nearby tree and the occasional crow flapping lazily over.
To Wallinger’s immense delight, since the building was put up in the brutal cold of last winter, two pairs of swallows have nested, huddling up next to the rafters. (There are 52 rafters, reflecting the weeks of the year, just as the low apertures in the outer walls recall the months, as well as the minutes and hours on a clock face.)
As we talk, the birds dart up past us into the oculus and back to their nests in the outer passageway. I sit on the bench that lines the wall of the chamber and am reminded not only of the Pantheon, but also of the simplicity and ancientness of stone circles; of Scottish brochs and of medieval castle towers that would have been familiar to John and his barons. Wallinger’s literary touchstone is James Joyce, so it is hard not to think, too, of the Martello tower at the start of Ulysses. But he also quotes the first line of Finnegans Wake: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation”. Starting mid-sentence, this is, in fact, a continuation of the last line of the book: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the”. So that Joyce’s book, like this artwork, is circular.
Wallinger has been to look at some of the early versions of Magna Carta. He laughs uproariously as he recalls being shown, with absolutely zero ceremony, the one at Oxford. “I was surprised when they opened what seemed a fairly ordinary filing cabinet to get it out. You would have thought there would have been some kind of preamble.” It was modest in size, plain and sparsely decorated. “A humbling little thing,” he says. Now Magna Carta has its own humbling little sanctuary, too.
• Writ in Water opens to the public on 16 June.