The Art of Memory: Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London

The most sincere tribute I can pay to The Art of Memory is that I so wish I had written it myself. Back in the 90s, when I worked for English Heritage assessing churchyards and cemeteries in London, I realised there was no overview of outdoor sepulchral sculpture. James Stevens Curl’s A Celebration of Death (1980) gave a brave overview of funereal architecture. Hugh Meller had led the way in identifying the figures of interest in London cemeteries in 1983, and the Victorian Society’s Mortal Remains (1989) had made an elegant case for why cemeteries mattered. But what of the tombs themselves? Which ones mattered? Cemeteries were entering a crisis, with collapse and theft all around. Our explorations felt like pioneering forays, peering behind the brambles to make discoveries. In Kensal Green, I found tombs signed by T. Woolner and Princess Louise. This book is about discovery too.

Much of the greatest sculpture ever produced in England has been inspired by loss and remembrance. In earlier centuries, this was placed inside churches, which became storehouses of monuments – places of worship, and galleries of secular memory. During the seventeenth century, outdoor commemoration took off as headstones began to be erected. These wonderful memorials seldom aspired to the status of sculpture, and the numbers of Georgian outdoor sculpted memorials is tiny. Just how sculpture arrived in the cemetery is a topic ripe for exploration: compared with gravestone studies in America, say, Britain lags far behind.

Barnes’s latest book provides a survey of the most interesting sculpted tombs in the Capital. Briskly written, and well-researched, it is an accessibl e and attractive arrival in the small field of books on English cemeteries. It opens with James Stevens Curl supplying a characteristically forthright overview of the Enlightenment origins of the cemetery movement, a field he has made very much his own. It supplies the intellectual (and international) context for the rise of these gardens of death, and ends with a barbed observation about how ‘minds uncluttered with cant are open to more agreeable stimuli than those unconnected with sensibility or the optic nerve’. Richard Barnes’s sensibility and optic nerve are each in fine fettle, and he opens up a new field of interest.

The Art of Memory is a survey of 102 outdoor memorials. Almost all of them are in London’s cemeteries, with Brookwood Cemetery near Woking being allowed inclusion as it was once linked to the Capital by railway. The first entry in the book is in a churchyard: William Hogarth’s pedestal tomb at St Nicholas, Chiswick, raised after his death in 1764 and allowed coverage here because of its relief panels. If that permits inclusion, then there are an awful lot of other Georgian monuments which might have been included too: and that is my only beef with this book, its brisk canter past the precedents. Perhaps that is another project for Barnes’s Frontier Publishing, an imprint which has brought several admirable books on sculpture to the public, ranging from his earlier book on obelisks and John Bell, to Geoff Archer’s surveys of First World War memorial sculpture, and of public art. 

The 102 chosen tombs are judiciously selected, with only a few slightly humdrum inclusions (perhaps to make the economic point that tomb production was a huge industry, and – as with clothing – to concentrate on the chic one-off pieces by notable sculptors is to skew our understanding of the norms of commemoration). Full use is made of the new discoveries as cemetery monuments begin to be investigated: The London Dead blog-site is a particularly good source for these, and is highly recommended. My personal favourite memorial here is the Lancaster tomb in East Sheen Cemetery of 1922, by Sydney March (main image). The grieving angel clings to the monument, her huge wings virtuoso displays of bronze-casting. Are my feelings towards it harmed by knowing that he was a bigamist? Probably not, but they are enhanced by the knowledge that this tomb was something of a tug of love. The emotions behind these tombs come out repeatedly: and Barnes does a good job in supplying the necessary background. On the cover is the angel of death, from the Herbert Allingham tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery. A surgeon, he overdosed on morphine in a Marseilles hotel in 1904, not long after the death of his wife, who is depicted as a reclining effigy beneath, with her lap-dog. Barnes provides a tantalising idea in suggesting that Albert Toft may have been involved.

There is much choice sculpture here for the connoisseur too, brought out well by Charles Slade’s colour photographs. Connections are made with gallery sculpture, which help to set the memorials against their background most helpfully: the debt to Bartolini’s seated statue of La Fiducia in Dio, (1835), for instance, in a number of London tombs helps to explain how artistic influence actually worked, and where inspiration was sought. Many tombs here are utter one-offs. William Mulready RA (d.1863) is remembered at Kensal Green with a canopy tomb over a fine smiling effigy, his most celebrated paintings being reproduced around the base in sgraffito; the whole is executed in Pulhamite, an artificial stone, and modelled by Godfrey Sykes. Here is the High Victorian art scene at its most inventive, drawing on the past but presenting an idiosyncratic tribute to one of the period’s finest artists. It also reminds one how tombs combine the arts.

It is a wonder that so many of these memorials are still with us, given the near-total breakdown in any culture of care-taking. London’s damp (and once sulphurous) climate is no friend to many materials, and the poignancy of human loss is compounded by sepulchral decay. ‘The texture of memory’ may be an over-used phrase these days, but these monuments possess it in spades. Theft, stone decay, discolouring, fractures: all are present which makes the consideration of these tombs quite painful in some ways. More conservation is being undertaken in cemeteries, and it is good to see the Whistler tomb in Old Chiswick Cemetery here, its corner sentinel figures reinstated in 1996 (in resin, after earlier bronze replacements were stolen). Bronze is the heroic, enduring material of prestige here: most of the Carrara marble depicted is now weathered and stained, its outdoor deployment never a good long-term decision. What a shame there weren’t more memorials with ceramic components: Gilbert Bayes’ Assyrian reliefs on the mausoleum of Sir Dorabji Tata (d.1932) in Brookwood, Surrey, survive in impeccable condition.

Cemetery sculpture has an uneasy relationship with public sculpture more widely. It is semi-private, it stands in thronged places amid hordes of other tombs, and it is often unsigned; were it in more prominent places, it would have attracted greater study (such as inclusion in the PMSA’s survey volumes – only very exceptionally is it included), and greater care. This fine introduction to the sculptural highlights of London’s cemeteries should help draw more people in to discover these places for themselves. Some cemeteries are enjoying an Indian Summer of participation: Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green are in the vanguard. Overall, however, the current levels of visiting in most cemeteries is strikingly low. Richard Barnes is a trusty guide and as good a companion in search of tombs as one could wish for.

Main image: Memorial to George William Lancaster, 1922, by Sydney March, Grade II Listed, East Sheen Cemetery, Surrey (photo: © Richard Barnes).

Aurora Corio