This is the last of the trio and, in contrast to the ones in West Norwood, wasn’t designed by Harold Peto. He had left Peto and Geoge by then and it has been suggested that the building was actually designed by an anonymous assistant who worked from previously rejected designs. It’s very different from the other two, both in style and decoration. It was built in 1901 to house the coffin of Mrs Laura Stearns. She died in 1900 and came from Twickenham. William Chillingworth, her father, is buried next to her in his own vault.
He was a wine merchant and they owned Radnor House in Twickenham. It was known as Pope’s House as it was built on the site of Alexander Pope’s original house. It no longer exists as it was demolished in 1940 after being hit by a bomb. There seems to be no mention of a Mr Stearns. In the 1930’s Mrs Stearns’ coffin was removed from the mausoleum by her relatives and interred behind it.
The interior was never finished which is why it is so plain. However, 20 years later, an anonymous builder glazed it with bland tiles. There are two simple, unadorned stone coffin shelves set into each of the side walls. A trefoil shaped window on the back wall lets light in as the side windows are blocked up.
The mausoleum is decorated in the Romanesque style. This is an architectural style of medieval Europe which possibly dates from the 10th century and was characterised by the use of semi-circular arches. It was used extensively throughout Europe and in Britain is referred to as Norman Architecture. The word ‘Romanesque’ originally means descended from Roman and most surviving examples are on churches.
It is also characterised by its use of columns and, on the Stearns vault, we can see that the two small ones on either side of the entrance are carved with birds etc in a medieval style. The carvings are very tactile and I can never walk past within wanting to touch them. The side window columns are also patterned but not as beautifully as the entrance ones. Romanesque was also a highly decorative style as can be seen from the arched bands of stylised leaves over the entrance.
The 19th century saw a Revival of Romanesque although it was decried by some writers as ‘barbaric ornament.’ The Natural History Museum in London is highly decorated in Romanesque Revival style and is well worth seeing.
It’s the only surviving mausoleum within Nunhead Cemetery and, although a tree tried to grow through it while the cemetery was abandoned, it’s still in good condition. When I first visited Nunhead in 1989, it was rumoured that the only person who now rested within the mausoleum was a passing tramp. It now has a wrought iron gate to protect it.
Nunhead Cemetery, An Illustrated Guide by The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery . 1988, FONC Publications, London
The terracotta trio are all so different and unique and all three are Grade Ii listed and although, in comparison to other mausoleums such as Highgate’s Beer vault and Hannah Portnoy’s vast Egyptian Revival sepulchre in Brompton, they are relatively modest. However, I feel that they deserve their own special place in 19th century English funerary architecture..
©Carole Tyrrell Text and photos unless otherwise stated.