Five child angels, their faces turned to each other, framed by small wings, except for one that was staring out at me, I wanted to reach out and touch them but didn’t want to damage them. They formed a roundel at the centre of a tall cross with the phrase ‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ inscribed at the base of its stem. I was on a tour of Beckenham Cemetery when I first saw them.
Our guide didn’t comment on them but the monument is in a prominent place on the main road through the cemetery and I often wondered about this pretty and poignant memorial.
On a visit to Highgate East in 2014 I found another example but on a smaller scale on a tombstone in the name of Alfred Hack and dated 1956. There is a distinctly 1930’s look about the angels from their hairstyles.
I also found another version which featured cherubs faces instead of childrens on a visit to Knebworth this summer.
Then , on a more recent visit to Beckenham Cemetery, I found another similar one which was only a short distance away from the first. In this the child angels seem to have more definite, individual faces and the one that has her head towards the viewer is looking down instead of outwards. Now I wanted to find out more about the quotation and the angels and my research led me to a Victorian hymn that was sung on the Titanic at its final service on board and by the inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp as the S.S led them in. The ‘angel faces’ is a quotation from ‘Lead, kindly Light’, in fact it’s the penultimate line and like ‘Rock of Ages’ it caught the mood of its time.
These are the lyrics:
‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not for ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on,
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.’
However, the writer John Henry Newman (1801-90), always refused to reveal the meaning of the ‘angels faces’ or what the ‘kindly light’ actually was.
Originally a poem, it was written by Newman in 1833. He was then a young theologian and Anglican vicar and was going through a challenging time in his life. Struck down by a fever which nearly killed him while travelling in the Mediterranean, Newman’s servant was so convinced that he would die that he asked him for his last orders. But in his autobiography, Newman told him ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light’.
Newman recovered but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Desperate to return to England he then took a boat from Palermo to Marseilles only to end up stranded and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio. Exhausted and frustrated Newman wrote the poem, ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ that, in 1845, became ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. Newman was not happy about this as by then he’d converted to Catholicism and hymn singing wasn’t included as part of divine service. He went onto become Cardinal Newman, one of the most important figures in English Catholicism, and also an important writer. In 1900 Elgar set Newman’s poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to music.
‘Lead, Kindly Light’ has struck a chord with those in danger or about to enter the endless dark realm and needed the comfort of a light leading their way through it. Miners awaiting rescue from deep underground during the 1909 Durham mining disaster sang it as did the passengers on one of Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship, Carpathia, was sighted the morning after. It caught the Victorian mood perfectly as did ‘Rock of Ages’ and Queen Victoria asked for it to be read as she lay dying. It also inspired a celebrated painting by the Scottish artist, Sir Joseph Noel Paton in 1894 in which the angels are pensive young woman.
But why did one line from this song inspire two monuments in Beckenham Cemetery and one in Highgate East? I noticed that both of the Beckenham monuments were on children’s graves and that the carved angels were also children. Perhaps the mourning relatives left behind may have wanted the consolation that their beloved children would be waiting for them when their time came.
The first one is the Foster family monument. The epitaph is now virtually unreadable but I could make out the name ‘Francis Frederick’ carved along the base. There are two inscribed ‘Books of Life’ placed on top of the grave. One is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Gladys Alice Chapman and the other is dedicated to John Francis Foster and Alice Emma Foster.
The second one is the Pace family monument and is to the two daughters of Henry William and Elizabeth Pace. These were Lilian Alice who died in 1888 and Grace Irene who died in 1903. Strangely enough they both died at the same age and Elizabeth herself is commemorated here as she died at 33 in 1912.
This is the one in Highgate East dedicated to Alfred Hack and dated 1956.
So, a line from a hymn that even its writer was unsure of its meaning, became a symbol of comfort to sorrowing families.
However the symbol has been adapted to feature cherubs as in St Mary’s, Knebworth’s churchyard. These are on the tombstone of the Lutyens family’s nanny, Alice Sleath.
But I am indebted to Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone for the possible origins on the image of the angels.
The composition of the five heads may have been adapted from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA entitled ‘Heads of Angels Miss Frances Gordon’ which was painted during July 1786 – March 1787. The sitter was the then 5 year old Frances Isabella Keir Gordon (1782-1831) who was the only daughter of illustrious parents. They were Lord William Gordon (1744-1823) and his wife Frances Ingram (1761-1841), second daughter of Charles, 9th Viscount Irvine (1727-78), who were married on 6 March 1781. Her uncle was Lord George Gordon (1751-93), whose political activities had sparked the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.
Frances’ mother outlived her by 10 years and the painting was then presented to the National Gallery. It was enormously popular and was reproduced on numerous decorative items and photographic reproductions such as ‘The Cherub Choir.’
And so a poignant and powerful symbol was created from the combination of a great painting, an inspirational hymn and Victorian taste and led to these three lovely memorials to much missed children.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, 2006, Gibbs Smith