Thursday, 27 February 2014

Laurence Sterne, 1713 – 1768, St George’s Field Burial Ground

Sterne's original headstones photographed in St George's Field around 1905

“He had boasted in "Tristram Shandy" that his preference would be to die in an inn, untroubled by the presence and services of his friends; yet when, in his London lodgings, he began to realize that death might be near, he pined for his daughter Lydia to nurse him. Only a hired nurse and a footman stood by Sterne's deathbed. The latter had been sent to inquire after the health of the famous author, and, being told by the landlady of the house to go upstairs and see for himself, he reached the death-chamber just as Sterne was passing away. Putting up his hand as though to ward off a blow, he ejaculated, "Now it is come," and so died. The story goes that even as he was dying, the nurse was busy possessing herself of the gold sleeve-links from his wrists.”

Henry C. Shelley “Untrodden English Ways.”

The author of “The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” was never really a Londoner. He was born in Ireland and raised there and in Yorkshire where he spent most of his adult life. His careers as clergymen and professional author afforded him plenty of opportunity to travel and he visited London often but he was never really part of the capitals Augustan literary scene which may have partly accounted for Dr Johnson’s rather dismissive  attitude towards him (What do you think of  ‘Mr Sterne Dr Johnson? “Licentious and dissolute in conversation Sir.” But a great author don’t you think? “Nothing odd will do long, ‘Tristram Shandy’ did not last.”). Sterne was in London overseeing the publication of his second novel “A Sentimental Journey” when a dose of flu proved too much for a constitution undermined by years of suffering with consumption and he died at his lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street on the 18th March 1768. He was 54 years old.

Sterne was buried at St George Hanover Square’s new burial ground just off the Bayswater Road. According to one early edition of his work he was buried with “no bell tolling”, accompanied by just a pair of mourners in a hurried ceremony in what was generally considered to be a paupers burial ground. One of the reasons for making little fuss when interring corpses at St George’s Field was that being relatively out of the way made it popular with body snatchers. Shortly after Sterne’s funeral the rumours started. Sterne’s body had been taken from the grave two days after the burial and sold to a University anatomist for dissection. Some said it was to Dr John Parsons at Oxford, others claimed it was Dr Charles Collignon at Cambridge. Whether it was Oxford or Cambridge all accounts say that the body was already being dissected when someone recognised the corpse as being the deceased author; in some versions it was a student, in others a friend of the anatomist who dropped in to pay him a visit, in others a member of the public who was paying to see a public dissection. Edmond Malone the Shakespearian scholar gossiped with  a correspondent “a gentleman who was present at the dissection told me he recognised Sterne’s face the moment he saw the body…” Sterne’s corpse was discretely returned to St George’s Field sans head according to some who reckoned that Dr Parsons or Dr Collignon hung onto the skull as a souvenir. When the Mason’s paid for a headstone to be set up over Sterne’s grave some years later no one was sure where exactly his body was buried. And so the inscription stated “Near to this place lies the body of….” and the headstone was set up close to the wall in what seemed a likely spot.

In the late 1960’s when the church authorities decided to sell of St George’s Field for redevelopment the Laurence Sterne Trust asked for permission to remove the headstones and remove them to Coxwold in North Yorkshire. They also asked, and were given, permission to search for Sterne’s remains. Several skulls were excavated in the vicinity of the headstones one of which, very unusually, had had the top of the cranium carefully sawn off apparently in a dissection. Dissected bodies are very unlikely to end up back in a burial ground as they would simply be disposed of as rubbish once the anatomist had finished with them. Could  the stories of Sterne’s body being snatched actually be true? The dissected skull and bones associated with it were exhumed and reburied in Coxwold churchyard.  

Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of the author as a young clergyman

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Joshua Compston, 1970-1996, Kensal Green

“The funeral was his greatest production. Hundreds of people turned up. I think most of them were there just to make sure he was dead and properly buried. He was 50% brilliant and 50% stupid. I think now we would realise that he was high functioning autistic but people didn't understand that then. So he just annoyed them….But he was obsessed with William Morris and his ideas, and he just wanted to make the world a better place.”
Daniel Coffield

Joshua Compston died of an overdose of ether and alcohol at the age of 25 after spending an evening at the Serpentine Gallery at the opening of a posthumous exhibition by Jean-Michel Basquiat (who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose at the age of 27). He was born in Putney, his father Christopher was a high court judge and his step mother an exhibition organiser at the Tate Gallery, and educated at St Edwards, a public school in Oxford, and the Courtauld Institute. Whilst at the Courtauld he campaigned for the Institute to pay more attention to living artists and began the Loan Collection which borrowed and hung pieces of contemporary art in the Institutes seminar rooms. “In a 1991 press release for the collection, Compston claimed that this was the first exhibition of contemporary art staged at Somerset House since the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1836.”

"Reading his obituaries you could be forgiven for remaining unsure what exactly he was: "a fun-loving revolutionary", says one, "an exuberant showman" another. He was "a catalyst in British contemporary art", an "energetic impresario", an inventor and orchestrator of "happenings". The Guardian's Richard Gott paints Compston as a revolutionary. To the art critic Louisa Buck, he was "a kid, a pain in the arse who pissed off a lot of people ... a frustrated artist who made a lot of noise through a gang of talented, pushy, wey-faced rude kids; Compston was having a bit of fun and often laughing behind our backs."

After graduation he opened his gallery Factual Nonsense at 44 Charlotte Road in Hoxton. He was amongst the first wave of artists and entrepreneurs to set up shop in what was later to become the ├╝ber trendy area of Shoreditch. His happenings have become legendary. In 1993 he staged the ‘Fete Worse Than Death” at the corner of Charlotte Road and Rivington Street; Gary Hume dressed up as a Mexican bandit selling tequila slammers. Damien Hirst dressed as a clown and renting out his spin painting machine to produce instant artworks (signed by himself) at either £1 or 50p a go or, alternatively, showing you his polka dot painted testicles for the same price. Tracey Emin was either palm reading or selling  kisses depending on which source you believe (some even claim you could get a lot more than a kiss for your money as the dusk settled on the carnival but that sounds just too good a story to be true). Then there was “A demure evenings drinking with Sara and Tracey” (Lucas and Emin)  and “The Hanging Picnic.”  

“Joshua Compston ………was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals. It was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End as Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that he inspired in a sense, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

Compston’s tomb was designed and carved, from a 3 ton slab of Portland stone, by his friend the artist and cartoonist Zebedee Helm. On his website he says that it took him six months to produce; “The mauseleum (sic) can be seen at Kensal Green Cemetry (double sic) in West London, where it was said to be the most flamboyant addition in over a hundred years. Being a large cemetry (triple sic) it is however almost impossible to find.” The man may not be able to spell and may not know what a mausoleum is but the tomb is impressive and very much a worthy addition to the cemetery’s stock of idiosyncratic and eye catching monuments. It should be much better known than it is. Helm’s claim that it is hard to find is not true either – it lies on a path a short distance behind William Mulready’s grandiose  neo-renaissance stone catafalque.