Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Art of Memory; Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London by Richard Barnes (Frontier Publishing £44)

Subscription publishing is making a comeback. I found out about this book from a flyer in the Kensal Green and Brompton Cemeteries Friends newsletters. I would have been tempted to buy it anyway but pre-publication subscribers were offered further inducements in the form of a 25% discount on the rather steep cover price of £44 and the promise of finding their name printed inside the book on a subscriber list. I thought the practice had died out in the 19th century but apparently it has been revived in the last few years. You can see the attraction – books about cemeteries are unlikely to make any best seller lists and if you are going to risk putting out a heavily illustrated, all colour, low print run, high cost opus on a subject of minority interest it isn’t a bad idea to know that you have a minimal number of punters willing to pay for a copy. For a cover price of £44 I was expecting, naively perhaps, a hardback but this is a paperback. Books used to come unbound; I could look for a bookbinder I suppose.

Richard Barnes’ book features 102 memorials from London cemeteries and churchyards, listed in chronological order starting with William Hogarth in Chiswick (c1764) and finishing with Bryan Gould in Highgate (2011). The memorials are all chosen for their sculptural interest and include virtually all of London’s best known tombs from Karl Marx in Highgate to Thomas Joseph Tate in Finchley, Martha Gall Bianchi in Hampstead, Sir Richard Burton in Mortlake to Bonomi and Courtoy  in Brompton.  New to me were all the Brookwood memorials as I have yet to make it to Woking; Richard Barnes has made me realise what I am missing and I will make sure I get out there this year. Almost everything else was very familiar to me but there were a couple I have never heard of – Margaret Bunzl’s Magic Flute influenced grave in Chislehurst and the Lucena memorial in Enfield. In general it’s hard to argue with Barnes’ choice of memorials, personally I would have gone for Joyce McQueen’s memorial in Manor Park over Bryan Gould’s and I have a soft spot for the Vassallo memorial in Plaistow and would have loved to have seen it featured. But almost everything of sculptural importance, interest or beauty in London’s cemeteries is here. Every memorial is illustrated and the well written and informative text not only gives details of the artist who created it (where known) but also has brief but often fascinating biographical details for the owner.  James Steven Curl (author of ‘The Victorian Celebration of Death’) provides an excellent essay on the history of the cemetery movement as an introduction.  

The photographs in the book are almost all by Charles Slade, better known as Stiffleaf on ipernity and flickr). They are of a uniformly high standard and many of them are stunningly beautiful; they are a vital contribution to the success of this book and I can’t help feeling that the photographer merited at least a mention somewhere on the cover. I absolutely love this book and if you can afford it and have even a passing interest in the subject I would highly recommend it.  

William Hogarth's memorial in St Nicholas' churchyard, Chiswick 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The comfortable Estate of Widowhood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife's Spirits; Auguste Kettner (1833-1877) Brompton Cemetery

As soon as I saw the inscription on this memorial I knew that I am spending far too much time in cemeteries. Not only did I know immediately who Auguste Kettner was, I also knew exactly where his widow is buried – in fact from  here I could probably have walked to her grave blindfold (admittedly it is only a couple of hundred yards away).  The widow, Barbe Maria Theresa Sangiorgi, has one of Brompton Cemetery’s best known funerary monuments, but Kettner’s is completely obscure. I had no idea that he was even buried here and certainly no inkling that his grave was so close to hers.  I have never noticed the monument before because it is in a section that has been wildly overgrown for as long I have been visiting the cemetery. When I dropped by in March the undergrowth had been cleared away revealing, for the most part, dozens of uninteresting late Victorian grave stones with just two or three more elaborate memorials dotted amongst them of which Kettner’s bare breasted figure of grief is one.

I have written previously about Kettner and the Sangiorgi monument:

Barbe Maria Theresa Sangiorgi was the widow of Auguste Kettner a Frenchman who allegedly had been Napoleon III’s chef during the second empire (but before the Emperor was forced to live in exile in the suburbs of south-east London at Chislehurst).   In 1867 Kettner opened a modest restaurant in what was then Church Street (now Romilly Street) in Soho.  According to Nathaniel Newnham-Davis in his “Gourmet’s Guide to London” (1914), it “was the first small restaurant that dared to show its kitchen to all comers at a time when the kitchens of most foreign restaurants were places of horror.” The restaurant was discovered and publicised by a correspondent of The Times and became successful enough for Kettner to expand by leasing 3 neighbouring properties and knocking down party walls to create a large public dining area and converting the upstairs into private dining rooms.  “In 1877 two events of great importance to M. Kettner happened,” says Newnham-Davis, “he wrote his ‘Book of the Table’ and he died….”  Kettner’s ‘Book of the Table’ was in fact written by the journalist Eneas Sweetland Dallas with Kettner’s name used as a marketing device.  The name of the restaurant was so established that there was no question of changing it following Kettner’s death; in fact it is still open today, at the same address under the same name. 

Barbe's grave is just a stone's throw away from her husbands

I now know that I had some of my facts wrong. Kettner (full name Auguste Charles Edouard Kettner) was not French, he was German, born in Berlin in 1833. His father,  Augustinus Joseph Kettner, a printer, died in London  in 1872 presumably after being brought here by his son from Berlin where he may well have been living alone as the inscription says Kettner was his only child and we know his wife died in Berlin in 1850. In fact this is really the father’s memorial; Kettner’s widow buried him here in 1877, the son only outlasting the father by five years.  Barbe Marie Therese Dubois was born in Belgium in April 1833 and met Kettner in Paris where he was a chef and she a chambermaid. They married in 1861. There is no evidence that Kettner ever worked for Napoleon III. In the normal course of events Barbe may well have joined her husband and father-in-law in their vault when she died in 1893 at the age of sixty. But in 1880 at the age of 46 she had remarried to the 31 year old Giovanni Sangiorgi, an Italian who may well have been an employee before he married the boss’s widow. His flair for business transformed Kettner’s into one of London’s more famous and successful restaurants and the couple were very wealthy when Barbe died. Rather than inter her with Kettner, Giovanni bought an expensive plot in a good part of the cemetery near the main gates and erected a very elaborate and very Italian memorial in her memory. Barbe rests there alone as when Giovanni died in 1909 he chose to have his body shipped to Lugano and be buried with his ancestors. She might have been less lonely if she had been allowed to join her ex husband.    

Sunday, 22 May 2016

¡Las lágrimas son agua y van al mar! - Frank Besson (1895-1915) Dardanelles

I have previously written about Marthe Josephine Besson’s memorial in Highgate Cemetery, the French born business woman who ran the Besson musical instrument manufactory in Paris and London after the death of her father. Marthe married a Frenchman, Adolphe Fontaine, who worked at the French embassy in London, had a daughter with him but then became embroiled in a scandalous relationship with a Spaniard who worked for her. When she fled the country with her lover in 1895 Adolphe accused her of stealing bonds and share certificates from him to the value of £35,000 as well as plate and furniture. He followed her around Europe denouncing her to the local authorities wherever she stayed and eventually had her arrested in Seville by Scotland Yard who brought her back to London to face trial. The charges against her were eventually dismissed and once the blaze of publicity caused by the court case was over she disappears from public view.

Richard Barnes new book “The Art of Memory – Sculpture in the Cemeteries of London” features the Besson memorial and cites my previous post as a source. He drops the revelation that Marthe had another child in 1896. I had completely missed this despite there being an inscription on the Besson memorial itself; “Also in Loving Memory of Frank Besson Fl. Lieuy. RN who was killed in the Dardanelles 20th Dec. 1915 aged 20 years.”  Barnes suggests that Frank is the son of Señor Alcaraz. It seems likely – probate records show Frank’s real name was Francisco and he never used the name Fontaine. I have been unable to trace any birth records for him in the UK (though there is a slight chance that a Male Besson, registered in Hackney in 1896 is Frank) which suggests that he was possibly born abroad, perhaps in Spain or France and that this is where Marthe must have been from February 1896 when the charges made against her by her husband were finally dropped. Marthe reappears again in UK records in 1904 when she shows up in the electoral register in Westminster.  Did Marthe join her Spanish lover, Señor Alcaraz on the continent as soon as the courts freed her? Frank’s date of birth on his pilot’s license was 16 Dec 1896 which would mean that Marthe became pregnant in March. It all seemed to be fitting together nicely when I came across a puzzling fact; newspaper reports of Marthe’s discharge from the courts in February 1896 say that Señor Alcaraz was dead. The Scotsman of 15 Feb for example tells us that: 
Mrs Besson, who was in tears and attired in deep mourning, was discharged...... Madame Besson told a reporter who asked her whether it was correct that her lover, Macais D'Alcarez, had committed suicide at Seville, that the report had been corroborated at the Spanish Consulate. She also showed her lover's portrait, and spoke in the warmest terms of his qualities, saying that he was knighted by the Queen of Spain in January last year, and was a chef d'administration in Madrid.

File card from the records of the Royal Aero Club showing when Frank obtained his aviators certifcate

There are a couple of other anomalies. The Besson memorial gives Frank’s age as 20 when he died on 20 December 1915. If he was born 16 December 1896 it would have been his 19th birthday four days before he died. The 1911 census gives his age as 16 but if 1896 is his correct date of birth he would only have been 15. Was Frank’s real date of birth 16 December 1895? If it was he was born in the middle of the court battle between Marthe and Adolphe, and his father appears to have committed suicide at about the same time as he was born. The relationship between Marthe and Señor Alcaraz appeared to be on an intimate footing by February 1895 according to evidence given by Marthe’s charlady at her trial and reported in The Worcestershire Chronicle on Saturday 21 December; 

Matilda Hunt, married woman, said she worked for the prisoner as a charwoman to the end of July last. About February last the prisoner said something about a visitor and at her directions she got a bedroom for him.—Prisoner (excitedly): We are not the divorce court; I admit I had a sweetheart there! That has nothing to do with the case; it is only blackmail." —Witness continuing said the man who arrived was called by the prisoner "Antonio." He occupied the room next to Madame's bedroom, and she had seen him coming out of Madame's bedroom. One afternoon she went into Madame's bedroom and saw the two in bed together. The witness, with great reluctance, and only after being cautioned by the magistrate that he would commit her, gave this part of her evidence.

Inscription on the Besson memorial
It was therefore entirely feasible for Marthe to have become pregnant in March. Her decision to flee to the continent in the autumn with Señor Alcaraz also makes more sense, she would have been very visibly pregnant by then. No newspaper reported Marthe being pregnant during her trial but many reported that after the court session on Saturday 14 December the case was adjourned until the following Thursday. At that session Marthe did not appear and unusually it was the counsel for the prosecution that explained her absence to the court:

Mr. Horace Avory, who appeared for the prosecution, said that he was informed that Madame Besson had, since the last hearing of the case, been confined. He had received a medical certificate to that effect, and he had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the information. She would not be able to attend the court for four weeks, and he asked that the case might be adjourned for that time.—The Magistrate consented to this course, and the ease was adjourned for a month. (Lisburn Herald, and Antrim and Down Advertiser 28 December 1895)

Many newspapers make reference to Marthe’s confinement but none mention her having the baby. It seems likely though that Frank was born on 16th December 1895. There are no further mentions of her recent pregnancy or the birth of her son in the newspaper accounts of the trial when it recommenced in January 1896. On the 14th February Marthe’s husband gave her an unexpected Valentine’s – he dropped the criminal case against her. His counsel explained his reasons to the court “having regard to all the circumstances of the case, and having explained that the proceedings were never instituted from any vindictive motive, but simply to protect himself and recover possession of his child — and in this M. Besson had been successful — he desired to withdraw from the criminal proceedings, leaving the serious matters of dispute between the parties to a civil Court, where proceedings were now pending.”

Portrait of Frank Besson from  the Daily Mirror 20 May 1916

Marthe was now free of the criminal proceedings but her life was in tatters. She was probably not heartbroken about the breakdown of her marriage but having to surrender her daughter to Adolphe’s custody must have been a bitter blow. Her fortune was intact but her lover had committed suicide in Spain without waiting for the outcome of the trial in London. And she was now a single mother of a fatherless baby boy. As her good name and reputation were destroyed going abroad must have seemed the only option. She was almost certainly away from London until 1904 when she returned to live at 5 Russell Mansions in Southampton Row. Frank must have come back with her. When she died in 1908 he became the ward of the 35 year old Mary Reavley; the 1911 census confirms both of them living at 71 Harvard Court, Honeybourne Road, Hampstead along with 17 year servant Florence Knights.

Frank attended Westminster School from May 1910 to Christmas 1914. He was in Rigaud’s House and official school records concentrate on his athletic prowess as a cricketer, footballer, sprinter and gymnast who made up ‘in strength and energy for what he lacks in style.’ The Westminster School website says that “his obituary in The Elizabethan noted that ‘he possessed boundless energy and the divine gift of enthusiasm. His tastes were all for mechanical science and adventure, and before the war he had already designed to join the Air Service.” Before he finally left the school in December 1914 he delivered a talk to the school’s Scientific Society on ‘Theories of Aviation.’ Just a month later he was putting theory into practice having joined the Royal Navy’s airborne division and been sent for flight training at the Grahame-White School in Hendon. He passed his aviators certificate in a Grahame-White biplane on 23 January 1915 and was sent off to join his regiment. We know that he served at Dunkirk in August 1915 and was then sent to the Dardanelles to serve in the Gallipolli campaign. He died on 20th December 1915, four days after his twentieth birthday, when his plane was shot down by the Turks and landed in the sea. Newspapers reported him as missing in action – his death was not confirmed until April 1916 when his observer, who had been fished from the sea by the Turks and taken prisoner, was released and confirmed to the British military authorities that Frank had drowned when the plane went down. His body was never recovered. As well as the inscription on his mother’s grave he is one of the 8515 names from the Great War commemorated on the Chatham War Memorial. Probate records give his name as Francisco Besson, his address as 3 Harvard Court, West Hampstead and value his estate at £1246 14 shillings. 

A Wight seaplane at Dunkirk in 1916, these planes were also used in the Gallipoli campaign  and it is almost certainly in one of these that Frank Besson died. 

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Silence - A Figure For A Tomb: Harry Dwight Dillon Ripley (1864-1913) St Marylebone Cemetery, East Finchley

DEATH OF MR. H. DILLON RIPLEY.—the death occurred at The Spinney (formerly known as  ‘Crelash’), Little London, Horeham Road, on Saturday evening of Mr. H. Dillon Ripley, at the age of 48 years. The deceased gentleman had been in failing health for the past three months, but was able to get about, and was out of doors even a few hours before his death, which was from heart failure. He leaves a widow and a little boy, about four years of age. Mr. Ripley came from New York, and his London address was 22 Sussex Place, Clarence Gate. He came to Crelash  about four years ago, and made extensive alterations there, both to the house and grounds, employing a  large amount of labour. He was a liberal subscriber to charities and institutions, and only last year gave the handsome bronze trophy for the best hunter at the Cross in Hand Horse Show to replace the one which had been won outright. He was also supporter of the local Unionist cause. His remains were conveyed to London by motor hearse on Monday for interment.
Sussex Agricultural Express - Friday 14 February 1913

Harry Dwight Dillon Ripley was the grandson of American railway magnate Sidney Dillon, President of the Union Pacific Railroad who died in 1892 leaving an enormous fortune which included two trust funds for his grandson worth almost a million dollars. Ripley never had to earn his living, instead dedicating himself to a quiet life of drink and dissipation, initially in his home town of New York and in London where he moved in the late 1890’s following the death of his mother. In London he met Alice Louisa Reddy, born in Walworth in 1870, the eldest daughter of John Reddy a tailor. Alice is often described as an ‘Anglo-Irish actress’ but I haven’t been able to find any trace of her professional career. She married Ripley in St Marylebone in 1899, she was 29 and Ripley 35. The couple lived at 22 Sussex Place in the Nash terraces in the outer circle of Regents Park and later acquired a country place in Sussex, the Spinney.

After 9 years of marriage Alice disconcerted her husband’s family by producing a male heir, ostensibly ending any chance of the million dollar trust fund returning to the collaterals. When Ripley died in 1913 his son was only four but his family seized on a badly written clause in his will to try and deprive him and his mother of any share of the trust funds. Within a few months of her husband’s death Alice took herself to New York and settled in at the Waldorf Astoria with her son, determined to fight the family trustee’s for her son’s money. Like her deceased husband Alice liked a drink and every evening she would leave her five year old son in the hotel, her jewels stuffed under his mattress to thwart burglars, while she sought out the high life in the bars and nightclubs of Manhattan. At one point in her stay she misplaced her son for three days and was forced to call in the police for help; she had left him in the safekeeping of friends but couldn’t remember which ones. She eventually won her case in the American Courts and Dwight was dubbed by the newspapers The Million Dollar Baby. The pair returned to England where Dwight was rather neglected by his mother who preferred the company of a long line of suitors in London and at the Spinney to that of her son. She died a decade later, in July 1923, leaving the 14 year old Dwight, according to Douglas Chase, to remember “her chiefly for her boyfriends and appetites, or, as he put it in a scathing limerick her ‘carousing and feasting/and brain like a bee-sting’”. She was buried alongside Ripley in East Finchley cemetery. The newly orphaned Dwight was sent to Harrow in loco parentis where he met the love of his life, Rupert Barneby. The pair became celebrated botanists and art patrons, eventually making their life together in the USA. 

In Finchley Cemetery Sir William Reid Dick’s impressive bronze sculpture on the grave of ‘Harry Dwight Dillon Ripley of New York, USA’ stands just a few yards away from the famous bronze sculpture on the Thomas Joseph Tate memorial. Ripley had first commissioned the Scottish sculptor to produce a portrait of the young Dwight and a relief portrait of his grandfather Sidney Dillon. In 1911 he asked the artist to create a bronze trophy in the form of a knight crusader which he was to donate to the local agricultural show as the Dillon Ripley trophy for horse jumping in 1912. The trophy was won outright by a Mr Arthur Blinks of Hawkhurst on Little Lady in 1923 when he came first in the show jumping for the third time (having previously won it in 1912 and 1922). When Alice Ripley returned from the US in 1914 with the Dillon trust funds safely in her name she paid Reid Dick £500 for a copy of his latest work Silence – Figure for a tomb which had just been exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was a large amount of money – enough for Dick Reid to marry on. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

'The Work of the Dead' by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press £27.95)

“The past is very present to me and has been for a very long time. I first became aware of this quite intensely when I was a teenager, because of the First World War. You see, I think that the dead are with us.”

Berger’s father, Stanley, served as an infantry major in the trenches during the 1914-18 war and was awarded the Military Cross. He remained in the army for a further four years until 1922, organising war graves for the British dead. It was Berger’s mother, Miriam, a working-class woman from ­Bermondsey, London, who helped him to return to civilian life.

“What I’m talking about now is a very ancient part of human awareness. It may even be what defines the human – although it [was] largely forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The dead are not abandoned. They are kept near physically. They are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.”

“I think the dead are with us”:John Berger at 88 – Philip Maughan, New Statesman  11 June 2015

Weighing in at just under three pounds Thomas W. Laqueur’s latest book is a serious and hefty piece of scholarship.  Its sheer bulk forced me to read it slowly and carefully being far too heavy to lug around on public transport and read on the journey to and from work. In fact the Berkeley professor may well be the least London Underground friendly authors ever. His previous magnum opus ‘Solitary Sex – A Cultural History of Masturbation’ probably ranks with ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ as one the titles you would least want fellow commuters to spot you perusing on the Central Line. But every cloud has a silver lining and being forced to consume ‘The Work of the Dead’ at a stately and contemplative pace is no bad thing.  Its 550 densely packed pages survey the culture of mortal remains from the 17th century to the present day. Some have criticised Laqueur’s overly narrow focus; the book concentrates on Europe and the USA and even within those narrow parameters London and Paris come in for the lion’s share of attention.  For me Laqueur succeeds brilliantly at what he sets out to do. In his Introduction he tells us that:

“The history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us – individually and communally. It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time. It is a history of the imagination, a history of how we invest the dead – again, I will be speaking primarily of the dead body – with meaning. It is really the greatest possible history of the imagination.”
He starts his explorations of the meaning of mortuary culture with an account of when “almost two and a half millennia ago, the outrageous Diogenes (ca. 412-323 B.C.E) told his students that when he died he wanted his body to be tossed over the wall where it would be devoured by beasts.” To the famous (or infamous) Cynic  a corpse was an empty vessel, a worthless shell to be discarded with the rubbish or treated as carrion (when Alexander the Great met the philosopher he found him contemplating a pile of human bones. “I was looking for the bones of your father,” Diogenes told the Macedonian “but I am having trouble distinguishing them from the bones of his slaves.”) “This book is about how and why Diogenes was right,” Laqueur says, “but also existentially wrong, wrong in a way that defies all cultural logic. It is about why the dead body matters.”  

The book takes us from the transformation of the parish churchyard from the recipient of the anonymous parish dead (for centuries churchyards had few or no permanent grave markers) in the late 17th century to a place where the dead were commemorated with every more elaborate memorials.  It guides through the revolutionary years of the enlightenment and the new thinking about life, death and immortality that marked the birth of the modern world. There are innumerable fascinating disquisitions, none more so for than the controversies surrounding the deaths of the atheistical philosophers Hume and Voltaire. We look at the development of the cemetery,  the rise of the cremation movement, and the 20th obsession with naming and memorialising the dead (after the Great War, the Holocaust and Vietnam).  In a book packed with detail and containing hundreds of narratives  Laqueur handles his material deftly and somehow contrives a coherent structure to hold it all together and tell a story which is larger than the sum of its parts. A wonderful book; highly recommended.

The tomb of Diogenes of Sinope

PS.  Diogenes cynical students and followers failed to follow the master’s precepts and far from throwing his body over the city walls for the jackals to devour they built him an elaborate tomb at Corinth. A pillar of Parian marble was placed over his grave with the image of a dog carved on it. The dog is a visual pun (the genitive form kynos of the word for dog suggests cynic) and a chthonic symbol, a dog being the Greek guardian of the underworld.  It is relatively easy to view our own dead bodies as little more than rubbish but much more difficult to adopt the same attitude to the bodies of the people we care about, even for a cynic.