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It’s always the little bright patch of colour that catches your eye. In a sea of grey Portland stone, black, grey or, for the more adventurous, pink granite or terracotta, the sun always catches a small mosaic. They aren’t plentiful but most large Victorian cemeteries have a couple or two if you know where to look.
Most have survived very well and mostly seem to date from the 1920-1930’s. However, there is one in St Mary Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green which is on a 1950’s tombstone and is religious in nature.
Mosaics and me
When I visited Venice I explored San Michele cemetery, its Isle of the Dead, and, despite not having much time, saw some lovely examples. It was my first experience of seeing mosaics in situ since a school visit to Lullingstone Roman Villa. These are two examples from Venice;
An older mosaic on a monument dating from the 19th century. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A modern mosaic on a memorial. copyright Carole Tyrrell
In the same year I also visited Aquileia which is in Northern Italy near the Slovakia border. Once a thriving Roman port it is now 10km from the Adriatic Sea. The Romans left many artefacts including a necropolis which is now surrounded by back gardens and the celebrated mosaic floor in the Cathedral.
Visitors can admire the detailed and colourful figures of birds, fish, reptiles, women and fishermen amongst others from an elevated glass walkway over the floor. Here are a bison and an octopus from the floor:
So it was exciting to be able to go mosaic spotting in the UK and West Norwood Cemetery has a wonderful and large example in its Greek Necropolis. The delicacy and beauty of these creations must be time consuming and expensive so we should appreciate the ones that we have.
On my list to visit – Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb.
I am indebted to Rod Humby from the Joy of Shards website for kindly giving me a link to one of the most spectacular mosaic memorials of all – Rudolf Nureyev’s tomb in Sainte Genevieve des Bois Russian Cemetery, Sainte Genevieve des Bois France. It has a mosaic Oriental carpet draped across it. Nureyev was an enthusiastic collector of beautiful carpets and antique textiles and so it seems fitting that one protects him in his eternal sleep. It was designed by the sculptor Ezio Frigerio who had worked with Nureyev for many years on designing ballet sets.
‘The word ‘mosaic’ is as you might expect, Italian in origin. It derives from the Latin ‘mosaicus’ which in turn comes from the Greek ‘mouserus’ or belonging to the Muses and so artistic.’ (reproduced by kind permission)
According to Wikipedia mosaics are:
‘a piece of art or image made from assembling small pieces of coloured glass, stone
or other materials. They are usually made of small flat, roughly square, pieces of
stone or glass of different colours, known as tesserae.’
Again from The Joy of Shards
‘Mosaics were first created roughly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia which included what are now Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. At first they were simple and consisted of pushing terracotta cones point first into a background as decoration. In the 8th century pebble pavements appeared which incorporated differently coloured stones to create patterns. But it was the Ancient Greeks, flowed by the Romans who began to incorporate pictures and patterns into their designs. ‘
(reproduced by kind permission)
Irano-Romano floor mosaic detail from Palace of Shapur 1 at Bishapur. In public domain in USA – shared under Wiki Creative Commons
Cone mosaic Uruk Mesopotamia 3000 BC. Pergamon Museum. Shared under Wiki Creative Commons licence.
Mosaic making flourished throughout the Byzantine Empire from the 6th-15th century and soon spread throughout East and Western Europe. Ravenna in Italy was its centre of mosaic making from the 6th century and pieces still survive in place such as The Great Palace in Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The Christian and Islamic faiths have also used mosaics extensively in their basilicas and mosques. These include the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Great Mosque in Cordoba. Ely Cathedral also boasts a mosaic floor in one of its chapels. There are also notable examples in Venice’s St Mark’s and also on the islands of Torcello and Murano. The Jewish faith also used mosaics to embellish their synagogues.
Mosaics fell out of favour and were replaced by paintings around the time of the Renaissance. But they enjoyed a revival in the 19th century as the Victorians re-discovered them. Westminster Cathedral is a fine example and is decorated in the Byzantine style.
This one is from St Saviour and St John Baptist and Evangelist Roman Catholic church in Lewisham High Street and dates from 1919. It’s over the entrance but I was unable to find out the name of its creator.
This lovely one is from Salisbury Cathedral and features an exquisite border of passionflowers around an 1894 memorial.
The Bettinelli grave in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery features the colourful head of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and is very striking.
Most of the mosaics that I’ve seen appear to have worn very well with only a few tesserae missing here and there. However, there is one in West Norwood’s Greek section in which the tesserae have completely vanished leaving only a ghostly outline of the figures. There is however, a plain blue mosaic slab beneath it.
This is another from the Greek Necropolis; the Maria Michalinos monument and is based on a stele discovered at a site near Athens and displayed at the British Museum. It features a seated woman dressed in classical dress looking at a jewellery casket held by a servant.
I am compiling a gallery of these little jewels whenever and wherever I find them and here is a selection so far:
The two masks of comedy and tragedy, or Sock and Buskin as they are also known for reasons I’ll explain later, are not often found in cemeteries. And as you might expect, when they are there’s a theatrical association.
But what is the history behind this two faced symbol and how did these icons from Ancient Greece come into Victorian cemeteries?
It began with the custom of actors wearing masks, an essential part of the performance, in early Greek theatre. It was a vital part of Greek culture and civic pride. However, Comedy and Tragedy were viewed as completely separate genres and no plays ever combined them.
This genre began in Athens around 532 BC with Thespis, the earliest recorded tragic actor. He was known as ‘Father of Tragedy’ and it has been suggested that his name inspired the English term, thespian, for a performer.
Muse of Tragedy:
Melpomene is the Muse and is often depicted holding the Mask of Tragedy. She often also holds a knife or club and also wears the ‘cothurni ‘or buskin boots that elevated her above other actors. She was a daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne as was Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, and there were also 7 other daughters who were all Muses.
After the defeat of Athens by the Spartans in the Peleponnesian War and the subsequent decline in its power, comedy became more important than tragedy. I imagine that people wanted some relief after a protracted war and these were comic episodes about the lives of ordinary Greek citizens. Maybe they were similar to today’s comedy sketches. Greek comedy is reputed to have had a major influence on Roman humour as well. Perhaps they had an early version of Up Pompeii…..
Muse of Comedy:
She is called Thalia but can also be sometimes spelled as Thaleia and is depicted holding the Mask of Comedy in one hand. She’s generally depicted as a young woman crowned with ivy. Thalia wears the thin-soled shoe known as the ‘sock’ from the Latin soccus. It may seem strange but it’s the footwear of the two Muses that led to them being called ‘sock and buskin’.
And so both Comedy and Tragedy became two sides of the theatre world.
They were seen as one of the iconic conventions of classical Greek theatre and date back to the time of Aeschylus (525-456 BC) commonly considered to be the father of Greek tragedy. The Ancient Greek term for mask is ‘prosopon’ or face. There are paintings on vases, such as the 5th century BC Pronomos vase, depicting actors preparing for performance with masks. However none have survived due to the organic materials from which they were created such as stiffened linen, leather or cork with wigs of human and animal hair. After the performance they were dedicated at the altar of Dionysus.
It was mainly the chorus that used masks on stage of which there could be up to 12-15 members. Masks created a sense of unity when representing a single character or voice. They always created a sense of mystery and were also a method of disguise. The actor would use the mask to totally immerse himself in his role and become someone else. It also allowed him to appear and reappear in several different roles instead of only being seen as one character. The exaggerated features of the mask also enabled audience members who were sitting at a distance to see characters emotions.
I have found four monuments featuring Tragedy and Comedy each in differing styles, in London Victorian cemeteries: Fred Kitchen in West Norwood Cemetery with a link to Charlie Chaplin. There are two in Brompton Cemetery: Gilbert Laye and Augustus Henry Glossop Harris’s elegant monuments and the exuberant Andrew Ducrow tomb in Kensal Green.
Fred Kitchen (1872-1951):
The graceful Kitchen memorial was recently restored by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain & America in March 2016 with the Heritage Lottery Fund’s support. It almost dazzles under a summer sky. Both Fred and his father, Richard (1830-1910) rest here and note the broken column on which the Sock and Buskin are placed. This denotes that the head of the family as a broken column indicated that the support, or head of the family, rests here.
Fred came from a theatrical family in that his father, Richard, was the Ballet Master and Dancer at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Fred worked mainly in the music halls which were considered a low form of entertainment but many famous comedians learned their craft in them. He was discovered by the legendary impresario, Fred Karno, while playing in a production at Glasgow’s Princess Theatre. It was the stuff of showbiz legend, or cliche depending on your point of view, as Fred was standing in for the chief comedian and so, as a result, a 50 year career theatrical career began. From 1897-1910 Fred was a member of Fred Karno’s Army along with such legends as Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Kitchen had a unique style which featured a splayed walk as he had flat feet and scruffy costume. Chaplin later admitted that this had influenced or he had simply ‘borrowed’ it for his iconic tramp character. In 1913 Fred appeared in a Royal Command Performance for King George V and continued to work until 1945 aged 73. But the music hall circuit was beginning to vanish but his son, Fred Kitchen Jr, continued the family tradition in film and theatre.
Gilbert Laye (1855-1826) – Brompton Cemetery
This is a striking memorial with ‘Comedy & Tragedy’ of either side of a stylised young woman who is holding what appears to be a lyre. There isn’t much known about Gilbert Laye, the incumbent, and I could only find one credit for him online. This was as the director of ‘My Lady Molly’ at Daly’s Theatre on New York’s Broadway. It was a musical comedy and opened on 5 January 1904 and closed on 16 January 1904. He was also briefly the manager of the Palace Pier in Brighton. Both he and his wife, Evelyn Stuart were known as struggling minor actors/ However, she was known as a respected provincial Principal Boy. However, it was their daughter, Evelyn Laye (1900-1995) who became a huge star on stage in musical comedy roles. She made her stage debut in 1915 and acted until well into her nineties. Evelyn worked with Noel Coward and made her first appearance on Broadway in 1929 in his Bitter Sweet. However, her parents disapproved of her first marriage to
actor Sonnie Hale in 1926 which ultimately ended in divorce when he left her for actress Jessie Matthews. Evelyn attracted public sympathy over this with the divorce judge branding Matthews ‘an odious creature.’
Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852-1896)
This is a very sophisticated monument with a barefoot mourning woman in robes and her hair tied back resting one outstretched arm on the cenotaph. In vintage photos, the other is raised towards a bust of Harris which tops the plinth. However, the bust is no longer in place and neither is the hand that seemed to stroke it. There are three people commemorated on the monument: Augustus himself, his wife Florence Edgcumbe and their daughter, Florence Nellie Cellier. None of them appear to be buried in Brompton as Augustus died at Folkestone and Florence’s ashes were scattered elsewhere. Florence remarried after Augustus’s death so she may actually be buried with her second husband.
Augustus was a British actor and impresario who came from another theatrical family. Born in Paris his father was a dramatist, Augustus Glossop Harris, and his mother was Maria Ann Bone, a theatrical costumier. The Brompton Augustus Henry was known as ‘the Father of British pantomime’. He co-wrote and produced scripts for large scale pantos that were performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane every Christmas. They attracted a popular cast including the legendary Dan Leno. Augustus was also involved in local politics and, in 1890, represented the Strand division in the London County Council. In 1891 he was appointed a sheriff and was also knighted. He married Florence Edgcumbe Rendle in 1881 and after his death she remarried and died in 1914.
Florence Nellie Harris Cellier was their daughter. She married Frank Cellier in 1910 and divorced him in 1925. He was an actor who both appeared and directed in numerous plays and acted in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1948.
‘Comedy and Tragedy’ lie beneath a laurel wreath and violin on top of a carved cloth at the base of the cenotaph.
On one of the most desirable and prominent plots in Kensal Green Cemetery lies Andrew Ducrow. To call his blue painted tomb flamboyant is an understatement although the 19th century magazine ‘The Builder’ described it as a piece of ‘ponderous coxcombry‘ . It was supposedly created for his first wife but as the epitaph states
‘Within this tomb erected by genius for the reception of its own remains are deposited those of Andrew Ducrow’
It’s a feast of symbols ranging from 4 Egyptian style 4 sphinxes and columns on the mausoleum and a Greek style roof. A relief over the door depicts Pegasus, the winged horse and a weeping woman in Grecian dress with ‘Comedy and Tragedy’ beside her on clouds.
A pair of gloves and hat lie almost just discarded waiting for their owner to don them again on part of a broken column. There’s also beehives, shells, flowers and downturned torches. Two angels flank the now bricked up entrance which are the closest to any Christian symbolism.
However, Pegasus and an urn decorated with horses heads and garlands are not just mere emblems but direct references to Ducrow’s profession which was as a renowned circus performer. He was known as the ‘Father of British Circus Equestrianism’. Modern day horse acts owe a huge debt to him as he created many horse feats and acts that are still in use today. For example, his most famous act ‘Courier of St Petersburg’ is still performed to this day at equestrian events. In this a rider straddles 2 cantering horses while other horses bearing the flags of the countries through which a courier would pass on his way to Russia passed between his legs.
Ducrow owned a circus called Astley’s Amphitheatre and had learned his skills from his Belgian father who had emigrated to England in 1793. However, Ducrow also had another act that attracted and thrilled audiences. This was the ‘plastique’ or physique performances in which he and his sons would wear ‘fleshings’ or flesh coloured body stockings and pose on white stallions as they carried them around the amphitheatre several times. It must have been quite a sight to see under the lights and it’s a shame that no-one has yet attempted to revive it. There was a black performer in the company called Pablo Fanque who is mentioned in the Beatle Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band track, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ which is one of my favourites.
As you can imagine Ducrow and his company were incredibly popular but bad luck dogged him. The Amphitheatre burned down 3 times and after the last one in 1841 he had a nervous breakdown. He died soon after in 1842 and the Amphitheatre and circus were taken over by others who had worked with him.
The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls. But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.
I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.
The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands. St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created. During the 1860’s a chancel was added. But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior. It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls. This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed. An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.
We began by exploring outside and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower . According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.
The churchyard contains over 250 memorials dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance. John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard which had long since disintegrated.
St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints. Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church. This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard. John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs; Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.
William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross. He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter. Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’. My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette. He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863. Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps. Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.
A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone. A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost. However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.
We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch. The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653. The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.
At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury. Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP. He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall. It has three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare. John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.
A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb. This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour. Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380. Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built. The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing. It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.
There are more intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court. He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death. Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘
‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’
The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.
Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt. This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.
Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or otherplace of entombment’ Wikipedia
The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them. Some contained entire families including the Thrales. John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud. This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea. Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed. Only the undertaker was left empty-handed. There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.
The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that. More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there. One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.
As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated. Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished. Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several memorials.