Hello all – I think I can just about get away with still wishing you all a Happy New Year!
Well, here we are in another lockdown and so I won’t be poking about in churchyards or cemeteries for a while.
So I took the opportunity to look through my photos from last year just before the first lockdown when I could still be out and about in local churchyards and cemeteries which I haven’t previously posted.
The above headstone is from All Saints in Frindsbury near Strood. The church perches on top of a hill looking down on the town and its churchyard was recommended to me by an old friend. There were some spectacular views of the River Medway down below as its sapphire stream glinted in the Spring sunshine.. When I got there, the trimming of the long grass around the memorials had literally stopped in mid cut and I had to be careful where I walked. I didn’t want to trip over kerb stones hidden in the long grass.
I found this and, although the shaking hands motif is usually associated with a man and wife saying goodbye, here it looks as though a mother and son are saying goodbye. The hands are those of a man and a woman and, although, the father has been added on at the bottom, the son was the first to be buried there. William Masters died young at only 20 and his mother died 22 years later.
In the shaking hands, the deceased is traditionally holding the hand of the living as they part. It can mean goodbye or the deceased guiding the living into eternal life later. It is usually associated with marriage with the visible cuffs delineating them. The frilly hand on the right hand side is a woman and the left hand one is the man with the plainer, more formal cuff.
It was an interesting churchyard and was also in the middle of two cemeteries – the East and the West. These were mainly 19th and 20th century burials but a bright Spring carpet of primroses and foaming white Blackthorn blossom made them appear colourful and bright.
I will be discussing one of the more enigmatic symbols that I found in All Saints in the next blog.
What a strange long trip it’s been as a member of the legendary ‘60’s band, The Grateful Dead, once said and it could apply so well to 2020.
At this time last year I suspect that hardly any of us were prepared for COVID and its devastating effects. Who could have predicted what was to come?
But here we are.
Still trying to make sense of it all and how our lives have changed.
But, when exploring cemeteries and churchyards, you often discover evidence of previous epidemics such as cholera or the Spanish flu. For example, Joseph Bonomi’s headstone in London’s Brompton Cemetery is inscribed with the names of 4 of his children who died of whooping cough in one week.
During this pandemic people have turned to cemeteries and churchyards as quiet places in which to exercise or just sit and enjoy the fine Spring weather and the reduced carbon emissions.
The angel on this year’s card comes from Brompton Cemetery and she often wears a coat of ivy.
I hope no-one thought that Shadowsflyaway was running out of steam with no Symbol of the Month last month for the first time in five years since this blog began. In October, I had teething troubles with an unexpected update from WordPress but that has resolved itself. But this time it’s the effects of lockdown, and travel restrictions and a lack of funds.
However, there are still so many stories to discover and share with you. I love the thrill of finding an undiscovered gem hidden under tendrils of ivy or beneath the spreading yew tree that has sheltered it for centuries.
I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a brighter 2021.
Poking about in churchyards as is my wont is how I discover symbols to write about. So it was while exploring 2 churchyards in Kent that I discovered this month’s symbol.
This is the All Seeing Eye, also known as The Eye of Providence, and is usually depicted as a single realistic eye within a triangle or within a burst of light. I’ve always associated it with Freemasons as it appears on their documents. But neither of these headstones had any other symbols often linked with Freemasons such as the square and compass. So what did it mean?
The one in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford had what looked like two snakes bordering it together with other familiar memento symbols. Sadly the epitaph is now illegible.
The second one is in the churchyard of All Saints in Frindsbury and this intriguing version on the grave of the Caryer family. The Kent Archaeological Society thought that it might represent the Woman of Samuria as featured in John 4.4-26 but I’m not sure about that. The epitaph reads:
To the memory of
Hannah wife of John Caryer
Died 9th Sept 1809 aged 30 years
Also Robert her son
Died 28th June 1801 aged 8 years
Also the above John Caryer
Died 11th March 1814 aged (4)2 years.’
The earliest known representation of The Eye is in a painting called ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by the Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo in 1525. This was painted during the Renaissance and it depicts the second part of the Second Appearance story in Luke 24: verses 13.35:
And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.
But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.
And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.
And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.
As you can see the Eye is above Christ’s head which shows that God is watching the event and so can be seen as a Christian symbol. On the Ancient Origins website it’s claimed that
‘the elements surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning. For example, the triangle surrounding the eye also have a Christian meaning in that it’s a clear reference to the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The burst of light is meant to symbolise divinity, holiness and God himself’
Within the Bible there are many references to The Eye in the context of God keeping watch and observing in Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus and also from Psalms 33: verse 18:
‘The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.
Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy . . . .
The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.’
But older religions and faiths such as Hinduism and the Ancient Egyptians also had an eye symbol that was central to their beliefs.
In Egypt it was known as the Eye of Horus. Even today it’s still used as an emblem of protection and good health. The Eye was also known as a wadjet (the whole one), wedjat or udjat. Sailors would often paint the Eye of Horus on the prows of their ships to ensure a safe voyage. I’m sure that I’ve seen this on a boat or two in some of Hollywood’s classic sword and sandal epics! The depiction of the Eye of Horus is said to resemble the markings on a falcon’s eye due to the teardrop marking which is sometimes found below the eye as here. This would make sense as Horus is usually shown as a falcon. There are several myths about Horus and his eye. For instance, in one of them Horus fought with Set who gouged out Horus’s left eye which was later restored by the goddess Hathor.
The Eye also appears on the US one dollar bill. But it made its first appearance as a Freemason symbol on the personal seal of Robert Moray (1609-1673) who was a Scottish Freemason. Then during the 18th century it appeared again in two Freemason books, one of which was Thomas Smith Webb’s ‘Freemasonry Monitor’ and, by the 19th century, it had become part of the permanent hieroglyphical emblems of the Freemasons. There are other associations with the Illuminati and, if you’re interested, there is more information online.
But with these two All Seeing Eye symbols I think that they were meant, as they often are, to be a comforting message. The All Seeing Eye meant that the departed were being watched over and so were the bereaved.
One of the greatest cemeteries in London is Highgate in North London. Crammed with the great and good and also some of the not so good it contains some of the most dramatic funerary architecture to be found in the capital.
The cemetery is bisected by Swain’s Lane with Highgate West on one side and Highgate East on the other. Usually the West side can only be accessed by being on an official tour but this year it was a little different……
Social distancing, in this case, was a good thing! As The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust(FOHCT) were unable to hold tours during the summer they cunningly decided to offer ‘free range’ tours instead. For £10 you could book a time, agree to follow a few sensible rules on safety etc and then wander round the West side at will. And if you had the energy, as Highgate West is large, have a look round the East side as well. The West is very overgrown and FOHCT like their visitors to be safe. They didn’t want their visitors to have a nasty accident and then haunt them forever more.
Please note that I have covered Highgate in a previous post – 16/2/2016 to be exact so some memorials mentioned here will have been covered more fully in that post.
So, on 10 July, I entered through the arch of the chapel and into the green cathedral of the West side. The trees had linked arms above the graves, monuments and memorials to form a canopy over the entire site. It felt as if everything was bathed in green light as I walked up the hill. At its highest point Highgate is 375 feet above sea level. Cemeteries are often built on these as their permanent residents are nearer ‘my God to thee.’
I passed the empty chair memorial to a young actress and spotted a pelican in her piety symbol amongst the undergrowth. The overgrown nature of the West side gives it a real charm and mystery. A helpful steward directed me to the Rossetti group of graves which I’d always wanted to see but he also pointed out the grave of a woman who had died when her dress had caught alight. Apparently this only ceased with the coming of the mini-skirt and possibly central heating.
The Rossettis have their own path named after them but the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not buried with them. Instead his parents Gabriele (1783-1854) and Frances (1800-1886), his brother William (1829-1919) and William’s wife Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894), who was the only daughter of Ford Madox Brown, his sister Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Dante’s wife Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862) occupy the plot.
Lizzie features as the model in several of Dante’s paintings and the Victorian web points out that she died aged 32 instead of at 30. She was addicted to laudanum which was derived from opium and was a Victorian cure-all. Laudanum was prescribed for morning sickness and cranky infants amongst others. It was easy to become addicted and she succumbed. Lizzie was pregnant at the time of her death, although she may not have known it, and had already had a stillborn child with Dante. It is still not known if she died of an overdose or a deliberate act of suicide. However, she was a talented artist in her own right and some of her work was featured in the 2019 exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
But Lizzie has also been commemorated by an act that occurred after her death. One of Dante’s early biographers recorded it:
On the day of the funeral Rossetti walked into the chamber in which the body lay. In his hand was a book into which at her bidding he had copied his poems. Regardless of those present he spoke to her as though she were still living, telling her that the poems were written to her and were hers, and that she must take them with her. He then placed the volume beside her face in the coffin, leaving it to be buried with her in Highgate Cemetery. This touching scene will some day doubtless be the subject of a picture. Time, after its wont, hallowed and sanctified the memory of loss, but the bereavement was long and keenly felt. Meanwhile, the entombment of Rossetti’s poems had an effect upon which the writer had not calculated. They were familiar to many friends, and passages of them were retained in the recollection of some. These poems were during subsequent years the subject of much anxiety and wonderment, and the existence of the buried treasure was mentioned with reverence and sympathy, and with something of awe. Seven years later Rossetti, upon whom pressure to permit the exhumation of the volume had constantly been put, gave a reluctant consent With the permission of the Home Secretary the coffin was opened” by a friend of Rossetti and the volume was withdrawn. [Knight 76] from the Victorian Web site
It would haunt Dante for the rest of his life. In one of his most famous paintings ‘Beata Beatrix’ painted in 1869, which is an amalgam of several drawings of Lizzie, a white poppy features. The red dove represents their love and the poppy the laudanum that hastened her death. It’s derived from poppies. Dante died in 1882 and is buried at Birchington-on- Sea.
William Rossetti was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote widely. He was also the biographer of his family. One of Christina’s most famous poems was ‘Goblin Market’ and she also featured in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’
I returned to the path but discovered a selection of the rich and famous as I walked up to the Circle of Lebanon.
Alas, the venerable 250 year old Cedar of Lebanon after which it was named succumbed to old age in 2019. It was a survivor from the Ashurst estate on which Highgate West was built on and was an impressive sight. Now a wildflower garden stands on the spot. I had come out onto the upper terrace and from there I could see the layout of the Circle much more clearly. There are some impressive monuments here: Nero the lion eternally slumbers on the Wombwell monument. George Wombwell was a Victorian menagarist who owned 3 travelling animal shows. The monument to John Maple features low relief carvings from the life of Christ. He owned a very successful furniture business which occupied a large site on Tottenham Court Road. It no longer exists. The Circle is built in the Classical style and the inner circle contains 20 vaults and another 16 were added in 1870.
The Terrace catacombs were closed although I have been inside them on a previous visit. By contrast they are in the Gothic style and were built on an existing terrace from the Ashurst estate. The frontage is 8 yards long with room for 825 people in 55 vaults each containing 15 loculi or coffin spaces. I was reduced to peering through a doorway on this occasion before turning to the magnificent Beer mausoleum which was built for his 8 year old daughter, Ada.
As it was a self-guided tour I had time to admire the summer wildflowers which were growing in profusion. Cemeteries are good places to find these; Acanthus, ragwort, verbena, Ladies Bedstraw, Vipers Bugloss, Rosemary Willowherb and also a buddleia in full bloom studded with Peacock butterflies on Faraday Path.
A sidepath from the Circle led me along another path which I’d not previously seen. The atmosphere seemed different and it was certainly darker, perhaps due to a thicker tree canopy, as I walked along it to a gate at the other end. This would have originally opened onto Swain’s Lane and there was what appeared to be a former gatekeeper’s lodge nearby. It still bore the monogram of the London Cemetery Company who were the original owners of Highgate cemetery. Time slips have been reported along this path and I wondered if it was the gate through which a man is reported to look out at unwary passers-by.
I retraced my steps towards the magnificent Egyptian Avenue one of Highgate’s highlights. Tom Sayer’s monument lay to my right with his faithful dog, Lion, eternally keeping guard and then the Sleeping Angel. This is dedicated to Mary Nichols who was a Londoner who died in 1909 from heart failure and diabetes. It’s a lovely tribute.
The horse on top of the Acheler memorial records John Acheler who became wealthy and well known as a ‘Knacker’. He called himself ‘horse slaughterer to Queen Victoria’.
And then the Egyptian Avenue! The centrepiece of Highgate West in my opnion. It may be looking a little tired but it’s a magnificent example of how the Egyptian explorations of the 19th century influenced funerary architecture. Note the two large obelisks flanking the entrance and the stylised lotus flowers on the columns as you enter through the arch and into the passage that will take you into the lower tier of the Circle.
The Avenue was also a catacomb but they were never really popular as other London cemeteries soon realised. After all if Highgate couldn’t sell all theirs then who could? The passage contains 16 vaults on either side which were each fitted with shelves to hold 12 coffins. These were bought by individual families for their own use.
By then I thought it was time to explore the East cemetery while I still had the energy.
Wildflowers were also in profusion here: clover, bird’s foot trefoil and vetch Butterflies flew about on the heat of a late summer afternoon.
I saw my favourites; Jeremy Beadle, Malcolm McLaren, Karl Marx and Patrick Caulfield. There was also the grand piano dedicated surprisingly enough to a pianist, Henry Thornton, who died in 1918 during the ’flu epidemic.
The East side isn’t as overgrown as the West side and as I explored further I found a memorial which highlighted a dog. This was dedicated to Ann Jewson Crisp and her faithful dog Emperor.
But as I left the East side I spotted another of its more celebrated residents settling down for a siesta behind the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds’, memorial. It was a cemetery cat who was soon hidden deep in the grass and I didn’t want to disturb him or her. What a playground!
As I left the East Cemetery and walked down Swain’s Lane to Archway tube station I still had time to admire my ideal des res – Holly Village – which was built by Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. It is said that she planned it with Charles Dickens. She built the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial in St Pancras Old Burying ground.
This is from Folklore Thursday and is about the rural traditions of death omens in Herefordshire. I have always found it incredible that these traditions survive in our modern world. The one concerning Hawthorn blossom is one that I already knew about but you do wonder how they began.
Was it coincidence that, hundred of years ago for example, someone heard an owl screech and a death happened soon afterwards. So the two events became forever linked so that if an owl screeched our ancestors expected a death to happen soon after. Or were our ancestors more in tune with nature than perhaps we are and could read the signs and signals.
In case you were wondering why there hasn’t been much activity on shadowsflyaway recently, it’s because WordPress has had an upgrade. I apparently now have a website instead of a blog.
This wasn’t something that I had anticipated but they have upgraded or updated me so here we are. I’m trying to work out where everything is at the moment. But I’ll get there and be posting away before long.
The angel up above is a male angel which is unusual in Victorian cemeteries. He is in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. If you think he look scary or a little creepy without his head, I have seen archive photos of him with a head and, believe me, he doesn’t look any less unnerving!
The skull and crossbones. One of the central motifs of 18th century Memento Mori and intended to be a stark and macabre reminder of the viewer’s inevitable destination. This would be all that would remain of you after death.
However it wasn’t a very comforting message to either the loved ones left behind or to the living.
But fashions and tastes change, even in funerary symbolism, and the skull and crossbones had served their purpose.
Instead they were replaced by the winged soul. This consisted of a small child’s head flanked by a pair of wings or a garland of leaves. They have the faces of babies with big, round eyes, plump cheeks and pouting lips and resemble Renaissance putti which are child-like. Putti represent the sacred cherub as they are known in England.
The winged soul may have been intended to be a more comforting image as the wings represented the soul of the deceased ascending to heaven. This could also give hope of a resurrection to those left behind. According to headstone symbols:
‘In the USA the winged soul is known as a soul effigy.’
It was immensely popular and in my explorations of medieval Kent churches and their churchyards I found many examples. In fact, in one or two churchyards they outnumbered the skull and crossbones symbol. They mainly had one winged soul on a headstone but there were sometimes two or three clustered together as in these examples:
They can also appear in several combinations with other classic memento mori symbols as here:
In addition, every mason seemed to have his own interpretation of feathers as they can be carved as typical fluffy feathers, resemble broad leaves or be very stylised.
With wings in general they are an important symbol of spirituality. They express the possibility of flying and rising upwards to heaven. For example, in the Hindu faith, they are:
‘the expression of freedom to leave earthly things behind…..to reach Paradise.’
However, as the full flowering of the Victorian language of death in the 19th century began to appear the emblems of memento mori were retired. Although a couple, such as the hourglass and ouroboros, were revived. But I did find two modern examples of the winged soul in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford, Kent.
I had always previously thought of the winged soul as being a more general symbol and just a decorative feature. I called them winged cherub heads or death heads and never considered that they might have had a specific meaning or purpose. It was exciting to see so many variations and interpretations sometimes within the same churchyard. But it depended on the skills of the mason as to how well they were carved and whether they were 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional.
But as a message of comfort it is one of the most poignant in memento mori. The other central motifs emphasise time running out, think about your life now and this is all that will be left. The winged soul suggests an eternal life and a more uplifting message.
When out exploring large Victorian cemeteries you may see the welcome sight of an empty chair on top of a grave. However, please don’t give into the urge to perch yourself on it for a quick rest but instead, ponder on its meaning.
An empty chair is intended as a reminder of loss, absence and a memory of someone dear who has now gone.
It’s one of the most poignant symbols of loss and is a staple of old Hollywood movies and also some soap operas. There’s a large family gathering, preferably at Christmas, and everyone’s round the table. Then, in the middle of all of the jollity, the camera pans down to an empty space set with cutlery and china and a vacant chair. Then it all grows quiet as everyone looks at it and remembers the absent family member.
Douglas Keister has suggested that these memorials can often be found on childrens graves with a tiny pair of shoes attached and one usually on its side. He considers that they are obviously associated with the death of a child or young person and, in his book, Stories in Stone, he cites a poem by Richard Coe, Jr that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in January 1850.
THE VACANT CHAIR
by Richard Coe, Jr.
When we gather round our hearth,
Consecrated by the birth
Of our eldest, darling boy,
Only one thing mars our joy:
‘Tis the dreary corner, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair!
Little Mary, bright and blest,
Early sought her heavenly rest.
Oft we see her in our dreams
Then an angel one she seems!
But we oftener see her, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.
But ’twere sinful to repine;
Much of joy to me and mine
Has the gentle Shepherd given.
Little Mary is in heaven!
Blessed thought! while gazing where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.
Many parents, kind and good,
Lost to them their little brood,
Bless their Maker night and day,
Though he took their all away!
Shall we, therefore, murmur, where
Stands, unfilled, one vacant chair!
Little Mary! angel blest ‘
From thy blissful place of rest,
Look upon us! angel child,
Fill us with thy spirit mild.
Keep o’er us thy watchful care;
Often fill the vacant chair.
There is also a famous Civil War ballad dedicated to an 18 year old, John William ‘Willie’ Grant who was killed at Balls Bluff, Virginia in October 1861. This also mentions ‘the empty chair’ in the context of a departed loved one.
I haven’t yet seen one dedicated to a child or young person in my explorations of UK cemeteries. Instead, the examples that I have seen are dedicated to adults both men and women. But I’m sure that I will see one dedicated to a child sooner or later.
This is in Highgate West Cemetery in London and is dedicated to Mary Emden (1853-1872). She was a 19 year old soprano who died young of TB. Mary’s real name was Marie and she and her husband, Walter, had only been married a year and a glittering career would have lain ahead of her. He was a successful architect of theatres and these include the Royal Court, the Garrick and the Duke of York’s theatres which are still standing today. Mary’s chair sits under a Gothic canopy with a sculpted stole draped across it as if she had just got up out of the chair and left it there intending to return. To read more about Mary’s life please visit: https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden
These come from Kensal Green Cemetery in London and are on the graves of two distinguished men.
This is almost a magnificent throne it’s so large! Sadly the epitaph is long gone although there appears to be a coat of arms at the top. I have been told by the Friends of Kensal Green that it’s dedicated to Charles Middleton MP. However the only Charles Middleton MP that I have found so far died in 1813 which is long before Kensal Green Cemetery was created. But it is so imposing and dramatic. When things are easier I will go back and see if I can get a better picture of the coat of arms as that may help.
This elegant chair is on the grave of Henry Russell and his wife Hannah. He was a prolific composer and one of his most celebrated works is still performed today. He was born in Sheerness on Sea in Kent which seems appropriate for the composer of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’. Henry grew up in the Anglo-Jewish community of Blue Town and he started his musical carer early at the age of 3. However, at 10 he was working in a local apothecary’s shop. This didn’t last long as it’s rumoured that he
‘gave a customer sufficient Epsom Salts to bring down an elephant’ www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness
Clearly the apothecary shop wasn’t his calling in life. But music was in his blood and, after his voice broke, he travelled to Italy to study under Rossini. On his return to England he took up the post of chorus master at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
But America was tempting him and it was there that he would discover his songwriting talent. He would also be able to collaborate with the songwriters and poets who would provide him with the lyrics that he set to music. He arrived in Rochester, New York and became an organist and choirmaster at the First Presbyterian Church.
In total he composed 800 songs and another of his most well-known ones is ‘Woodman Spare That Tree’ which was based on an incident in the lyricist, Charles Wood’s life. Russell also collaborated with such luminaries as Longfellow, Tennyson, Dickens and Thackeray. However it was Dickens who re-arranged another of Russell’s well known compositions ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ into a parody and satire based on the Tory government at the time. You can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week
But with no copyright protection Henry didn’t reap the rewards of his success and instead it was the publishers that made the money. He had already lost the £10,000 that he had made in America by investing in the United States Bank which collapsed and took all its investors’ money with it. However t was Henry’s performing that brought in the money as he was immensely popular.
Many of his works deal with social issues of the day such as slavery or private mental asylums and he raised over £7000 for victims of the Irish Famine. He returned to England in 1844, married twice and gave his final performance in 1891 when he sang at a concert given in his honour. Henry had 5 sons, two of whom followed him into the musical profession. Sir Landon Ronald Russell (1873-1938) became a conductor, pianist and composer and Henry Russell (1871-1937) who was an opera impresario.
Is it a coincidence that two of the empty chairs are on the graves of theatrical people? The throne would have suited Macbeth! I found Mary Emden’s memorial to be the most poignant with the air of someone who had just left.
However there is a sinister side to the empty chair. They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums. In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary. An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there? A prop for a photo shoot? A discarded piece of furniture?
As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page. She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair sitting in the middle of nowhere. It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that. The photographer emphasised that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.
Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne. I only hope that it’s not already occupied……
However there is a sinister side to the empty chair. They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums. In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary. An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there?
A prop for a photo shoot? A discarded piece of furniture?
As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page. She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair
sitting there in the middle of nowhere. It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that. The photographer said that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.
Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne. I only hope that it’s not already occupied……
So what can you do with a ruined, vandalised building in the middle of a wood?
Hope that it falls down and solves the problem?
Forget about it, let nature take its course and make it into a romantic ruin?
Wait for someone else to finish the job and try and blow it up again?
Luckily for the Mausoleum, there were local people who cared about it and knew what a jewel they had in their midst. They were determined to save it. So in 2001, Gravesham Council took the bold step of buying it and Cobham wood from HM Government and, with funding from Union Railways, the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme or CAMS for short was formed. This included several stakeholders such as the National Trust and English Heritage and with a £6million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund they carried out the restoration. They were lucky that Wyatt’s original drawings still existed as well as James Wraight RIBA’s 1946 full drawing with measurements which were invaluable resources. In 2010 the project won at the Kent Design Awards and the National Trust took over in 2013. It must have been a real challenge to turn a ruin back into the glorious building that it is again. It opened to the public in April 2014.
It’s a remarkable building which has survived because local people appreciated its beauty and importance.
Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society commented:
‘That it’s a reminder of thwarted sepulchral ambition and episcopal control’
and it is an apt description in many ways. For a funerary symbol enthusiast like myself it was a fascinating structure to walk around it and see the various motifs of death. I was so glad that I made the effort to visit at last.
If you want to visit the Mausoleum then be prepared for a walk. You can come up through the Ransford Nature Reserve which is a lovely stroll, especially if the poppy field is in bloom. Continue walking up through it to the top of the hill and then follow the Darnley trail through the woods. I did manage to get lost on my return journey but kept following the rule of going down all the time. The alternative is to walk through Cobham village and onto Lodge Lane at the bottom and follow the directions on the map on the noticeboard.
However, I saw the Mausoleum on sunny days but on a darker, greyer day it could feel far more eerie and melancholic. A cold wind blowing around it would remind the casual passer-by that eternal rest can be a very, very long time. Perhaps that’s the effect that the Darnleys wanted to achieve.
But then who’s to say that maybe the ghosts of long dead Darnleys don’t drift up from the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene and take up their allotted space within the Mausoleum’s crypt? There’s enough room for 32 of them after all…….
Cobham Wood can feel like a haunted place. This is where the 19th century artist, Richard Dadd, murdered his father in a spot still known as Dadd’s Hole and so began his journey to a lifetime in Broadmoor. But before Mr Dadd gave into his murderous impulses, there was another place associated with death that sits alone in the woodland. Once intended as a grand and capacious building to house the dead of the Earls of Darnley, it was never used and, for a long time during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was surrounded by piles of burnt out cars and motorbike scramblers. The hilltop location was ideal for these nocturnal sports.
But on 5 November 1980 someone went too far and lit a pile of tyres and petrol cans in an attempt to blow the mausoleum up. It brought down the chapel floor and the Mausoleum was open to the elements. But it survived.
However, it was a sorry sight in 2003 when it featured on BBC TV’s ‘Restoration’ programme as an appeal was launched for funds to restore it. However, the Mausoleum’s future looked bleak and even I thought that, due to its location, any restoration would be destroyed again. You can see how it looked at the time: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mvbfj
But in June 2020 I made the pilgrimage through the poppy field of Ranscombe Nature Reserve and up through the woods to the Mausoleum. As I emerged from under the tree canopy I was amazed by the Mausoleum’s size. It is big, very big and was designed to hold 32 coffins in a lower crypt. It’s an extraordinary building and was originally sat at the highest point of the Darnley estate. It became an important feature of the landscape, almost an eyecatcher folly.
The Mausoleum is square in shape with a pyramid shaped roof, a dry moat and a vandal proof fence.
It’s Grade 1 listed and a rather unlovely door keeps it secure from unwelcome visitors. Just above it I could see one of the 4 lunettes or half-moon windows as the sun shone through the amber stained glass. This was a tantalising taste of what lay inside as the light shining through them is intended to create an ethereal light inside. But, alas, the building is closed to visitors at present due to COVID-19. The building is made of brick and faced with Portland stone. It can be seen as
‘a very grand classical temple that emphasised the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with aclassical way of death’ according to the National Trust’s website.
It drips with symbols of death and remembrance. The square, circle and pyramid are classical motifs of eternity, the downturned torches indicate a life extinguished and there are 4 little sarcophagi on each corner. These were stone coffins designed to hold the dead and the word comes from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’. I was in my element as you can imagine.
But who built it and chose its location? It was the 4th Earl of Darnley who commissioned the fashionable and exacting architect, James Wyatt (1746-1813) to design the Mausoleum according to detailed instructions in the 3rd Earl’s will. The Earls of Darnley had always been buried in Westminster Abbey but after the 3rd Earl’s death in 1731 the Abbey was full. So the Mausoleum was to be the solution and would hold the coffins of the Earls and their family members. The 3rd Earl:
‘left detailed instructions in his will in which he clearly stated that he wanted a square stone building with a ‘prominent pyramid’ surrounded by a dry moat. He left £5000 or £10,000 if the first amount wasn’t sufficient.’ National Trust
The source of the pyramid might have come from the Earl’s Grand Tour when he may have seen the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and there were several paintings by him included in the sale of Cobham Hall.
As the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society says:
‘Pyramids were rare in in English Georgian architecture and made their first appearance at Castle Howard;….Wyatt and Darnley trying to recreate the solemn grandeur of the ancients…’ Masusolus
Another source of inspiration may have been the famous tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. He died in 353BC and such was the fame of his tomb that his name became synonymous with all subsequent stately tombs. As a result they became known as mausoleums.
The Darnleys lived at nearby Cobham Hall so the Mausoleum it would have been handy to have your loved ones nearby for eternity. Of course you may have been looking at it and wondering when you might be joining them. In 1786, at its completion, the Mausoleum cost, in total, £9000 which in today’s money is £1million. It is a lavish building with a marvellous interior from photos I have seen.
Wyatt’s designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 and a modified design completed in 1786. However, it was George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) who supervised the work as Wyatt was renowned for having a bad reputation in erecting his own work. After completion, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), considered to be the last great landscape designer of the 18th century spent the next 30 years designing the landscapes around Cobham Hall for the 4th Earl.
But the Mausoleum was never consecrated and so couldn’t be used for its intended purpose. According to Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society,
‘the Bishop of Rochester was disapproving of buildings in secular sites and refused to consecrate a building that so brazenly evoked pagan arcadia.’
Repton himself suggested that it be converted to a viewing platform so that it could be put to some use and the views would have been amazing but it didn’t happen.
But instead of being laid out in the Mausoleum as intended the Earls of Darnley have been interred in the vaults and churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Cobham village. There is a fine display of their memorials at the rear of the church and in the churchyard.
The Darnleys income came from a 25,000 acre estate in County Meath, Ireland. However their fortunes declined and in 1957 they sold Cobham Hall. After the arson attack there were many suggestions and schemes for the Mausoleum’s future. A developer bought it, intending to convert it into a residence but went bankrupt. He was presumably hoping to find a buyer who liked seclusion and could find a use for 32 coffin spaces in a crypt. The building passed into the hands of the official Receiver and HM Government became its new owner. The 4th Earl’s creation’s future looked bleak, its interior blackened from the arson attack and covered in graffiti and surrounded by a rusty junkyard.