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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Alain John: He Didn’t Make it to Old Age, But He Did Make a Statue of Christ

He didn’t make it to old age, but he did make a statue that has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation, remarkably, there are in fact two copies. One is situated at his old school in Devon, and the other is situated in the ruins of a bombed Cathedral in England. Here is Alain’s story.

As part of some on-going Armenian family history research, I recently came across the name of Alain Jordan Clement John. His father Jordan Constantine John had been born in 1886 in Calcutta to Armenian parents Joseph Mackertich John and Annie Jordan.  The surname John being anglicised from the Armenian name of Hovhannes to Johannes and finally to John.  Joseph had migrated to India from Julfa in Persia. He married Annie Jordan daughter of Arratoon Jordan in November 1874 at the Railway Church in Lahore. Joseph and Annie had at least five children (although I think there may well have been six). Mary Ripsimah in 1875, Lilly Constance in 1879, Amelia Regina in 1881, Hosannah Margaret in 1884 and Jordan Constantine in 1886.  

Simple family tree of Alain Jordan John

Jordan John had been a dedicated medical man of the military, choosing to join up and serve with the Indian Medical Service in 1912.  His commitment and bravery carried him up through the ranks as far as Lieutenant-Colonel. Jordan was awarded an O.B.E. in June 1919 for his actions in the First World War and he had been mentioned in despatches back home.

Jordan, like so many from India, including the Armenian community, had been educated in England at Dulwich. Graduating to King’s College Cambridge he was admitted in October 1905 gaining a B.A. in 1908 and an M.B. in 1912.  Medicine was the direction in which he wanted to channel his attentions and he gained further qualifications as a doctor (M.R.C.S. England) and L.R.C.P. (London) in 1910.  Jordan’s first position was at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and he became the House Physician and Ophthalmic House Surgeon.

Immediately after the honour of the O.B.E. had been bestowed on him, Jordan had married Alice Morel in the middle of 1919, and with India in his heart they returned to Asia where on the 20th June the following year Alain was born in Karachi, India.

Like his father, Alain was also sent back to England to be educated.  He was enrolled at Blundell’s School in Devon in 1932 aged 12, where he excelled and became a “brilliant” student. Alain’s artistic flair had been noticed by his teachers and his particular interest in sculpture was something he began to shine at, in fact he was regarded as one of Britain’s upcoming sculptors, and all before his 20th birthday.  Having finished his education at Blundell’s, and just like his father, Alain passed the entrance exam to King’s College Cambridge and at Christmas 1938 his father suggested Alain return to India to “see the world and travel a bit” before starting university in the following October. But Alain’s choice to stay in England would be one that would have a lasting effect not just for his family but for anyone touched by the cruel ravages of war.

As a tribute to Blundell’s, the school full of wonderful memories that gave him a sound education, he decided he wanted to cast a sculpture of Peter Blundell who founded the school in 1604. Instead of conceding to his father and travelling, he continued to stay at the school and spent the next school term attempting to make a sculpture. It was meant to stand in a high niche overlooking the quadrangle but he was not happy with it and abandoned that model and started again, this time working on a model of St. Peter. Unhappy with that creation he then moved on to modelling ‘Christ blessing the multitude’. Determined he wanted to complete this developing figure he continued to work on it night and day, from the early hours ‘til late at night. In fact his determination, (most definitely an Armenian trait!)  was so great that he checked himself into a local hotel during the Easter holidays when the school was closed, just so that he could continue to work on the piece.  Eric Gill, a respected and successful English sculptor at the time said of Alain’s clay model “no finer piece of work has been done in this country this year by anyone. This thing is superb and you cannot possibly risk casting it yourselves.” But Blundell’s did indeed cast it, and the 7ft figure stands over the porch in a niche looking down over the school quadrangle.

Blundell School and Alain's statue in the tower


At the commencement of World War 2 Alain signed up with the Royal Air Force in England, apparently telling his friends “if war comes to us I shall join the Royal air Force. It’s a quick death.” Preferring to stay with his friends from school he became a Navigator Sergeant eschewing an officer’s commission in favour of flying in the team of sergeants made up of his familiar school pals.

He flew many bombing flights across the Channel. The battle of Berlin commenced 18-19 November 1943 and although it is difficult to confirm if he was part of this operation, it is very likely that he was.

Alain’s old headmaster Neville Gorton went on to become the Bishop of Coventry. It was he who was so impressed with the young Alain’s work that he commissioned it to be re-cast in concrete. It stands today in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral forming part of the memorial to those who lost their lives in the war. A young man’s life, like so many, snatched by the consequence of conflict had no idea that he left a legacy not least one with such poignancy.

What is quite extraordinary about Alain is that he appears to have dropped off service records. The online Forces War Records do not have anything on him, he cannot be found in the RAF records held by other online sites, he cannot be found on the Commonwealth War Graves records, he cannot be found in any military records generally. It is quite likely that his records are still with the RAF.

I am grateful to Aidan McRae Thomson for allowing me to use his image of the statue at Coventry Cathedral.  This and many others can be found of Aidan’s Flickr page.

The statue of Christ by Alain John



The inscription on the statue reads
This is a second casting, in concrete of a statue at Blundell’s School in Devon. It was created by an 18 year old pupil, Alain John. The Headmaster, Neville Gorton, later became Bishop of Coventry and on the death of Alain John, an RAF navigator, in 1943 at the age of 23, the statue was recast for Coventry as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the war.
The statue represents Christ blessing the multitude.

Jordan John ended his days in Jersey in the Channel Islands, dying there in 1970.

Alain a bachelor died at the home of his spinster aunt Amelia (sister of Jordan John) in Drewstead Road, Surrey aged just 23 years.  He is buried with his Armenian grandparents, Joseph Mackertich John and Annie nee Jordan in West Norwood Cemetery, London. He sustained injuries on one of the bombing raids on Germany in December 1943 and succumbed to them on the 21st December.

A Julfan descendant, Alain was yet another Armenian from India who gave his life in a conflict.

The grave of Joseph Mackertich John
his wife Annie and their grandson
Alain John

Sources used:

The Times, 29 December 1943, Obituary of Alain John
British Library India Office Records
King’s College Cambridge Alumni List
London and Edinburgh Gazette, various references to WW1 and WW2
Forces War
Blundell’s School History
British Newspaper Archive
Flickr - Aidan McRae Thomson
My own private research files

Friday, 29 May 2015

Petrus Uscan: After I Die Cut Out My Heart and Send It To Julfa

As I slowly transcribe all 179 pages of Petrus Uscan's will,  a couple of items have caught my attention.

The first page states:

"I Petrus Uscan desire my executors to perform the same and followth viz.

In India in the town of Madraspatnam January 19th 1750 I made this my last will before my Creator Almighty God and my confessor and Reverend Padryes and Armenian gentlemen.

I Petrus Uscan native of Julpha descended from Armenians, at the abovementioned time do declare my faith and find myself by the Grace of God, in good health, sound senses firm memory and apprehension.

But knowing that death is certain to all mankind and having the said certainty, do now prepare myself with those things which may make my conscience easy, and give rest to my soul. I do firmly believe in the Most High Majesty of the Trinity of Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one true God, and in all mysteries, which are Mother Catholick and Apostolic Church of Roman believes, professeth and teacheth. In which our Illuminator Saint Gregory believed and teached to his followers, in whose faith we are to believe and die orthodox and faithfull Christians and in the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, Mass High Queen of the angels who conceived without sin, and is an advocate for us in heaven......."

In this detailed and meticulous Will, these points sprang out at me

(1) The European physician who was tasked with cutting out his heart, was paid 100 Pagodas.
(2) The box his heart was put in for the journey to Julfa cost 12 pagodas.
(3) And then.......he was pretty miffed at the Armenian Church for "squandering" its money, so much so, he wrote it in his Will and left them nothing bar a meagre 100 Pagodas to be given to the poor.

Here are a couple of other things that caught my eye.

On how he wanted to be buried:

"......they [his executors]  shall purchase a habit of the Franciscan Order with which habit they shall dress my corps and lay the same in a coffin........." 

Bemoaning how it was difficult sometimes for Petrus Uscan to sell his merchandise:

"......And there were two small chests of opium which lay at Madrass for several years and no one would buy them for 15 or 20 Rupees..........."

On how some men were simply not to be trusted, and he had fallen for one of them:

"....God deliver us from unexperienced and fantastical men....."

This is by far the longest and largest Armenian Will written in India and it makes for fascinating reading.

Oil painting of Petus Uscan circ 1737

Image courtesy of "New Julfa. The Armenian Churches And Other Buildings" by John Carswell.