Thursday, 25 September 2014

Dying for a dog - William French (1846-1896), St Pancras & Islington Cemetery

"Sacred to the memory of William French, aged 50, who lost his life on July 13th 1896 while saving a dog from drowning in Highgate Ponds. This monument, erected in commemoration of his brave deed, was raised by public subscription, and was contributed to by all classes of lovers of dumb animals." 

The impression given on the grave inscription is that French selflessly and valiantly plunged into Highgate Ponds to save some stray animal from drowning. The newspaper reports of the inquest reveal though that the dog was French's own, that he forced it into the ponds himself in the first place 'for a swim', that he had been drinking and that he managed to drown, under the noses of his friends, in a mere four feet of water. His dog rescued himself. 

"Yesterday at the St Pancras Coroners Court  an inquest held respecting the death of William French, aged fifty, a stableman lately residing at 8 Flowers Mews. Upper Holloway.

Thomas Hawkins, a horse-keeper, deposed that he, in company with another man and the deceased went to Highgate Ponds, Parliament Hill, to give their dogs a swim.  For some time the deceased’s dog would not go in but eventually it did so. After going about forty yards, however, it began to show signs of distress.  French said, "I can't see the poor little devil drown'' and. throwing off his coat plunged in with his boots and trousers on to rescue it. He had very nearly reached the dog when it turned swam to shore. The deceased man did the same but after going a few yards, he said, “I’m ‘knocked’”. Almost immediately he disappeared from sight. The drags were at once procured, and the body recovered. French never came to the surface after once going down. 

Police-Constable Thomas Atkins  deposed that his attention was attracted to the spot by cries of “A man is drowning.'' Witness at once get the drags and proceeded to the spot. On his arrival man said. '"They call themselves ‘pals’ but they walk away and leave the man to drown;   they were all drunk." Other evidence showed that the men had been drinking  before going to the pond , but were not drunk. Police-Constable Atkins here interposed, and said that the men were utter cowards to go away as where the man sank there was not more than four feet of water.

The jury returned a verdict of accidentally drowned."

Sheffield Evening Telegraph 16 July 1896

Monday, 22 September 2014

Caravaggio and the IRA; Percival Lea-Wilson (1894-1920), Putney Vale Cemetery

Percival Lea-Wilson's memorial plaque on his father's grave
Percival Lea-Wilson was born to a solidly middle class household in Brompton, Kensington in April 1887, his grandfather, Samuel Wilson, had been Lord Mayor of London in 1838 and his father was a stockbroker. The family received a serious setback in 1894 when Percival was seven; his father was driving his carriage along Exhibition Road when his horse bolted, breaking the reins, colliding  with an oncoming Hanson cab and throwing him into the roadway. He later died of concussion. Percival was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford but his chosen career, in the Royal Irish Constabulary, indicates that he was perhaps not especially academic. He joined the RIC in 1909, initially stationed in Galway. In 1914 he married a girl from County Cork, Marie Ryan, before enlisting in the Royal Irish Regiment and serving on the western front where he was seriously wounded. According to the RIC Magazine he had re-joined the police by March 1916 and was in Dublin in time for the 1916 Easter rising. He was in charge of a group of Republican prisoners at the Rotunda Hospital when the notorious incident that effectively signed his death warrant took place.  One of the prisoners was Tom Clarke, at 59 the oldest man to have taken an active part in the rising and the first of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic. Lea-Wilson forced Clarke to strip naked on the steps of the hospital in front of the other prisoners (who included Michael Collins and Liam Tobin) and the female nursing staff. He then loudly jeered “That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the Street. Nice general for your fucking army.”

Lea-Wilson (standing at far right) as photographed for
 the Royal Irish Constabulary Magazine in March 1916.
Four years later the 33 year old Lea-Wilson was a District Inspector and living in the quiet town of Gorey, County Wexford with Marie. On the morning of June 15 1920 Percival left the house dressed in civilian clothes and walked to the RIC barracks in the town. After a few minutes he left the barracks with Constable Alexander O’Donnell, stopped at the station to buy a newspaper and then walked on towards home. A few hundred yards from the house Constable O’Donnell went his own way and Percival strolled on alone, leafing through the paper as he walked. Five armed IRA men were waiting for him on the direct orders of Michael Collins; Frank Thornton, Liam Tobin, both of whom travelled from Dublin, Jack Whelan, Joe McMahon, and Michael McGrath. A sixth man, Michael Sinnott, waited close by in a stolen car. How many guns were used or who fired them is not clear. We know Lea-Wilson was initially floored by two bullets. No doubt to his murderers surprise he got up and tried to run away. Further shots were fired, some hitting him, some hitting a wall behind him but the wounded man only managed to stumble 15 yards before collapsing and dying. Some accounts say a final coup de grace was administered to his head to make sure he really was dead.   

Joe Sweeney, who two years previously at the age of 21 had been elected as a British MP for Sinn Féin, happened to be in the bar of the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin on the evening of June 15. Michael Collins came in and said, “We got the bugger, Joe.”
“What are you talking about?” Sweeney asked.
“Do you remember that first night outside the Rotunda – Lea Wilson?”
“I’ll never forget it,” Sweeney replied.
“Well,” said Collins, “we got him today in Gorey.”

Percival’s widow, Marie, arranged for his body to be brought back to England and buried with his father in Putney Vale cemetery. Marie never remarried but the girl from Cork did decide to stay in Ireland and three or four years after Percival’s murder, when she was in her late thirties, took the bold step of deciding to enrol in Trinity College as a medical student. She graduated in 1928 at the age of 41 and then lived and practiced in Dublin as a paediatrician for the rest of her life, dying in 1971 at the age of 84. There is no doubt that she found it hard to get over Percival’s murder. In her grief she turned to the church for consolation and she found the support provided by a Jesuit priest, Father Finlay of the Leeson Street Jesuit Community particularly comforting. The year following Percival’s murder whilst she was on a trip to Edinburgh Marie had bought a large sixteenth century oil painting that had been hanging in a private home in the city for over a hundred years. The subject probably appealed to her; The Taking Of Christ shows the moment Judas kisses Christ to identify him to the Roman legionnaires waiting to take him prisoner.
Caravaggio - The Taking of Christ
Ten years after she bought the painting Marie probably tired of contemplating its dark themes of death, deceit and betrayal and decided to get rid of it. She presented it to Father Finlay and the Jesuits who hung it in the Leeson Street dining room where it stayed for the next 60 years, literally as part of the furniture, and certainly not the object of especial scrutiny or interest on the part of the masticating clergy. In 1990 Sergio Benedetti a curator and conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland was asked to look at the motley collection of paintings that had been gathered at Leeson Street over the years. There wasn’t much to interest him in the rag, tag and bobtail assemblage of religious images until he was shown Marie Lea-Wilson’s painting. He was told that it was a copy of a Caravaggio by a Dutch disciple of the Italian master but, in his opinion, the picture was simply too good to be a copy. Caravaggio’s original was commissioned by the prolific collector and patron Ciriaco Mattei, a Roman nobleman who died in 1614. The painting remained in the family’s Roman palazzo until the early 1800’s when, down on their luck, they sold it to William Hamilton Nisbet, an obscure British politician who displayed it in his Edinburgh home. This is a large picture, 1.3 by 1.7 metres, and perhaps it is the size that makes it too much trouble to move once it has been hung. It had stayed on the Mattei’s wall for two hundred years and it hung undisturbed in Edinburgh for almost 120 before it was briefly in the possession of Marie Lea-Wilson. The Jesuit’s too showed little inclination to move the massive masterpiece once it had been nailed up until Benedetti had it cleaned and authenticated as the long lost Caravaggio masterpiece.
The picture is now the pride of the Irish National Gallery, prized just as much for its backstory as for its intrinsic merits as a work of art which is just as well; Tom Clarke had to suffer public humiliation, Lea-Wilson to lose his life and his widow to endure a lifetime’s grief before the chain of chance that brought ‘The Taking of Christ’ from Rome to Dublin was complete.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Catherine Deneuve's Bellville Rendezvous; Hercules Bellville (1939-2003), Highgate East Cemetery

For a man who made a successful career in the cinema Hercules Bellville was unusually modest and self effacing. He dismissed his many achievements almost with embarrassment with one exception – his brief on screen appearance with Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1964)   Of this cameo he was inordinately proud despite the fact that only his arms were seen, emerging from the corridor wall to maul and molest the psychotic French manicurist. In the film Deneuve’s sexually repressed character descends into madness under the strain of living in a tiny apartment with her boisterous nymphomaniac sister and starts to hallucinate arms sprouting disturbingly from the walls. Bellville’s long elegant stranglers fingers intimately caress Deneuve in a famous scene where Polanski plays havoc with normal conceptions of desire and revulsion.  
Bellville from his 1976 World
Service Authority passport

Bellville was born in San Diego in 1939 to an old Etonian English father and an American mother Hercules’ father was a bit of a character, a Hispanophile who spent his late adolescence in Spain and, at the age of 19 made one professional bullfighting appearance in the 1920’s, billed as  Inglesitos, a banderillero, at a village corrida near Madrid. When the civil war broke out he sided with the Nationalists and ended up fighting, briefly, with the falangists. He was appalled by the savage violence of both sides and sickened by the firing squads, especially as they left their victims twitching and writhing for some minutes after being shot and he could not bring himself to believe that they were actually dead. His Civil War experiences ended in farce when,  after a wine soaked lunch he decided to pilot his plane to Santander to be the first to congratulate Franco’s army as it occupied the newly surrendered town. News of the surrender turned out to be premature and Rupert landed, with a present of several crates of sherry, into a beleaguered town still occupied by the republicans. Only his British nationality stopped him being shot. The British navy later rescued him and sent him back to England. After spending the war as a test pilot he returned regularly to Spain where he became acquainted with Ernest Hemingway and imbued the young Hercules with his love of the country.

The family had made their money back in the nineteenth century in what was then the lucrative mustard trade. Hercules was independently wealthy and need never really have worked. But he fell in love with the cinema after working as an extra as a schoolboy on a Vincente Minnelli film being shot in Paris. His break came when Polanski gave him a a job as a runner on ‘Repulsion’. It was the start of a ten year long working relationship which saw Bellville starting to produce movies and to work as a second director (on ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Tess’). As well as Polanski we worked with Bob Rafelson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni and Julian Schnabel. and was involved in the creation of films like ‘The Passenger’, ‘Being There’, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Sexy Beast’ and many others. He married his wife 48 hours before he died of cancer.

Seemingly no one ever had a bad word to say about Bellville. His obituary in the Guardian sums him up thus: “Hercules may have looked like a patrician dandy, but he was a great democrat; a great respecter of women; and a great human being. An avid collector of everything from Mao badges to fine art, he loathed materialism. In a milieu full of scorn and snobbery, he was a man of compassion and an egalitarian. In a world where celebrity gossip has become a currency, he remained as silent as the grave to which he has now sadly gone.”

Bellville's proudest moment - molesting Catherine Deneuve in 'Repulsion'.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mysterious Fire in Kensal Green Cemetery - 18 August 1865

The Dissenters Chapel, Kensal Green Cemetery - the catacombs lie below the chapel

“On Friday last, between twelve and one o'clock, a constable of the D division, on duty near the Kensal Green Cemetery, discovered smoke issuing from the catacombs situate in the Dissenters’ portion of the ground. He raised an alarm, and several fire engines quickly arrived, but such was the heat which came from the mouth of the catacombs that a considerable time elapsed before the grating could be got up. A brigade man was then fitted out with a fire dress similar to the one now being exhibited at the Polytechnic Institution, and the necessary air was supplied by the action of the steam engine. He descended, and after being absent some time returned, and said the vault No. 16 was in flames. The whole force of the engines was then turned to that spot, and the fire was soon extinguished. When the steam and smoke had, in a great measure, evaporated, a party of men descended to No. 16 vault, which had contained ten coffins, some of which were leaden ones. Five of the coffins were almost totally consumed, and the others, with one exception, were more or less injured. The stench and the sight which presented] itself were horrible in the extreme, and altogether indescribable The wildest conjectures are afloat as to the origin of the fire but no definite conclusions are as yet arrived at. — The Observer supplies the following additional particulars:—"It appears that the coffin which had only recently been placed in the vaults under the Dissenting chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery and which escaped destruction at the fire which look place there on Friday night, contained the remains of the late Mr Joseph Parkes, formerly the celebrated Parliamentary agent. The body was deposited in this vault on Wednesday under the direction of Mr. Garston, the undertaker, of Welbeck Street who conducted the funeral, merely as a temporary measure, it being intended by the deceased gentlemen's friends to have it removed to Hastings when a vault which is being constructed there is completed. It was placed in the vault in the Dissenting ground because its removal would not require a "faculty" but simply an order from the Secretary of State. The vault was exceedingly dry, so much so that some of the coffins which had been there many years were falling to pieces with dry rot and the cloth over the wood work hung in shreds like tinder At the upper part of the vault there is a place for a candle and it is believed that in lighting this candle, either with a Lucifer or paper, to show a light when Mr. Parkes's coffin was being put on the bars on which it rested, the man must have dropped a spark on to the cloth of the nearest coffin and that it smouldered away unobserved until, coming into contact with the gas emitted through some aperture in the lead of the enclosed coffin, that ignited and at once communicated flame to the wood of the outer coffin, and so on to the others on the same tier. There were five coffins completely consumed, with their contents, and a part of a sixth; but although the molten lead dropped on either side and all around the coffin of Mr. Parkes, it was but slightly injured.”

Essex Standard Wednesday 23 August 1865

The son of a manufacturer from the Midlands Joseph Parkes (1796 to 1865) qualified and practiced as a solicitor and then was drawn into reform politics. He was disciple of Jeremy Bentham, married a granddaughter of Joseph Priestley the discoverer of oxygen and was the grandfather of Hilaire Belloc the celebrated writer. His obituary in The Times said ‘Perhaps no man was better acquainted than he with the secret history of politics during the last thirty or forty years. … He held in the great whig army a place, if not of command, yet of trust and influence.’ By the time his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography came to be written the verdict was slightly more dismissive, Parkes was a “busy, enthusiastic, not very able man.” Setting fire to the catacombs at Kensal Green was by far the most interesting thing he ever did.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Gold Scab; Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892), Brompton Cemetery

F.R. Leyland's grade II listed tomb, designed by Edward Burne Jones, in Brompton Cemetery

On Tuesday the 4th January 1892 the 60 year shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland was travelling on the Metropolitan Line with Colonel Robert Rainsford Jackson, the managing director of the National Telephone Company (of which Leyland was also president).. Within a few minutes of entering a first class carriage in Cannon Street Leyland was gasping for air and clutching his chest. At Mansion House station Colonel Jackson summoned the train’s guard for help. At Blackfriars the train was held in the platform whilst the Station Inspector, who suspected that Leyland was already dead, called for a stretcher and had him removed from his carriage and put in his office. A doctor was sent for who arrived at 5.15pm and confirmed the Inspectors suspicions, Leyland had died of a heart attack. An inquest was held on 7 January (“death by natural causes” the verdict) and the funeral at Brompton took place next day, on the Friday morning. 

Leyland by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The son of a bookkeeper from Liverpool, Leyland started work at the age of 13 in 1844 as an apprentice at the city’s oldest independent shipping line, John Bibby and Sons. He rose steadily in the company becoming a merchant in the firm in 1859, a partner n 1861 and finally, in 1871, the owner when he bought out his employers and renamed the company the Leyland Line.  Leyland’s real passions were art and women. He was a notable patron of the pre-Raphaelites especially Rossetti and Burne Jones (who designed his tomb) and had a close relationship and spectacular falling out with James McNeill Whistler.  

Leyland bought a mansion 49 Princes Gate in Knightsbridge in 1874 and brought in architects Thomas Jeckyll and Richard Norman Shaw to remodel the interior of the house to create a suitably opulent setting for his collection of paintings and objets d’art. Whistler, whom Leyland had been patronising for several years, became involved when Leyland asked him to design the colour scheme of the hall and stairway and then was foolish enough to ask for his opinion on Jeckyll’s scheme for the dining room. Here, along with his collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain, Leyland intended to hang Whistler’s painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelain. To display the china Jeckyll had designed  a range of open shelves in the Japanese fashion, completely covered the walls with 16th century gilt leather hangings painted with red flowers and green foliage (once owned by Anne Boleyn, the antique leather alone cost Leyland £1000),and created a Tudoresque wood and canvas ceiling. The room was constructed by a local builder who fitted it into the existing room on a framework which meant that the whole thing could be dismantled and removed.

In April 1876 Leyland, who was staying in Liverpool for an extended spell while the works on the new house were completed, asked Whistler for suggestions for the colour scheme for the almost finished dining room. As a result of this prompting Whistler began a series of adjustments to Jeckyll’s colour scheme, calling in two of his Chelsea chums, the former boatmen turned artists Walter and Henry Greaves, and setting them to work retouching the existing paintwork. As the work progressed Whistler grew more dissatisfied with the results and more ambitious in the scope of the changes he wanted. Jeckyll fortuitously fell ill and with Leyland still in Liverpool and the two Greaves brothers to help him there was nothing to stop Whistler completely altering the look of the room. By August he was telling Leyland that the room was all but finished apart from a ‘blue wave’ pattern he wanted to apply to the cornice and dado. The blue wave transformed itself into peacock feathers and spread across the vastly expensive antique gilt leather until the whole room had been painted cobalt blue with a design of golden peacocks. Walter Greaves warned Whistler that the blue paint they used discoloured very quickly after drying. Walter had had to rename one of his paintings of a girl in a blue dress, “Girl in a green dress” after experimenting with the same pigment. Whistler didn’t listen and today the Peacock Room is no longer the intended colour but a sort of verdigris. The artist was hugely proud of the completed room, so proud that he invited numerous friends around to Leyland’s unoccupied house and held impromptu parties to show it off, even inviting the press. Frances Leyland dropped in unexpectedly one afternoon to find dozens of people milling around her house and Whistler holding court in the Peacock Room where he dismissed a question from his audience about what his patron thought by saying what did the opinion of a ‘parvenu’ matter?

"The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre"
Whistler's satire on Leyland
Leyland apparently was not enthralled either by the room or Whistler’s attitude especially when the painter presented him with a bill for two thousand guineas for work that he had neither requested nor wanted. After seeking the opinion of Rossetti Leyland responded by offering Whistler a cheque for £1000, a calculated snub because the amount offered was too large for the hard up painter to refuse but the payment was in tradesmen’s pounds and not artist’s guineas. Whistler retaliated with a final bit of work on the room, a mural of two peacocks, the bird on the right representing Leyland standing over a scattering of silver discs, the shillings deducted from Whistler’s fee, whilst the other bird, representing Whistler, calm and dignified walks away. Frances Leyland further inflamed the situation between the two men by apparently taking Whistler’s side and allowing herself to be seen in public with the artist in situations which gave rise to scandalous gossip. Leyland wrote to Whistler on more than one occasion warning him to stay away from his wife and family. In a letter dated 17 July 1877, Leyland wrote "I am told that on Friday last you were seen walking about with my wife at Lord's Cricket Ground. After my previous letter to you on the subject, it is clear that I cannot expect from you the ordinary conduct of a Gentleman; and I therefore now tell you that if after this intimation I find you in her society again, I will publicly horsewhip you."

Leyland’s £1000 cheque did little to stave off Whistler’s rapidly approaching financial crisis. By late 1878 the artist could no longer satisfy his creditors (one of the principal one’s being Frederick Leyland, who may have gone out of his way to buy Whistler’s debts with the intention of ruining him) and was declared bankrupt. Whistler reacted by painting ‘The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre” which shows Leyland in the old familiar guise of a peacock seated upon Whistler’s Chelsea house. It ridicules his miserliness, his frilly shirts (hence the apparently misspelled title) and his piano playing skills (of which he was presumably proud).  In 1879 Leyland’s wife Frances (who is buried with him at Brompton), finally tired of her husband’s philandering and forced him to accept a formal separation.  Leyland went on to have a son with a married mistress Rose Caldecott. The boy was registered as Frederick Richards Leyland Caldecott – Rose’s husband apparently either very forgiving or very stupid. By the following year the first of his son’s by another mistress, Anne Wooster, was born in Kent. The couple went on to have another child and to set up house together in Broadstairs.

In Leyland’s will he provided fully for Anne Wooster and her two sons, leaving her the income from £20,000 which was to be held in trust for the boys. To raise the capital for this bequest Leyland’s family were forced to sell his house at 49 Prince’s Gate and all it’s contents. The Peacock Room was left in situ when the house was sold to Blance Watney, the widow of a well known brewer. Blanche thought the Peacock Room was hideous and was about to have the fittings ripped out and thrown away when the artist W. Graham Robertson pointed out that they might be worth something. It took Mrs Watney a decade to decide what to do – in 1904 she finally disposed of it to Messers Obach & Co, picture dealers of New Bond Street for the staggering sum of 10,000 guineas to the American industrialist and collector Charles Lang Freer. Freer had the room dismantled and reconstructed in his Detroit Mansion where it served to display his own collection of oriental ceramics. It is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.