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

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