Friday, 22 December 2017

An eminent botanist, a living fossil and the man who fell to earth; Friedrich Welwitsch (1806-1872), Kensal Green Cemetery

Death of an Eminent Botanist.—A remarkable man, Frederick Welwitsch, well known in scientific, and especially botanical circles, died on Sunday afternoon, in little lodging in Fitzroy Street, near Tottenham Court Road, London. The deceased devoted his whole life to the flora of Africa. He was on the West Coast of Africa for 18 years, in the service of the Portuguese, and was present at the taking of Congo by them. He had collected, l am assured, forty thousand specimens of African flora, and was at the time of his death engaged in a "Magnum Opus" upon them. His lodging, which was almost entirely filled with his specimens and books, so as hardly to admit of locomotion, was a perfect sight. His best known work is on certain African molluscs.

Falkirk Herald - Thursday 24 October 1872
It doesn’t matter how often I visit Kensal Green I always seem to be stumbling across something new or unexpected, often in places I have walked past dozens of times before. Just behind the main entrance on Harrow Road there is a gap between the big memorials lining the verges, occupied by a relatively modest memorial slab, which I often use to get off the path and explore the area behind (which contains the distinctive red sandstone tomb of Daboda Dewanjee).  Stepping across this conveniently low slab for the umpteenth time I happened to glance down and found myself arrested in mid stride by the name on the grave; Friedrich Welwitsch. Any doubts about his identity were quickly dispelled by the Latin epitaph florae Angolensis investigatorum princeps.  Much to my astonishment, because I had no idea that he had any connection with London, I was looking at the final resting place of the discoverer of that phantasmagorical plant of Namibia and the southern Angolan desert, Welwitschia mirabilis. Angolans, of which my wife is one, are inordinately proud of their four national symbols, the Tchokwe sculpture known as O Pensador (the thinker)  the Palanca Negra  (known as the Giant Sable Antelope in the English speaking world), the Imbondeiro, the baobab tree, and Welwitschia, the improbable desert plant which has no English name.  Most Angolans are urban dwellers and very few have seen the giant sable antelope or a baobab tree and even less have had a reason to visit the almost uninhabited scorching deserts of the south where they might see a Welwitschia.

In most photographs Welwitschia mirabilis is rather scraggy and unappealing looking and it is difficult to understand why anyone would give it a second glance. Friedrich Welwitsch’s entranced reaction on first sighting seems due to a touch of sunstroke; “I could do nothing,” he later recollected “but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination”. Welwitschia may be an odd looking plant but its discoverer seems to be overreacting. If you see a photo of the plant with a human being or, even better for a large specimen, a four by four in it to give some idea the scale you start to begin to get some idea of how impressively bizarre it is. In a desert with virtually no plant life, no trees, few shrubs, little grass, barely even any cacti, the sight of a writhing monstrosity just one and a half metres high but almost 45 metres in circumference must be truly startling. Welwitschia is a living fossil that has somehow managed to survive on a peripheral outpost of Gondwanaland whilst all its contemporaries died out sometime in the Triassic. Individual plants can be astonishingly ancient, many specimens would have germinated at the time of the Norman Conquest and be due to celebrate their 1000th birthday in the next few years and the oldest may well have been around since the time of Christ. The untidy cluster of shredded leaves is deceptive, Welwitschia has only two leaves growing from a woody tap root that reaches four or five metres in length, anchoring it almost immovably in the friable desert soil. The plant seems to have a mass of leaves because the two it has shred lengthwise in the harsh desert climate. The leaves are never shed, they continue to grow for the entire life of the plant. The reason that it is unusual for the leaves to reach more than four metres in length is that the ever moving tips are abraded by the stony ground or nibbled at by iron toothed herbivores.  The Namibe desert has almost zero rainfall and Welwitschia survives on the coastal fogs that roll in most mornings from the Atlantic and are formed when the deep, cold Benguela current meets warm shallow tropical waters.  The Namibe desert is an almost unique environment, nowhere else on earth will you see penguins rubbing shoulders with hyenas, and the only other place on earth a transplanted   Welwitschia might survive would be in the Atacama in South America.
Proof that Welwitschia is not carnivorous (photo courtesy of lusodinos blogspot)

Friedrich Welwitsch was born in the southern Austrian region of Carinthia in 1807 into the large family of a prosperous farmer and surveyor who wanted his son to become a lawyer.  Welwitsch had other ideas having been a keen amateur naturalist since his childhood and the resulting conflict between him and his father led to stopping of his allowance and Welwitsch  switching from the law to medicine for his degree in Vienna.  He did eventually make up with his father, after he had qualified as a physician, but during his studies he supported himself by writing theatre reviews and tutoring a nobleman’s son. He also continued with his botanical studies at the Vienna Museum and began to look for opportunities to travel. One came, in a timely fashion according to an early memoir of the naturalist, when “an act of youthful indiscretion on his part, in the course of enjoying too freely the gaieties of Vienna, rendered it expedient for him to leave Austria for a time”, (his act of ‘youthful indiscretion’ was committed at the early age of 33).  The opportunity came via the Unio Itineraria of Wurtemburg, a learned society who sold shares in an expedition to the Azores and Cape Verde Islands amongst their members at 24 florins each, each shareholder being entitled to part of the specimens collected by Welwitsch. It was a fateful opportunity, not only did Welwitsch make his lusophone connections on this trip he also travelled via London and made the acquaintance of the eminent botanist Robert Brown (also buried at Kensal Green a mere stone’s throw away from Welwitsch).  Freidrich learned Portuguese in six weeks and so impressed his hosts that he was offered a job looking after Lisbon’s Botanical Gardens. After thoroughly studying the flora of the Alentejo and Algarve under the aegis of the Portuguese government he travelled to Angola in 1853, stopping at Madeira, Cabo Verde and Sierra Leone en route. He spent almost seven years in Angola, initially in Luanda, exploring the coast and interior, before moving on to jungles of Golungo Alto on the river Bengo where me met and lived with David Livingstone for a couple of months. He later travelled to the south of the country to Benguela on the coast and Mossamedes in the interior. It was here that he discovered Welwitschia.  He only returned to Lisbon in 1860 when a native uprising of 1500 Ovimbundu left him trapped for two months in a settlement near Huila. In 1863 the Portuguese Government gave him permission to take his Angolan specimens to London, to consult with scientists who would help with the work of identifying and classifying the collection. Once in London and absorbed in his work he paid little heed to the increasingly insistent requests of Portuguese officials for news on how the work was going. In 1866 his Portuguese salary was stopped and Friedrich had to resort to selling duplicates from the collection to pay his living expenses. This caused further fury in Portugal where he was denounced in Parliament for selling off the Royal collections and “living in splendour on the proceeds.” A fire at his lodgings at 15 Fitzroy Street (just a ten minute walk from the British Museum) in the summer of 1872 did not damage his specimens but seems to have shaken him. His health rapidly deteriorated and he died in his lodgings on the evening of 20th October 1872, leaving a complicated will written just three days previously.       

In his will Welwitsch bequeathed his collections to a variety of institutions, something that was bound to cause trouble when the Portuguese government felt that they were the rightful owners. His first instruction was “my study copy of African plants to be offered to the British Museum at the rate of E2 10s. per century (100 species) subject to one set of Mosses being first selected thereout and given to Mons. Duby of Geneva.” Two sets were then to go free to the Portuguese Government, others to various herbaria including the Museum at Carinthia, the Imperial Natural History Museum at Rio de Janeiro, the English Government for the use of Kew Gardens, and to the Botanical Museums of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Copenhagen and finally he bequeathed his general herbarium and Portuguese herbarium at Lisbon to the Royal Academy of Sciences at Lisbon. Almost as soon as the will went through probate the Portuguese Government, in the name of King Luis I, started proceedings in Chancery try and wrest what they viewed as their collection from the other legatees of Welwitsch’s will. The resulting court battles took almost 3 years to settle.  On the 18th November 1875 the London Evening Standard was able to report that a compromise between the litigant, the King of Portugal, and the executors of  Welwitsch’s will had finally been reached after the court decided “that the King was entitled to all the African collections; that he, as an act of grace and favour, should pay to the defendants £700, in full settlement of all demands; that the study set, next best set, be separated from the general collection by Drs. Hooker and Hiern; that the British Museum should retain the second best set as a gift from the King; that the defendants should hand over all the rest, of the collections to him; and that the King should distribute the collections according to the will as an act of grace and favour.”  The best set went of course to Lisbon but the British Museum did not have to pay the £2 10s per 100 specimens stipulated in the will. 
Welwitsch probate record

When my wife was growing up in Benguela she and her primary school classmates were convinced that Welwitschia was carnivorous, why else would anyone make a huge fuss about such an ugly plant? They imagined a single length of leaf as tough as nylon cord, snaking out from the main body of the plant, creeping stealthily along the ground and soundlessly winding itself around the ankle of a stray goat before hauling its bleating and furiously struggling prey back to a hidden maw in the mass of leaves. Or maybe a tightly coiled stalk would whip out to lasso a careless tribesman or foolish white explorer around the neck and then drag its choking victim along the dusty ground to be sucked dry. Angolans are great story tellers, as people living in the grimmest situations often are. Rumour, exaggeration, gossip, boasting and speculation transform even the most inconsequential incidents into flamboyant narratives. As a result no one believes a word anyone else says if it sounds even slightly out of the ordinary. When the country became independent in 1975 almost half a million white Portuguese hurriedly left Angola, many returning to live in poverty in Portugal where they found themselves discriminated against as retornados. Black Angolans started to flee the country shortly after the colonists when independence degenerated into a prolonged and bloody civil war.
Namibe, Angola by Joost De Raeymaeker

My wife’s family left in the early 1980’s when the civil war was at its height. The Portuguese were never especially welcoming to displaced Angolans of any colour and the white retornados often found they had more in common with the black refugees than they did with their supposed countrymen. My wife’s family settled in a small village outside Lisbon where they found themselves latched onto by a lonely middle-aged white woman who had been born in Luanda. She had been brought up, she said, in colonial splendour on a large coffee growing estate. Tia Maria, as they called her, missed Africa and wanted to endlessly talk about her life there. There was a lot of scepticism amongst her listeners about some of her stories. She claimed, for example, that the family was so beloved by the workers on the estate that they were surrounded by dozens of weeping Africans when they left to return to Portugal in 1975. One of them was apparently so distraught at losing them that he followed them to Luanda and to the airport where, in the confusion and chaos as thousands of people fought to get on flights to Lisbon and Porto, he managed to sneak onto the runway and hide in the wheel well of the aircraft taking the family home by climbing the landing gear. He remained tucked away behind the retracted wheel during the 8 hour, 3500 mile flight from Angola to Portugal. As the plane began its descent towards Portela airport in Lisbon the crew extended the landing gear, dislodging the unfortunate stowaway, who fell several thousand feet and was killed instantly. The Angolan refugees listening to this story snorted with disbelief; firstly, why would any black Angolan want to follow his white mistress back to Portugal? The idea was simply ludicrous. And secondly, even an idiot would know that it is not possible to stowaway beneath a jet plane and survive a journey in the upper atmosphere where there is no oxygen to breath and the temperature plummets to 50 or 60 degrees below freezing. When my wife told me the story I agreed with her – it was ridiculous, attempting to hitch a free plane ride in such a perilous way was unheard of.   

E-fit of Jose Matada issued by the Police
After dismissing the story we were astonished by the news in October 1996 that two brothers from New Delhi had stowed away in the wheel well of a British Airways 747 on a flight from New Delhi to Heathrow and one of them actually managed to survive the flight. And then just a few months later, in March 1997, a 13 year old Kenyan boy was found crushed by the landing gear on a flight arriving at Heathrow from Nairobi. The following year a dead Azerbaijani fell out of the wheel well of a British Airways flight from Baku when it landed at Gatwick. In the following years there were more stories of planes landing with bodies in the wheel well or of bodies falling from the sky as planes readied to land at airports. Tia Maria’s story did not sound quite so far fetched any more, especially when on a quiet Sunday morning in September 2012 British Airways flight BA76 from Luanda flew over a deserted Portman Avenue in Mortlake at 7.42am. Seconds later several residents of the suburban street were awoken by a loud thud but when they looked out of their windows there was nothing unusual to see. A few minutes later two boys on their way to church found an African man dressed in jeans, white trainers and a grey hoodie lying dead on the pavement. The police were called and initially suspected that the injuries sustained by the unknown man were caused by a beating with baseball bats. But when a search of the victim’s pockets showed that the only money he had on him were Angolan Kwanzas and several witnesses came forward to say they had heard a loud noise at a time that coincided with the time that the BA flight from Luanda passed overhead, it began to seem more likely that the man was a stowaway. The victim had no identification documents on him; the only clues to his identity were a tattoo on his left arm with the letters Z and G and an e-fit reconstructed from the remains of his battered face. The police hoped this would be enough for someone in the British Angolan community to recognise him. It took police almost seven months to identify him. In April 2013 they announced that the victim was José Matada, believed to be from Mozambique, not Angola; ironically his 26th birthday was on the 9th September, the day he had fallen from the sky above Mortlake to his death in Portman Avenue. The Police had eventually identified him via an Angolan Movicel SIM card retrieved from the smashed mobile phone found in his pocket. This revealed a string of text messages between him and a woman who was eventually traced to Switzerland. When the police talked to her about the texts she was able to identify José, even describing the tattoo on his arm. He had worked for the woman’s family as a gardener and housekeeper in South Africa. When the family moved away José sent her a stream of texts talking about going to Europe to make a better life for himself presumably hoping she would help or offer him employment. He moved to Angola from South Africa for reasons that have never become clear and made his final, desperate attempt to get to Europe from Quatro de Fevereiro Internation Airport in Luanda on the evening of Saturday 8th September. The pathologist giving evidence at his inquest said that José would have been close to death, possibly even already frozen and suffocated to death, by the time the BA Boeing 777 slowed to 240mph and dropped altitude to 2500 feet on its final descent to Heathrow and he fell from the wheel well to the pavement of Portman Avenue, SW14. The efforts of the authorities in Mozambique to identify José’s family initially ended in failure but then in January 2014 they finally came forward after seeing his story in the newspaper Verdade. José’s body had been marked in an unmarked grave in Twickenham; his family could not afford the $11,500 it would cost to repatriate him back home.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Lisbon Dead; O Cemitério do Alto de São João, Lisboa

For no good reason I can’t help feeling slightly guilty for deserting, even temporarily, the subject of (dead) London and Londoners. The idea of a sister blog called the Lisbon Dead has appealed to me for some time but I barely have time for one blog and I’m just kidding myself if I think I’ll ever manage to keep up with two. So I may as well bow to the inevitable and allow myself to stray off-piste; what follows is the London Dead on holiday.  This post is an early, and inferior, version of something I wrote for Loren Rhoads ‘Cemetery Travel’ blog. Loren prodded me into writing a better post by asking clever and pertinent questions and in gratitude I will leave the resulting piece on her blog and use the original version on my own.  

My wife is Portuguese and still has family in Lisbon. When my sister in law moved to a new apartment in the high-rise suburb of Olaias I was intrigued by the large hillside cemetery I could see from her 8th floor windows.  It was the cemitério do Alto de São João I was told when I asked.  It didn’t look too far away and I promised myself that I would go and have a good look at the first opportunity that presented itself. This turned out to be one hot August afternoon when I only managed to get into the cemetery 30 minutes before it shut for the day. I stole an extra 15 minutes or so after they had closed the gates but I didn’t want to risk being locked in for the night. 45 minutes wasn’t time to scratch the surface of the place; I moved around as fast as I could and took as many photos as my frantically twitching shutter finger would allow but I knew I needed to go back and explore properly.  I have returned half a dozen times since then and spent whole afternoons there but like all the best cemeteries the place is a labyrinth and no matter how many times you visit there is always something new to discover.  In Lisbon’s strong light the cemeteries deserted lanes, its mausoleums and memorials take on the eerie atmosphere of a De Chirico painting.  The cemitério is a true necropolis, with the dead mainly residing above ground in sepulchres and mausoleums that line the sides of streets that have names and numbers just like in a real town. The site was first used as a burial ground in 1833 during a cholera epidemic when plague pits were dug on what was then a hill top outside the Lisbon city limits.

In the 1830’s Portugal had very few cemeteries. The progressive Bishop of Leiria had created a cemetery behind his cathedral in the 1780’s and the English had created graveyards in Oporto and Lisbon but most Portuguese interments took place inside the walls of religious buildings of one sort or another, mainly churches but also convents, monasteries, even hermitages. Only the rich could afford any sort of memorial, the majority of burials went unmarked. Parish churches became overcrowded and unsanitary following centuries of intermural interments. In 1790 in the small town of Póvoa de Varzim the padre declared that the church doors had to be kept open at all times; incense was no longer enough to disguise the stench of rotting corpses inside the building. In 1835 a Liberal government passed a law obliging the civil authorities to create walled cemeteries in all urban areas of Portugal. It was an unpopular measure, provoking riots on the town of Lanhoso and an anti-government uprising in the northern region of Minho.  There were claims that the new cemeteries were built without walls and that wild animals scavenged corpses. The novelist Camilo Castelo Branco ridiculed the idea that the Government “had ordered the construction of cemeteries, but had had no walls built round them, so that dogs, cats and wild boars got in in such numbers that they dug up the corpses. Nations and naturalists alike must have had a rather inflated idea of the size of the Portuguese cats which dug up corpses, and of the good relations between our dogs and the said cats in the task of exhuming them. They would have been no less surprised by the familiar behaviour of the boars who came from Geres to collaborate with the dogs and cats in extracting rotten flesh from the soil of Lanhoso.”

In the more sophisticated cities of Lisbon and Porto however the Portuguese bourgeoisie were as enthusiastic about cemeteries as their counterparts in London, Paris or Berlin.   The city government of Lisbon founded two in 1835 in response to the new laws, both on high ground on the city outskirts, Prazeres (Pleasures! The name is not ironic, it came from the name of the Quinta, the country estate, on which the cemetery was laid out) and on the Alto de São João, the Heights of St John, looking out over the broad sweep of the river Tejo (Tagus).  Nineteenth century Portuguese society was divided into Conservatives, who were supporters of the monarchy and staunch upholders of tradition and Liberals, who democratic, republican and often bohemian. In death as in life, the Portuguese remained divided and which of Lisbon’s two cemeteries you were buried in depended very much on your political views; Prazeres is the final resting place of choice for the conservatives, for the aristocrats, clergy, military and high financiers who were the backbone of traditional society.  The inhabitants of the Cemitério do Alto de São João on the other hand are Liberals to a man; republican political figures, journalists, writers, artists and the petty bourgeoisie who supported them.

So liberal was the climate at the cemetery that it was the obvious site for Portugal’s first crematorium whose construction was approved in 1912 and built shortly afterwards. The crematorium was bitterly opposed by the Catholic church and even liberals soon proved themselves to be more conservative, certainly in matters relating to burial, than anyone had imagined. The crematorium only became functional in 1925 when an incinerator was acquired from Germany; a bronze memorial in the cemetery, unfortunately one with more than a passing resemblance to a barbecue, commemorates the ‘primeira incineração em portugal’ (the first incineration in Portugal) on 23 November 1925. Once working the crematorium proved a huge flop – between 1925 and 1936 only 22 people choose to be cremated. In 1936 cemetery management conceded defeat and closed the crematorium down. It only reopened in 1985, mainly as a result of pressure from Lisbon’s growing Hindu community. The decoration of the crematorium is remarkable; inside azulejos, traditional blue tiles, show a mysterious ceremony in which ghostly cowled figures march in single file along a crepuscular path to kneel at the base of a sacred flame whilst over the arched entrance skulls, femurs and pelvic bones wreathed in flames and smoke offer a hint of the inferno that almost guaranteed to put off potential clients suffering from religious qualms.


My favourite memorials at the cemetery belong to the bullfighters, Fernando de Oliveira, Daniel Do Nascimento and Tomás Da Rocha. Portuguese bull fighting is very different from Spanish – the bull isn’t killed and the important toureiros, bullfighters, are not matadors but the cavaleiros the horsemen (or cavaleiras, horsewomen, unlike Spain Portugal has women bullfighters) who dress in 18th century costume, are mounted on Lusitano horses and whose job is to stick three or four bandarilhas into the big hump of muscle that sits over a bulls front legs. This makes it possible for the next part of the surreal spectacle to take place; the cavaleiro is replaced by the 8 strong forçada, a group of amateur fighters, who enter the ring armed only with a single green cap, and whose job is to engage the bull in an intimate clinch called a ‘pega’. The forçada drawing the short straw is given the green cap and standing alone, some distance away from his colleagues, attracts the attention of the enraged bulls by putting his hands on his hips, sashaying across the ring and shouting “toiro, hey, toiro…” until the bull, irritated beyond endurance at this ridiculous display, charges. The forçada has to grab the charging bull by the head and once he has him firmly secured, the other forçadas leap in to help. This link will show you what happens when unarmed man meets furious bull.   

Accidents, sometimes fatal, are not uncommon in the Corridas. Fernando de Oliveira (see top photograph for his memorial) died in the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon on the afternoon of the 12th May 1904. Fernando, mounted on his horse Azeitona, was second on the bill fighting Ferrador, a bull bred on the quinta of the Marquês de Castelo Melhor. Fernando managed to sink his first bandarilha into the bulls back but the incensed animal charged, knocking Azeitona’s legs from underneath him. Bullfighter and horse collapsed in a tangle of arms, legs and stirrups and the bull attacked again. Other toureiros ran to help; the bull was coaxed away, the panicked horse climbed back to its feet and ran, bucking and kicking, around the ring. Fernando lay where he had fallen; it was obvious to all that he was dead, the base of his skull crushed.  In the days before film and video no one could be quite sure what had happened in those crucial seconds after Azeitona had stumbled. Some thought that the fall itself was responsible for the head injury. Others were sure that he had been smashed on the back of the head by a flying stirrup. Others swore that the horsemen had managed to raise himself to his knees immediately after his fall but with his back turned towards the bull, who had gored him from behind. Fernando’s monument in the Cemitério was raised by public subscription amongst the aficionados of Portuguese tauromaquia.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Brief Lives; children's memorials in London cemeteries

There can't be many situations as difficult to deal with as the death of a child. High rates of child mortality into the early 20th century meant that in the past it was a much more common experience than it is today and one that parents had to go through more than once. Luckily today child deaths are exceptional and tragic events but that perhaps makes them all the harder to deal with. Memorials to these brief lives are often the most poignant to be found in any cemetery.   

This memorial to a four year old boy is in East London Cemetery in Plaistow. In most London cemeteries most memorials come straight out of an undertakers or stonemason's catalogues but in the East End some of the old individuality lingers on and East London Cemetery is one the best places to see these as this memorial shows.  

To the west of the catacombs at Brompton Cemetery lies a patch of ground dedicated to the graves of children. Interments date back to the 1830's but burials are still being carried out.

David Borrow aged 2 years "called away from those who loved him, plucked like a flower in bloom, so young so happy."

Another one in Brompton Cemetery. 
In Loving Memory of Christopher J Cooke
Who fell asleep 4th September 1943
Aged 3 months
Our darling baby we used to kiss
Once we nursed him but now sadly miss

Brompton again - this 1960's angel has probably been bleached of its original colour by sun and rain.
God sent this treasure for a while to charm us with her love
then gently took our darling one to dwell with him above
In ever loving memory of our darling -Susan- who died 22nd Sept 1964 aged 8 months

The lettering on this sandstone gravestone has worn away and become completely  indecipherable - looks to be mid 19th century

May Wheeler, died 1934 aged 12, Manor Park Cemetery.

This is a temporary grave marker at Kensal Green cemetery. Some parents never feel up to providing a permanent grave marker.

A very simple marker at Willesden new cemetery.

This is one of the most heart breaking children's graves that I have seen. When I took this photo in 2013 the 'temporary' grave with a simple black wooden cross, 6 inch high plastic fencing and some rather weathered soft toys looked like it hadn't been touched for a couple of years. But look when Malcolm, who only lived for two days, died. 1954. That means Malcolm's mother (because surely it could only have been his mother) had been returning to and tending her two day old baby son's grave for almost 60 years. She must have been in her 80's and still thinking about and grieving for her child dead for six decades. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Les Cimetières de Londres - Guy Vaes (Jacques Antoine, Bruxelles, 1978)

I stumbled across the writer Guy Vaes’ 1978 photography book ‘Les cimetières de Londres’ by complete fluke when I was recently researching the Victorian architect Thomas Willson. Vaes mentions Willson in passing in the introductory essay to his book and as luck would have it, that essay was translated and made available on line last year; a few google searches were enough to make the tenuous connection between Willson and Vaes and alert me to the existence of his book. A couple more searches and I had located the one copy of it currently on sale in the UK. Given the current Euro/Pound exchange rate I could have got a slightly cheaper version from Belgium or France but as we all need to start getting used to living without the rest of Europe I paid the Brexit premium and stumped up for the British one. 

My French is non-existent and I am fortunate that 3 of Vaes’ essays, including his London cemeteries piece, have been recently translated by Philip Mosely for Literary Geographies, an open access e-journal.  Although he wrote in French, Vaes was born in 1927 in Antwerp in Flemish speaking Belgium, into a petit bourgeois family. He spent his childhood reading Jules Verne, HG Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and his adolescence, during exile in France and the Nazi occupation of Belgium, devouring Woolf, Kafka, Melville and Faulkner. After the end of the war he was determined to become a writer but found himself enlisted in the Belgian army. An extended period of sick leave due to blood poisoning gave him the time he needed to start writing his first novel, Octobre long dimanche. This rather slim volume took him ten years to complete and wasn’t published until 1959. His second took him even longer - L'Envers wasn’t published until 1983. In retirement he became relatively prolific, publishing his final four novels in a late burst of creativity between 1993 and 2002. In the long fallow period between novels he earned his living in journalism, first in Antwerp for 'Le Matin' and 'La Métropole', and then for the Brussels weekly 'Spécial' where he became a respected film critic. In 1997 he was elected a member of the Académie royale de Langue et de Littérature françaises de Belgique. He died in 2012 at the age of 85 and despite his love of cemeteries, was cremated. 

Kensal Green
What is most immediately striking about the introduction to ‘Les cimetières de Londres’ is the appalling prose style. Passages like the following are as impenetrable as a schizophrenic's word salad:

At Highgate Hill, the most inspired of all these entrenchments, the osmosis between the tombs and the vegetation is that of the Amazonian tribe and its branchy site. As opposed to the strategist who established his bridgeheads on solid ground, the dead, having become prior to the Creation, find their feet only on the sloping parts of our consciousness. That’s to say, in the flaccid, in the marshy, and in that abyssal which has, however, less thickness than a reflection and whose nerves transmit the shock waves.

And what are we supposed to make of Vaes musings on ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’?; “Thomas Gray breathes some air into the rural literary landscape. He matches his innocent timbre to the sound of a life that the clay drinks up. To the epitaph transformed into runes, he associates a fate as discreet as that of a mole.” Sometimes though the overblown metaphors somehow manage to be genuinely evocative, “similar to the Indians, who breathlessly prepare to race down the hillside to attack the stagecoach, the graves of old St. James prepare the attack on London of the living….”

The Ducrow Mausoleum in Kensal Green looking very overgrown

This so often reads like a foreign language translated into English by a non native speaker with a literature degree and a well thumbed thesaurus that it is tempting to blame the excesses of Vaes style on the translator. But Philip Mosley is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He has won prizes and decent reviews for his translations of Vaes, Rodenbach and Maeterlinck. He has published numerous articles in learned journals. He is the editor of ‘Anthracite! An Anthology of Pennsylvania Coal Region Drama.’ Surely if anyone should be able to string a coherent, grammatical sentence together it is a professor of English? Which means that if the English of Mosley’s translation is impenetrable it is because so is the French of Vaes’ original. At first I found it difficult to believe that a published novelist could write quite so badly but after a few pages I found Vaes’ overblown style beginning to exert something akin to fascination:
We hardly dare, for fear that the stretched imagination will boil over, to picture London as dreamed up by Jeremy Bentham, that Oxonian whose embalmed body, clothed as an eighteenth-century squire, is preserved in a cabinet at the University of London. His big idea was embalming. Bury the stiffs? What sacrilege! He wished to see Londoners mummified so as to render them as decorative objects. One would thus have kept mother and father in the drawing-room, installed grandfather in the bedroom, seated grandmother on the balcony, and grouped the ancestors beneath the foliage of a square. Bentham elaborated on it in Auto-Icon, or Further Uses of the Dead to the Living. Thanks to him, London would have become the huge appendix of Madame Tussaud. We would have mingled—at the Café Royal or in a box at the Palladium, beneath an awning in Covent Garden or in the corridors of the Underground—with people in moth-eaten ruffles and with extremely creased cheeks. We would have been seated beside them in a first-class train car or on the upper deck of an omnibus; and the equinoctial winds would have dispersed that threatening dust, unless a refuse collector’s shovel ….


There is something infectious about Vaes’ enthusiasm for his subject. His epigraph to the book is “the cemeteries of London …. Those four words have always had the effect on me that Christopher Columbus’s crew must have felt, at the end of an anxious voyage, when the look-out shouted ‘Land!’” He was remarkably well informed about the history of London’s dead. He walks us though, in his own inimitable way, the history of the cemetery movement in the capital, he talks about the key figures involved (indeed he dedicates the book to his wife Lydia and Stephen Geary, dead more than a century even in the 1970’s, the eccentric architect who designed many of the best loved features of Highgate, founder member of the General Cemetery Company and tireless campaigner for burial reform) and knowledgeably discusses the Victorian background. He mentions not only Thomas Willson, the proposer of the Pyramid mausoleum, and Hume’s auto-icon but Enon Chapel, Ducrow, Hawksmoor, Brompton, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets, City of London Cemetery, St Olaves, St Bartholomew-the-Great, George Alfred Walker, The Duke of Portland (albeit he calls him the Duke of Portman) and T.C. Druce, William Haywood and Arthur Machen. All of this makes him seem remarkably up to date. Was anyone else writing about all this in the 1970’s? (Except perhaps James Steven Curl, who was another man ahead of his time).  
Kensal Green - Landers?

Unlike his prose, Vaes photographs are artfully but simply composed. Taken in the mid 1970’s they reveal some surprises like the peacocks that apparently used to live in Highgate Cemetery or the original Limehouse premises of the Wanstead funeral directors Francis & Chris Walters. My favourite picture is the cover shot (thankfully included inside free of lettering) of a one handed Kensal Green Angel with the gas works steaming away in the background. Another shot shows the Ducrow mausoleum overgrown with ivy, something you would like to believe that would not be allowed to happen today. In other ways the monochrome images are timeless – most of the locations are instantly recognisable. In his foreword Vaes discuses other cemeteries where he must have taken pictures but which don't appear as images in his book. Pictures that are probably lost for ever now.
“Even more radical is the negative transformation undergone, since 1969, by Nunhead, Bunning’s masterpiece shining on the south bank of the Thames. Yews, oaks, and tulip trees have been transformed there into cones of ivy. The Dissidents’ Chapel has been destroyed a few steps from the Anglican Chapel, that exquisite Gothic paraphrase by Thomas Little, who designed St. Saviour at Paddington, …….. But nothing equals in beauty the lyricism of a ground which, swelling like a wave, goes forth on its own conquest, falls back, subsides and, reforming its tidal wave of clover and horsetail, raises crosses and statues higher than the adjacent chimney stacks.”

The circle of Lebanon, Highgate Cemetery

“Up to where the Columbarium, anticipated and called for by the presentiment of a focal point, announces itself. With its rounded pillars of gangrened drums, the leprous obelisks that solemnize its gap, the Egyptian gate, at least its image on the retina, has the power of a geyser’s source. It surges forth, tremendous in its peculiarity, stormy in its mass, from that which has reclad the view of a valley and was formerly a bare path. Beyond the grilles, with the freshness of a subterranean river, the Egyptian avenue and its tombs present themselves. Each verdigris door, stuck fast to a frame that has split, is equipped with a metal handle that the arm can no longer succeed in lifting. And, at the end of this funeral opening, a cedar, divinity with fan of arms blackened by blowtorch, besets a triangle of sky above a fresh succession of tombs. Beneath the spreading branches of this tree out of a sculptor’s studio, an alley whispers in the form of a ring, the Circle of Lebanon. There the Egyptian Avenue ends. Metal doors, marked by rust-filled craters, oscillated by an inventive dampness, have confined their occupiers to cells in the thickness of those concentric walls. And everywhere, from top to bottom, on the two flights of steps leading to the next to last terrace, holly, umbellifers, horsetails by the thousand, the pale mauve of the columbine, and a number of other plants whose names escape me.”

“…a stone angel, felled by leather jacketed goliaths of Peckham, lies in the grass like a peasant-girl after an act of love. She imitates the pose and shares the fate of a fascinating statue of a woman, removed from its plinth, in the modern section of Highgate. It happens occasionally—the sound has stayed in my ears—that a huge branch of a tree breaks off with the crack of a hull ramming a reef.”

Francis & Chris Walters Undertakers, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse
“Among these overly unassuming parcels of land one may still choose St. Anne in Limehouse. The church, one of the three largest and most accomplished by Hawksmoor, faces a pyramidal tomb of Portland stone.”

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Vaes discusses one of the great legends of the London Dead, the exhumation of Elizabeth Siddall by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For anyone not aware of the story, the distraught poet placed  a sheaf of love poems (the only copy) in her coffin when his beloved model, muse and wife Lizzie died of a laudanum overdose and was buried at Highgate. Seven years later, a hopeless drug and alcohol abuser, convinced he was going blind and facing penury Rossetti had Lizzie exhumed in order to retrieve the poems and publish them. The story goes that Lizzie’s hair had continued to grow for the entire seven years following her death and was “an interminable golden banner waved in the evening breeze just beyond an inexpressible face. That hair covered the remains from head to foot” as Vaes puts it. It is a story heard in many countries and cultures - “The stone shattered at the first blow of the pick-axe and a stream of living hair the intense colour of copper spilled out of the crypt. The foreman, with the help of the labourers, attempted to uncover all the hair, and the more of it they brought out, the longer and more abundant it seemed, until at last the final strands appeared still attached to the skull of the girl…” Garcia Marquez ‘Of Love and Other Demons’

Kensal Green

Friday, 17 November 2017

'Exquisite Pain' - Damien Hirst, St. Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield

St Bartholomew is one of the nondescript apostles, one of the 12 who seems to be there simply to make up the numbers. The gospels don’t even agree on his name; in the synoptic gospels he is Bartholomew but to John he was Nathanael. Even Christ barely noticed him; “Behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile,” John alleges Jesus said on first seeing him, before promptly forgetting about him again. After the resurrection he wandered Asia casting out demons and baptising converts, from the coast of Anatolia to the shores of India.  The manner of his martyrdom transformed him into an icon of western art, one the few saints still providing inspiration to secular modern artists. On an overcast November morning in the gloomy south transept of the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, the burnished gold of ‘Exquisite Pain’, Damien Hirst’s gilded statue of the saint, looks unnaturally bright, it seems to be radiating light rather than reflecting it. Despite the superficial magnificence I can’t help feeling the gilding is a mistake and that the statue looked better in its original plain bronze incarnation. The polished gold version reminds me irresistibly of C-3PO. The saint is shown in one of his traditional poses, flayed alive, a scalpel and shears in his hand, and carrying his own skin over his right arm like an unneeded overcoat. The artist said the inspiration for his St Bartholomew came “from woodcuts and etchings I remember seeing when I was younger. As he was a martyr who was skinned alive, he was often used by artists and doctors to show human anatomy." His catholic upbringing exposed him to the golden legends of the saints “they are great stories and it is about... those guys… who all met these terrible ends...,” says Hirst, “everyone is a martyr really in life. So I think you can use that as an example of your own life, just that kind of involvement with the world. Just trying to find out what your life actually amounts to, in the end.” But the statue is not just a homage to St Bartholomew, Hirst had another martyr in mind when creating his sculpture “I added the scissors because I thought Edward Scissorhands was in a similarly tragic yet difficult position," he said, "it has the feel of a rape of the innocents about it.”

The Sotheby’s catalogue note accompanying the sale of a copy of the statue claims that it “challenges the relatively recent demarcation of art and science, evoking the representations of Saint Bartholomew (the patron saint of doctors and surgeons) that were historically used as teaching aids for medical students.” It goes on to say “as in so much of Hirst’s work, the relationship between religion, science and art is playfully dissected. The artist was deeply affected by the often-gruesome religious imagery he was exposed to as a child, growing up in a Catholic household. As a teenager, he made repeated visits to a mortuary, where he produced sketches of the corpses, simultaneously studying the anatomical make-up of the body and attempting to address his fear of death. These early experiences undoubtedly informed the development of Hirst’s visual language and his examination of the complex, frequently blurred areas of intersection between belief, religion and science have produced some of the artist’s most challenging and important work to date.” The catalogue acknowledges the similarities between Hirst’s St Bartholomew and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s l’Écorché (Flayed Man) of 1767 but doesn’t mention that images of the saint showing off his musculature as accurately as an  anatomical model go back to the early 16th century and the influence of the great Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

There are late medieval images of the flaying of Saint Bartholomew which depict in gruesome detail the process of stripping his skin. In an altarpiece dating from 1412 the Catalan Jaume Huguet shows the saint with arms raised and lashed to two poles already flayed to the waist, with two executioners, one wearing an apron to protect his clothes and the other holding a spare knife in his mouth, concentrating on carefully removing the skin in one piece. In the German artist Stefan Lochner’s picture of around 1435 the saint, lashed face down to a surgeon’s table, is nonchalantly resting on one elbow and casually observing, over his shoulder, a man in chainmail with a knife between his teeth using two hands and brute force to strip away the skin from his shoulder and arm whilst another, dressed in a turban and with a scimitar at his waist, makes an exploratory incision in the back of his thigh. Sitting on the floor in front of the table an old man with ripped leggings sharpens more knives on a whetstone. In an Italian depiction of the saint by Matteo di Giovanni from around 1480 he is shown completely flayed except for his head with his skin draped stylishly over the shoulder and held in front where it falls to the waist and hides his genitalia. In these images what is left when the saint’s epidermis is removed is red, raw flesh, probably bloody subcutaneous fat. In more tasteful images, such as Michelangelo’s version of the saint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he holds up his flayed hide (looking almost ghostlike its disembodiment) but has miraculously grown a second one, as if it had been sloughed off as painlessly as a snake sheds its skin, rather than having it ripped from him in an act of grotesque violence.


1543 was a watershed moment for representations of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew. Andries van Wesel, the young Flemish doctor who was Professor of Surgery and Anatomy at Padua University, better known to the world by the Latinised form of his name, Andreas Vesalius, published the ground-breaking anatomical work De humani corporis fabrica. With illustrations by Titian's pupil, Jan Stephen van Calcar, the book showed the dissection of a human body, a corpse undergoing an anatomical striptease, prancing around initially sans skin to show off its muscles, then peeling away layers of flesh to reveal the deeper structures and organs until just an articulated skeleton is left standing, resting a bony elbow on a tomb, bony chin propped thoughtfully on bony fingers, presumably contemplating mortality. The plates of what essentially is a flayed man showing off his musculature, one arm in the air, posing in front of a ruined classical tomb became the model for later depictions of St Bartholomew. In 1556 a Spanish physician, Juan Valverde de Amusco, published Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano in Rome, a work almost entirely plagiarised from Vesalius. What little originality was in Valverde’s book came from the pen of Gaspar Becerra, a Spanish artist who had studied under Michelangelo in Rome. His striking plate of a flayed man holding up his own skin and grasping a knife in the other shows some affinities with Michelangelo’s St Bartholomew, whilst clearly drawing on Vesalius to produce a startling new image of the saint, one grounded as much in science as in religious iconography. 

The Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate would have used Vesalius’ anatomy as well as Valverde’s book when he produced his gruesomely lifelike St Bartholomew Flayed of 1562, which stands in the transept of Milan Cathedral. Brilliantly executed and anatomically correct the flayed saint stands with his own skin draped over his shoulders and round his waist, a bible in one hand and a mysterious tool, perhaps a hand plane somehow used for skinning, in the other. The artists overweening pride in his work is shown in the words he chiselled on the statues base, Non me Praxiteles, sed Marc'finxit Agrat; I was not made by Praxiteles but by Marco d'Agrate. Mark Twain recorded his horrified reaction to the statue in Innocents Abroad (1869) “It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs. It is hard to forget repulsive things.”

St Bartholomew by Latente on flickr

As the renaissance faded and the baroque developed, depictions of St Bartholomew’s martyrdom became more psychological, focussing on mood, content to merely hint at the violence and consequently dwelling less on the physicality and horror of torture.  Giovanni Battista Paggi straddled the renaissance and baroque and his painting of the flaying is a fascinating amalgam of the distinct styles of the two periods. The hieratic composition and graphic violence are renaissance in character but the naturalistic handling of the two men skinning the saint (they concentrate as dispassionately as they would if they were handling a pig carcase), St Bartholomew’s theatrical pose and the gloomy sky anticipates baroque handling of the subject. A typical example of this is Valentin de Boulogne’s (the ‘French Caravaggio’) picture of the saint of c 1614. The saint is a fuddled old man whose slack hide looks like it will easily peel away from his body. The two torturers are sinewy artisans in labourer’s clothes efficiently going about their job; one tightens the rope lashing St Bartholomew to the crude wooden cross while the other clutches a handful of skin on his outer thigh and readies his knife for slicing into it. The whole scene is dramatically side lit in typical high baroque chiaroscuro. During the enlightenment religious painting became an unimportant subgenre. With rise of interest in science in general and anatomy in particular écorché gained a new lease of life.  Jean-Antoine Houdon’s l’Écorché belongs to this period, a piece that has such close affinities with Hirst’s that it is uncomfortably close to being a copy.

According to the Golden Legend St Bartholomew died in Albanopolis, an ancient city somewhere in Greater Armenia, variously identified as Darbend in Dagestan on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, or Albac on the Turkish/Iranian border, or Baku in Azerbaijan. The city was ruled by the Persians and St Bartholomew took up residence as a beggar in the temple of the demon Astaroth. The temple had been the centre of a cult of healing but the miraculous cures attributed to Astaroth stopped when the saint moved in. The temple gradually filled with the sick and ailing whose sacrifices and prayers were now failing to find a cure. When the priests learned this was due to the presence of a Christian in the holy precincts they searched for Bartholomew for two days and nights amongst the crowds in the temple but failed to find him. It was only when a man possessed by a devil wandered through the sanctuary crying out “Apostle of the Lord, Bartholomew, your prayers are burning me up!” that the saint finally stepped forward and cast out the demon. Bartholomew was seized by the priests but the local king, Polymius, hearing of the exorcism and having a daughter who was likewise possessed by a demon, ordered the saint to be brought to the palace to cure her. The princess was kept in chains because of her unpredictable ferocity; the whole court was terrified of her. Bartholomew ordered her chains be struck off, “Her demon has already left her,” he told the alarmed household servants. When the King saw that his daughter was cured he loaded camels with gold and silver, precious stones, pearls and luxurious garments, sending them to the saint. Bartholomew sent them all back untouched, telling the King that he sought no earthly reward, just the right to preach the gospels and to heal the multitude of sick now crowding the temple of Astaroth.

Polymius was present in person the next time the priests began the sacrifice to Astaroth. As the ceremony began the demon cried out “Refrain, you wretched ones, from sacrificing to me, lest ye suffer worse for my sake; because I am bound in fiery chains, and kept in subjection by an angel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Jews crucified.” Bartholomew stepped forward and asked the demon who had caused all the people in the temple to fall sick. “The devil, our ruler,” said Astaroth, “he sends us against men, that, having first injured their bodies, we may thus also make an assault upon their souls for then we have complete power over them, when they believe in us and sacrifice to us.” King Polymius ordered his men to topple the statue of the idol but even armed with ropes and levels they were unable to move the idol even a fraction of an inch. Bartholomew stepped forward again and commanded the demon; “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, come out of this idol, and go into a desert place, where neither winged creature utters a cry, nor voice of man has ever been heard.” At this all the idols of the temple crumbled to dust and an angel appeared, leading a subdued Astaroth bound in fiery chains whose ferocious appearance was “like an Ethiopian, black as soot; his face thin-cheeked and sharp as a dog's, hair down to his feet, eyes like fire, sparks pouring out of his mouth and smoke like sulphur out of his nostrils, with wings spined like a porcupine.”
The people of Albanopolis abandoned devil worship from that day forth and began to follow the word of the one true God. But Polymius had an elder brother, also a king, Astreges. The priests of Astaroth went to Astreges and told him “O king, your brother Polymius has become disciple to a certain magician, who has taken down our temples, and broken our gods to pieces.” Astreges sent a thousand armed men with the priests to capture Bartholomew and bring him in chains to the palace. “Are you he who has perverted my brother from the gods?” To which the apostle replied “I have not perverted him, but have converted him to God.” The king then asked “Are you he who caused our gods to be broken in pieces?” The apostle responded “I gave power to the demons who were in them, and they broke in pieces the dumb and senseless idols.” Astreges then threatened the apostle “As you have made my brother deny his gods, and believe in your God, so I also will make you reject your God and believe in my gods.” “You can do nothing to my God,” said Bartholomew, “but I will break all your gods in pieces.” As these words were spoken messengers appeared to tell the King that the all the idols in the temples had fallen from their pedestals and smashed into pieces. In fury Astreges rent the royal purple in which he was dressed and ordered Bartholomew to be crucified head downwards, taken down while still alive, flayed and finally beheaded. The converts to Christianity, 12,000 of them, came from the cities of Armenia to collect Bartholomew’s mortal remains and bury them in a royal tomb. When Astreges heard this he ordered the corpse to be thrown into the sea. On the thirtieth day after Bartholomew’s death demons swarmed from hell to strangle Astreges and the priests of Astroth and to carry their souls back to the devil as punishment for the martyrdom of the apostle. The people of Armenia made Polymius their Bishop, a position he held for 20 years.
After Asteges had ordered Bartholomew’s remains to be cast into the sea they were miraculously washed ashore at Lipari in Sicily where it was venerated as a holy relic by the locals. In 331 the Moors invaded Sicily and destroyed the sepulchre which held the saints bones, throwing them out along with the remains in the church ossuary. Shortly afterwards a monk had a vision of the saint who instructed him to find his bones and take them to Benevento on the Italian mainland for safekeeping. When the perplexed friar asked how he would identify them amongst all the other bones scattered around the ruins of the church the saint told him to “gather them by night, and them that thou shalt find shining thou shalt take up.” The monk followed the saint’s instructions and the relics found their way to the Basilica of San Bartolomeo in Benevento where some of them can still be seen today. Other parts of the saint were transferred or traded to other important religious centres; to Rome, a part of the saint’s skull to Frankfurt and an arm to Canterbury Cathedral. The English had a particular veneration for St Bartholomew when Rahere, a herald to King Henry the First, had a vision of the saint on a pilgrimage to Rome. Rahere founded the priory hospital of St Bartholomew’s as a result of the vision, the King granting him a charter for a fair to fund it. St Bartholomew’s fair ran annually for over seven hundred years, always starting on 24th August and lasting for up to three weeks, from 1133 to 1855, always within the precincts of the abbey. It was London’s great summer fair until the City authorities suppressed it for inciting public debauchery and disorder in 1855.