The Henry Daniel vault at Nunhead Cemetery, UK. He was a monumental mason who worked at the cemetery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell
This month instead of Symbol of the month I will be discussing a monument which is a gift to anyone interested in symbols and their meaning. Not one symbol but nine!
When you first look at the Daniel vault you may well be impressed by its extravagant decoration. It’s absolutely studded with symbols and, due to its advantageous location close to the chapel and thus nearer to God, you can’t miss it. In fact some of the larger monuments are in this area and the idea appeared to be that, even if you couldn’t take your money with you, at least you’d had it while you were alive and could prove it.
But there’s an interesting story behind each of the symbols and also of Henry Daniel himself. He founded a dynasty of monumental masons who were closely associated with Nunhead Cemetery until its closure. He established the first mason’s yard at Nunhead and two other firms followed. These were Preston & Company and A Stogden. Henry and his family lived opposite Nunhead’s imposing Linden Grove entrance gates in the imposing and rambling Gothic style residence that he built surrounded by his workshops and lived in it with his family until he died in 1867 aged 62.
The newly established large Victorian cemeteries meant that masons were kept busy and had a steady income. They not only created monuments and memorials but also maintained graves and constructed vaults. If you look along the edges and the bottom of graves and monuments in Nunhead and Highgate cemeteries you may well find the Daniel name.
Henry also had a workshop in Swains Lane at Highgate and according to an inscription on one of the monuments that his workmen helped to create, he was at one time the London Cemetery Company’s mason. They owned both Nunhead and Highgate Cemeteries.
Daniel’s was in business until Nunhead closed, or was abandoned depending on your point of view, in 1969. Afterwards, Henry’s family home and yard was demolished after being a local landmark for over 100 years. It’s interesting to speculate if it would be preserved today after the fight to preserve the attractive and historic Lander monumental masons showroom near Kensal Green Cemetery’s imposing entrance. It too was destined to be replaced by another bland apartment block.
It has been suggested that the vault is an advert for Daniel’s masons and I haven’t been able to find any proof of this. However, to anyone interested in symbols it is a wonderful teaching aid as it has so many.
We begin at the top of the memorial with a woman swathed in draperies with her head looking down. This is a mourning woman and a return to classical, especially Roman, themes. They are often portrayed as leaning on an urn or a cross but as you can see this one stands alone. The Historic England, formerly English Heritage, describes her as ‘a heavily swathed vestal figure.’
Now look beneath her feet. There are winged cherubs or putti, one at each corner. They have wings and so that makes them putti. They too are of classical origin and represent Eros or Cupid. The flower garland than surround the base of the mourning woman features roses.
Garlands are a symbol of victory over death.
Roses: This is one of the most popular flowers and means love, beauty and hope. It has been said that they are associated with the rose without thorns – the Virgin Mary. A rose is also known as the queen of flowers due to its fragrance and beauty. Unopened roses still in their bud form often appear on children’s graves. The longer a person lived, the more full blown the rose would be. However I think that roses are used more as decoration these days.
Now look at the two torches on either side of the epitaph. These are downturned torches and you will also see cast-iron version on Nun head’s Linden Grove entrance pillars. This is a common symbol and, when the flame which would normally go out when torch is inverted, it symbolises the eternal flame of life and the resurrection. There is a variant with a torch that remains upright on a memorial in Kensal Green cemetery which I assume means eternal life.
Now look down at the elegant Grecian style scrolled decoration and in particular the two very stylised wreaths. I see them as laurel wreaths and they are again a return to classical symbols. They symbolise eternal life as they are circular with no beginning or end and also made of evergreens which never die. A symbol of victory over death and also military or intellectual glory. The word ‘laureate’ come from these and meant poetical or musical achievements.
At each corner is an Eternal Flame which stands for everlasting life.
Then we come to the snake wrapped around the anchor. A snake is a symbol of immortality and as such appears in many cultures over thousands of years. . It’s not an ouroboros as are the ones on Nunhead cemetery’s entrance pillars. It has various associations including tattoos in which snakes are seen as potent symbols.
Anchor: This is a Biblical symbol and is a Christian one of hope. The early Christians were reputed to have used the anchor as a disguised cross. It’s often set against a rock and so people often assume that it has a sea-faring connection but this isn’t always true. The Hope and Anchor is a common pub name in the UK. An anchor with a broken chain represents the end of life.
It’s rare to find so many symbols on one monument and also extremely well carved as well. Although the epitaph is now wearing thin the sentiments of eternal life, love, mortality and victory over death still remain for all to see.
Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell
How to read Symbols, Clare Gibson, Herbert Press, 2008
Nunhead’s Monumental Masons, Ron Woollacott, Nunhead Cemetery An Illustrated Guide, FONC 1988
Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004
http://www.thecemeteryclub.com – useful resource, currently being updated (Feb 20160