In Arcadia – Arnos Vale Cemetery, Day Five


Arnos Vale Cemetery is spectacular. Set over 45 acres with architecturally beautiful lodges and chapels, it also boasts some of the finest funerary monuments I have seen on this trip so far. The cemetery opened in 1839 and is situated beautifully within a picturesque hilly landscape. The well established trees and shrubs softening the architecture and monuments it feels more like the landscaped park of a large country house than a cemetery.

The land on which the cemetery was established having been parkland linked to an estate already boasted magnificent oak and horse chestnut trees, the cemetery designers wisely included these trees in their designs adding additional specimens associated with classical literature such as rowan, cypress and yew to name but a few.  The trees provide a dramatic backdrop for the beautiful mortuary chapels and monuments, although my understanding is that the landscape had been very groomed in it’s Victorian heyday quite unlike the romantic wilderness it has now become.

Floral Wreath

Every style and use of symbolic decoration can be witnessed on the many monuments and it feels like many of the different elements of  both cemetery and monument design culminate here at Arnos Vale, the diversity is astonishing. The Anglican Chapel is in the Roman Italianate style and is incredibly imposing. But like many the Non-Conformist chapel is built in the Ionic style of a Greek temple, it’s structure is less imposing than the aforementioned perhaps as with Kensal Green stressing the implied ‘importance’ of one set of beliefs over another.

As with Both Highgate and Kensal Green Cemeteries the grandest monuments line the main pathways, or are aligned to significant pieces of architecture such as the Lebanon Circle at Highgate and the Julius Beer Mausoleum  (the largest of all the privately occupied monuments in the cemetery) or the monument of HRH Princess Sophia daughter of George III directly in front of the Anglican Chapel at Kensal Green. At Arnos Vale Cemetery the Chattri or tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy is particularly grand. The Raja who was a social reformer and philosopher died on a visit to Bristol in 1833, his tomb is based on a traditional Bengali funerary monument and is visited annually on the anniversary of his death by representatives from the the Indian High Commission.

Foreground Tomb of Raja Rammohun Roy and Ionic Non-Conformist Chapel arnos1

Arnos Vale Cemetery is currently undergoing conservation and restoration work for more details  about the important work that is taking place and how to visit please visit

Serendipity – a journey and a destination

Travel is all about connections, changing trains to other places,  the like-minded people we meet on the way or sometimes they are small mental leaps afforded by the act of travel, that period of time were there is nothing to do but think. Today I travelled from Oxford to Bristol for the last section of this trip and spent some of the journey listening to Jim Moray’s version of the folk song ‘ The Suffolk Miracle’. The theme of the song occurs in many folk songs and relates to the to the ghost of  a deceased lover visiting their loved one in the depths of the night only to disappear at sunrise, the latter not yet knowing that their lover is dead.

As a device the idea of night visiting occurs with some frequency in gothic novels such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791),  the heroine Adeline is visited in a series of dreams by a man she later discovers is her deceased father. Charles Dicken’s ghostly tale No 1 Branch Line: The Signalman, similarly has a visiting apparition who is a portent of the signalmans demise.

At the height of the Victorian passion for the gothic and supernatural there was a renaissance for folk music. Afraid that folk songs would be lost Tom Taylor (Folk songs of Brittany),  Francis J Child (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads) and later Ralph Vaughan Williams, translated (in Taylors case), collected and published the lyrics and musical notation to many songs.  The theme of night visiting in many of the songs would have accorded with the Victorian tastes in literature and lends itself to the high Victorian sense of  gothic brooding romanticism.

The night visiting link to my area of research, however tenuous has a particular aesthetic sensibility that lends itself well to accessing the Victorian mindset through popular culture.  In a bid to make my travels more rounded – a creative as well as a learning experience, influenced by both Victorian literature, architecture and traditional folk song I have attempted to create my own night visiting song/poem.


She laid a kiss
my pretty wife
upon my lips
neath the pale moonlight
she kissed and smiled
and told to me
how true her love
would always be

She Smiled and laughed
placed hand on hand
And face to face
we span and danced
the clock chimed one,
then two then three
fearing joy was not to last
on and on went our dance

My love let us sleep
let us here lay
the night is warm
and it shall soon be day
in a gown of white
flowers in hand
she laid us down upon the land

The church bells rang
I awoke alone
and traced her name upon the stone
fresh cut the letters
sharp and deep
under them, ‘neath cold clay
my pretty wife
doth sleep

The Child Ballads (public domain)

Information regarding the talented Mr Moray can be founds at

Death and Burial at the Pitt Rivers Museum Day Four

The West Kennet Long Barrow is an impressive burial chamber, and one of the many ancient  sites that comprise the prehistoric complex of Avebury in Wiltshire.

Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow
Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow

During the archaeological excavations of The West Kennet Long Barrow in 1859 and then again in 1955-6 by Thurman and Piggot respectively, the remains of around fifty inhumations were discovered. The remains were disarticulated and a number of bones, predominantly leg bones and skulls were missing.

Theories abound with regards to the missing limbs and we shall never know the answer, some speculate that the bones (post the decomposition of the flesh) may have been used ritualistically whilst others argue that the missing bones may have been carried by family members perhaps as a memento mori or as means of keeping family together in both physicality and spirit. I am not an archaeologist so I can offer no insight, however the latter theorem provides an interesting consideration in terms of museology.

There has been a hotly debated topic over many years regarding the display of human remains in museums, arguments ‘for’ relate to their educational benefits. The British Museum states in it’s policy document concerning human remains that: ‘the study of human remains provides one of the most direct and insightful sources of information on different cultural approaches to death,  burial practices and belief systems’. The arguments ‘against’ quite rightly relate to human rights.  I can see the merit of both arguments.

Today, stood in front of a vitrine in The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford I made notes and looked at grave goods excavated from the grave of a six week old girl from Luckendorf, Nr Orbin, Saxony. The grave was excavated in 1883 and inside was found a variety of items including a needle with black and white thread, a comb, thimble, gloves, a spoon scissors and a miniature pan, jug rolling pin and mangling board. These items are fascinating and tell us so much about the society into which she was born but the fact remains that a child was exhumed and the goods removed. Therefore it has to be questioned are the artefacts associated with the dead, the items with which they were interred as contentious as the display of human remains? For me personally if I were to argue ‘against’ the display of such items and indeed human remains I would place myself in a paradoxical position, I did after all visit the Pitt Rivers Museum knowing what I would see and indeed visited the museum specifically to view it’s collection relating to the treatment of death and burial across many cultures.

The Victorian attitude to death was much different to our contemporary view. Our neolithic ancestors, if we accept the premiss at the beginning of the blog also did not view human remains in the way we do now, keeping some remain of their ancestor with them connected them to their past and tightened the familial bond and sense of community. If we consider the example of mourning jewellery crafted from the hair of the deceased I have to wonder if the Victorians were so different to our neolithic forbears. Indeed the relationship of contemporary society with the museum and it’s displays are a connection to our mutual histories.

So whilst the Pitt Rivers Museum collection remains a hotbed of debate, from my perspective my visit there was a multifaceted experience, I garnered the information I needed from it’s displays but also was given museological food for thought.

William Mulready R.A

Of  all the monuments I saw at Kensal Green Cemetery, the decoration of one in particular appealed to the art historian in me, it was showy, ostentatious and very Victorian. Carved at each corner the tools of the mans trade, palettes, brushes, palette knives, rolled canvas and mahl sticks all screamed look at me I’m an artist.  Atop the stone catafalque beneath a canopy bedecked in wreaths and garlands a recumbent William Mulready sleeps, reminding all who care to look of his work.

Sgraffito panel of The Sonnet
the original painting by William Mulready 1839

It is the pretty sgraffito panels that decorate the lower sections of the catafalque that provide a wealth of information about the artist, I was in truth unfamiliar with his paintings but having spied the carved artists paraphernalia from a distance ventured closer.

To my delight having discovered the sgraffito decoration, what I now know and suspected then is that they are renderings of the artists more famous works. Mulready’s funerary monument is future proof, it’s decoration is not mired in esoteric symbolism.

Without any prior knowledge I left his graveside with a fair image of his art, from the composition and style of dress I intuited he was a genre painter. The ostentation of his funerary monument told me that he had been successful and the constant references to his craft told me he was proud of his acheivements.

William Mulready born in Ennis County Clare, Ireland in 1786, entered the Royal Academy in London aged fourteen. Mulready was a painter, illustrator and designer, he died in London in 1863 aged 77.

Kensal Green Cemetery – Day Two

When thy turuf is thy tour
and thy put is thy bour

Kensal Green

Among the many luminaries buried at Kensal Green cemetery lies one less well known to the public but whose influence upon the cemetery design is unequivocal. John Claudius Loudon inspired by the economic model of Pere Lachaise in Paris developed an aesthetic that utilised space in a more efficient manner than cemeteries had thus far done. Loudon’s 1843 book  On the Laying out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries moved the cemetery aesthetic away from the garden paradigm that resembled a country park towards a more regimental layout of straight roads and paths with burial plots laid out on a rectangular grid pattern.

Loudon’s influence upon cemetery design makes his interment at Kensal Green all the more ironic, having died the year his book was published Loudon did not witness the golden age of cemetery building and the lasting impact his book made. Kensal Green cemetery owes more to the garden paradigm of cemetery design, there are large sweeping named avenues reminiscent of those at Pere Lachaise, clumps of deciduous and evergreen trees and many large monuments laid not on a grid pattern but placed where they will have the most visual impact – this is best evidenced on the main driveway leading to the vast Anglican chapel. There is a subtle message in the fact that the Anglican Chapel, Doric in design, lies at the end of the main drive, en route to which are some of the most ornate monuments in the cemetery. The Non Conformist chapel Ionic in design is smaller by comparison and has a smaller drive, the surrounding monuments are generally more modest in scale and design. Some architectural theorists consider Doric design due to it’s stout nature as being masculine whilst the slender Ionic as being feminine.

As with Highgate the monuments themselves at Kensal Green are rich with symbolism. One of the most interesting and slightly confused mausoleum is that of Andrew Ducrow who died in 1842, it seems every piece of available symbolism was used in it’s decoration, the large mausoleum sits within a good size plot bordered by a wrought iron fence bearing wreaths and inverted perpetua. At one end of the plot freestanding within the railings is a large garlanded broken column which at it’s base has smaller column laid horizontal upon which is a sculpted hat and gloves. The mausoleum itself is decorated with angels, sphinxes, a winged horse, seashells, egyptian columns, draped urns and theatrical references such as an inverted mask of tragedy which perhaps offers the most explicit depiction of Ducrow’s occupation as circus stunt rider.

ducrow2a ducrow1


Highgate Cemetery-Day One

Memento, homo, quad cinis es , et in cenerem reverentis
(Remember, o man, that you are ashes, and into ashes you will return)

Today was the first day of my week long adventure exploring the cemetery and mourning aesthetic that flourished during the Victorian period.  Having been fortunate enough at the beginning of summer to have been awarded the Susan Cotton Travel Award, I have been afforded the opportunity to explore my passion for this area of Victorian social history, the study of ritual associated with death and burial I believe, offers important insight into the Victorian mindset.

It has been almost fifteen years since my first visit to Highgate cemetery, a haven that John Betjemen declared a ‘Victorian Valhalla’ and to say that I was excited at the prospect of visiting again was a vast understatement. I do now as I did fifteen years ago gravitate towards the western cemetery. The rambling aesthetic of the Western cemetery is a juxtaposition of spectacular monuments and foliage that is just kempt enough to permit good visibility but wild enough to add to the air of Gothic romanticism. A second draw to this side is that my beloved Elizabeth (nee Siddal) and Christina Rossetti are buried here, Lizzie’s painting and poetry has long been an inspiration, her jewel-like watercolours like her poetry both sensitive and naive.

Access to the Western Cemetery is by tour only and after having wandered around the Eastern side of the cemetery the tour offers welcome structure and is packed with useful information regarding not only the history of the cemetery but also supplying useful information regarding the symbolism associated with monument decoration. Our tour guide is full of interesting gems, her enthusiasm is both palpable and infectious, she begins by giving us a small history of the cemetery’s establishment.

Highgate Cemetery forms part of London’s ‘magnificent seven’, a ring of cemeteries including Kensal Green (1833), Norwood (1838), Abney Park,  Brompton, Nunhead (all 1840), Tower Hamlets (1841), Highgate itself opened in 1839. The efflorescence of cemeteries throughout London was a response to the  increase in the city’s population, churchyards unable to cope with the volume of the city’s dead led to insanitary conditions.  Joint stock companies created private cemeteries as a solution to the problem prompted greatly by the  public outcry. It would be a number of years before the first municipal cemeteries would be opened.

After basic background history has been covered, our tour guide ploughs emphatically into the symbolism of monuments and their decoration, drawing our attention to relevant examples. A broken Column, symbolises a life cut short, an inverted perpetua represents a life extinguished, urns half draped permit christian souls to escape to heaven and angels, whose role as messenger will intercede between heaven and humanity. Some of the more interesting symbolism is personal to the deceased often denoting occupation such as the grave of coachman James William Selby whoses grave is decorated with whips and horns or social status as evidenced in the grave of Sir. L Otway, whose plot is the largest in the western cemetery. Otway’s large plot is shaped almost boat like and is decorated with inverted canons and canon balls, the size of the plot declares his wealth whilst the canons and balls denote his role as a commander during the peninsular war.

It seems there is a wealth of symbolism to explore beyond the obvious lily and willow and today’s tour has given me a grounding on what I should look out for in my subsequent cemetery visits  not only on the burial monuments but also chapels (both Anglican and non-conformist). Landscaping and planting of cemeteries may also provide insight.

More information regarding Highgate cemetery can be found at