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/

 

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