Symbol of the Month – The Empty Chair

Mary Emden’s empty chair, Highgate West cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Full view of Mary Emden’s empty chair in Highgate West cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

The empty chair or throne on MP Charles Middleton’s grave, Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Henry Russell’s empty chair in Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Milky

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.

Henry Russell. Print shows Henry Russell, half-length portrait, facing slightly right, with right hand resting on piano keyboard, open sheet music in the foreground and a shipwreck on storm tossed waves in the background. Includes six lines of text from poem “Wind of the winter night, whence comest thou?” Shared under Wiki Commons.

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……

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Douglas Keiser, Stories in Stone, Gibbs Smith, 2004

https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/actr.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week – this contains Dickens’ parody of Russell’s’ The Fine old English Gentleman’

http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/05-the-fine-old-english-gentleman.htmlyrics to Henry Russell’s The Fine Old English Gentleman

https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden – Grave Expectations and Doyennes of Death

http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/sheerness-and-blue-town/articles/c-889/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness/

 

 

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……

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Douglas Keiser, Stories in Stone, Gibbs Smith, 2004

https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/actr.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week – this contains Dickens’ parody of Russell’s’ The Fine old English Gentleman’

http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/05-the-fine-old-english-gentleman.htmlyrics to Henry Russell’s The Fine Old English Gentleman

https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden – Grave Expectations and Doyennes of Death

http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/sheerness-and-blue-town/articles/c-889/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness/

 

Advertisement

In a lonely place………a visit to the Darnley Mausoleum, Cobhma, Kent – Part 2 the resurrection

A view of the Darnley Mausoleum and its vandal proof fence.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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…….

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cobham-wood-and-mausoleum/features/saved-from-the-brink—the-restoration-story contains a photo of how the mausoleum looked after the arson attack.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darnley_Mausoleum

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cobham-wood-and-mausoleum/features/the-history-of-the-darnley-mausoleum

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/view/87/Darnley_Mausoleum

http://docs.gravesham.gov.uk/AnitePublicDocs/00294841.pdf

http://www.discovergravesham.co.uk/cobham/darnley-mausoleum.html

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/assets/docs/articles/2009_mmt_news_march0001.pdf

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/assets/docs/articles/2004_mmt_news_april.pdf

https://abinger-stained-glass.co.uk/portfolio-item/darnley-mausoleum/ – a piece about the creation of the lunettes.

In a lonely place…………..a visit to the Darnley Mausoleum Cobham Kent Part 1

©Carole Tyrrell

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.

An illuminated lunette hints at the style of the interior.
©Carole Tyrrell

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 a classical 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.

What would happen to this fine building?

Part 2: The resurrection of the Darnley Mausoleum

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cobham-wood-and-mausoleum/features/saved-from-the-brink—the-restoration-story contains a photo of how the mausoleum looked after the arson attack.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darnley_Mausoleum

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cobham-wood-and-mausoleum/features/the-history-of-the-darnley-mausoleum

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/mausolea/view/87/Darnley_Mausoleum

http://docs.gravesham.gov.uk/AnitePublicDocs/00294841.pdf

http://www.discovergravesham.co.uk/cobham/darnley-mausoleum.html

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/assets/docs/articles/2009_mmt_news_march0001.pdf

http://www.mmtrust.org.uk/assets/docs/articles/2004_mmt_news_april.pdf

https://abinger-stained-glass.co.uk/portfolio-item/darnley-mausoleum/ – a piece about the ceration of the lunettes.