Monday 20 January 2020

The Gardener Hath Plucked a Still Rarer Flower; Gladys Spencer (1837-1931) City of London Cemetery, Manor Park

City of London Cemetery…..mostly obelisks and angels on pedestals provide the principal accents. An eccentricity is the memorial to Gladys SpencerW1931 with piano and reclining figure”
Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of England - London East (2005)

It is the City of London Cemetery’s best known memorial; apart from William Haywood’s mausoleum it the only one considered worthy of mention in Pevsner even if that is only as an ‘eccentricity’. It is much photographed and much loved as it strikes a rare note of individuality in a vast cemetery (200 acres) of 150,000 burials. I didn’t think to check for a  mason’s mark but the memorial was almost certainly the work of one of the local east end firms who generally specialised in turning out standard angels by the ton but could occasionally surprise when given the opportunity to produce something more original. Compared to cemeteries in Italy, France, Spain, Germany or any other continental country, even the best known English memorials are generally not of high artistic merit. There is often something homespun, almost amateurish, about them and this is certainly true of the Spencer memorial. 

The epitaph reads “In Loving Memory of Gladys Spencer LLCM.  My darling Gladeyes who passed away 6th April 1931 Aged 34 years. The gardener hath plucked a still rarer flower”. LLCM is a Licentiate of the London College of Music. The last line about the gardener isn’t a quote though may have been influenced by Wordsworth (“Pluck that rose, it moves my liking,” Said she, lifting up her veil; “Pluck it for me, gentle gardener, - Ere it wither and grow pale.”) In the official guide to the cemetery Gladys is described as the ‘piano lady’ who was “a young and dance teacher who worked at the Classical Academy of Music and Dancing in Rixon (sic) Road, Manor Park. Gladys was also well known for her local charity work and many were saddened by her death at the early age of 34 years on Easter Monday 1931.” 

Gladys was born in 1897 in either Ilford or Romford (her parents gave different responses on the census returns for 1901 and 1911). By the time of the 1901 census she was living with her father Henry (who gave his profession as printer compositor) and her mother Louisa in Douglas Road, Hornchurch;. By 1911 the family had moved to 172 Sixth Avenue, Manor Park and Gladys had two younger brothers Herbert and Henry. Henry senior had advanced in his career to the point of being a paper bag manufacturer but he later switched jobs and became a market gardener and ‘experimental plant breeder’ out in Billericay. By the time of her death Gladys had only moved a few dozen yards down Sixth Avenue, from 173 to 122.  In the 1920’s unmarried Gladys was working at the Classical Academy of Music and Dancing in Rixen Road as a dance teacher but also making money with her dance troupe Spencer’s Celebrated Dancers. Perhaps some of her dancer’s were sourced from amongst her pupils but she also advertised extensively in The Stage, the newspaper for professional entertainers of every stripe and hue. These classified adverts give some clues about the professional fortunes of Miss Spencer’s performers: “Spencers celebrated dancers - high kickers, splits or acrobats. This week East Ham Palace next week Putney Hippodrome,” runs a typical one. They also appeared at Great Yarmouth at the Regent Theatre in 1927, given equal billing with Alex McGill and Gwen Vaughan ‘the cheerful chatterers with a piano, in original comedy duets.’ These were more innocent times; in our more cynical age it is hard not to feel there is something slightly disreputable about advertising for girls who can do high kicks, cartwheels and splits or in a 1931 advert, “wanted Pretty Juveniles also Bigger Girls for Rev and Panto Immed. Vacs. Gladys Spencer, Rixen Road, Manor Park, nearest station East Ham”. A single surviving photo from the 20’s shows Gladys surrounded by her concert party pretty juveniles in white frills and lace with an outsized ribbon in their hair and her Bigger Girls in top hats.

Gladys died of pneumonia on Easter Monday, 6 April 1931. Her death may not have been entirely unexpected – she certainly left a will and very few unmarried people of 34 would bother going to the trouble of making a last will and testament unless they were seriously ill. Despite her relatively young age she managed to leave an estate valued at £1459 and 15 shillings; quite an impressive small fortune for the early 1930’s. Those high kicks and cartwheels clearly made money. Her executor was one Walter Ambrose Woodrow, a chemist who was just four years older than Gladys. Were they just good friends? Was Walter the one who christened her Gladeyes?

Walter was born in 1893 St Marylebone/Regents Park, was living in Bromley with his parents in 1901 and had moved to 47 North Street in Plaistow by the time of the 1911 census where he gave his occupation as ‘chemist working in oil manufactory’. He was living as a lodger in the house of 69 year old widow Venus Gidley (now there is an evocative name). Venus had two daughters, both older than the 18 year old Walter. 21 year old Ethel May Gidley worked as a tobacco moulder; the older, more worldly young woman whose mother was Venus seems to have won Walter’s heart. The pair were married in 1914 and moved to their own house at 8 Berkeley Road in Manor Park. Walter became the Head of the laboratory of the Anglo American Oil Company (later known as Esso) but doesn’t seem to have been able to hang on to his marriage. Ethel not only left Walter, she moved to the USA. The couple were never divorced and Walter never remarried. Did he become close to Gladys after the separation from his wife? If so her death must have been a terrible blow. He died in 1957 in Polegate, Surrey leaving an estate of £1347 11s 1d; 46 years in the oil business and he seems to have made much less than Gladys did in a much shorter time out of teaching piano and supplying celebrated dancers to the theatres of London and the South East.    

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Another Christmas Eve at Kensal Green.....

On the 24th December, thanks to a half day holiday granted by my employers, I made what is, for me at least, fast becoming a tradition; the Christmas Eve cemetery visit. We moved offices earlier this year and I am now lucky enough to work in Willesden, a location that my colleagues complain endlessly about as unless you live in North West London it can take be tricky to get to.  It is also dirty, dangerous and dismal, they say.  I have spent most of my adult life working in the parts of London that most people go out of their way to avoid and to me Willesden doesn’t seem that bad. I live in East London and I can’t say I particularly enjoy the hour and a half trek to and from the office on the overcrowded Central and Jubilee lines every morning and evening. More than balancing out the negatives for me is the fact that Willesden has more cemeteries within striking distance of the office than anywhere else I have ever worked.  Within 10 minutes walk of my workplace on the High Road are not one but two Jewish cemeteries as well as non denominational Willesden New Cemetery (opened 1891). Only slightly further away is North West London’s oldest Parish church,  St Mary’s founded circa 938 with its churchyard and Willesden’s Old Burial Ground. Paddington Old Cemetery isn’t far away either, virtually a straight walk of not much more than 20 minutes down Brondesbury Park. Or, almost as close but far more enticing, Kensal Green and its two cemeteries, All Souls and St Mary’s, a brisk 30 minute stroll away or a mere 10 minute bus ride on the 302. In London they say you are never more than 6 feet away from a rat or a mile away from a cemetery. Willesden is particularly blessed with both though I’m not sure if there is a connection. My colleagues appreciate neither.  

I may have been spoilt for choice but there is only ever going to be one winner for me in any competition between cemeteries; I walked to Kensal Green. It was a dull day, a gunmetal grey sky threatened rain and leached the colour out of what little was left of the afternoon. The weather forecast had promised breaks in the cloud and intermittent sunshine but there was no sign of any relief to the thoroughly depressing day. The cemetery was less busy than last year, there were a few dedicated souls visiting the graves of their departed loved ones but nowhere near as many as last Christmas Eve. Visitors to Kensal Green are, in my experience, always impeccably well behaved. I noticed a solitary rough sleeper in the portico of the old catacombs a couple of years ago but I have never seen discarded drug paraphernalia, had to steer clear of groups of inebriated street drinkers, stumbled across grown men clinched in intimate embraces in the undergrowth or seen any other sign of the variety of ways Londoners find to enjoy themselves in some of the more disreputable cemeteries.  It hasn’t always been this way though; a correspondent who signed himself A Mourner for the Dead, wrote to the editor of The Times on April 13 1857. “I, on Good Friday, went [to the cemetery at Kensal-green] to pay a tribute of respect and affection to one not long departed,” the troubled Mourner wrote and “in approaching the tomb I found a large assemblage of persons collected, whose behaviour and language were little suited to the solemnity of the place. The ground was strewn with oranges, nuts, &c, laughter, and opinions passed of those who slept quietly there jarred on the feelings of those who went to weep, to pray. I ask you, is this fit, is this becoming in a Christian country? The cemetery of Pere Le Chaise is not looked on as a tea garden, unjust remarks on the dead are not heard, decency is observed; but with us, how different!” The Mourner beseeched the editor to use his powerful influence to stop “sanctuaries for the dead becoming scenes of riot and disorder.”

Such scenes were probably rare in the 1830’s when the cemetery first opened and the activity of the public was closely monitored by the company’s watchmen. In 1832, the year the cemetery was founded (the first burial was a year later) the Whig Government of Earl Grey had passed the Anatomy Act designed to curb the rampant illegal trade in human corpses by allowing licensed teachers of anatomy access to unclaimed bodies (of the poor obviously) from hospitals, prisons and workhouses. It was common practice before (and for some after) the passing of the act for burial grounds to employ watchmen to make sure that the dead were not disturbed by the activities of the resurrection men and it would have been no different for the new cemetery. The Naval & Military Gazette of 10 August 1833 contains the fascinating titbit that the watchmen employed by the General Cemetery Company were armed. “On Wednesday night,” it says, “as one of the watchmen employed at the New Cemetery at Kensall Green, was discharging his gun as usual on relieving guard, the barrel burst, and blew his right hand off from the wrist. He was immediately taken to a surgeon in the neighbourhood, and thence to the Middlesex Hospital.” As far as I am aware burial ground watchmen were not usually armed with anything more dangerous than a stout cudgel. The General Cemetery Company was clearly determined to discourage body snatching or any other unseemly activity from its new model cemetery. 

My trawls through the newspaper archives looking for other stories relating to pistol packing watchmen in the cemetery has failed, so far, to turn up anything at all. For how long watchmen went armed on their nightly patrols is still a mystery. The threat from resurrection men would have receded as the provisions of the new anatomy act started to take effect in the late 1830’s. At some point the danger of an employee blowing his own hand off would have been a greater risk to the company than body snatchers tarnishing the reputation of the cemetery by making off with a newly buried corpse. When that point was reached the management of the cemetery presumably retired its arsenal and took a less belligerent approach to protecting its property. Later press stories relating to guns and the cemetery are generally relating to suicides such as the ‘unknown gentleman’ whose body was found by undertakers conducting a funeral in the cemetery on 11 November 1872. “The body was lying amongst some tombstones,” reported the Scotsman of 12 November, “and a single-barrelled pistol was found near the head of the deceased.” No further details were reported. People who commit suicide in cemeteries generally have some intimate connection with someone buried there and generally kill themselves at the grave side. Sometimes the relationship between the suicide and the buried can be quite surprising; this was certainly true of another unknown man whose story was reported in Wigan Observer and District Advertiser of 11 March 1859. He had taken his own life with a dose of poison. “The wretched man had formed an attachment to a widow, which was not returned,” said the paper “and when his dead body was found it was lying the headstone of the widow’s late husband.” What an interesting conversation the pair of them must have had in the afterlife.  

Friday 3 January 2020

'Saving Graces' (W.W. Norton 1995) and 'Beautiful Death' (Penguin Books USA) by David Robinson (out of print)

In the mid 1990’s American photographer David Robinson published two books of cemetery photographs; Saving Graces, with a foreword by Joyce Carol Oates, in 1995 was followed by Beautiful Death in 1996. The two books are very different - Saving Grace, published by W.W. Norton   is an A5 paperback of black and white photographs of the 19th century allegorical female forms that adorned tombs in continental cemeteries. Beautiful Death, subtitled Art of the Cemetery and published by Penguin Books USA, is a large format hardback of colour photos, again almost exclusively of 19th century European cemeteries but featuring a wider range of memorials than its predecessor.  

“When I was photographing in Pere Lachaise and other European cemeteries,” Robinson says in his afterword, “I soon became aware of women all around me. We are familiar with the image of widows dressed in black bending over to tend family graves.....but these were not the women who attracted my attention. Instead I found myself transfixed by gorgeous young women who were not dressed in black. In fact many were hardly dressed at all, and although exquisitely beautiful, they were visibly distraught.” These statues which adorn the graves of the haute bourgeoisie through most of West and Central Europe Robinson dubs the ‘Saving Graces’ “because of their beauty and their beneficence”. In her introduction Joyce Carol Oates notes that these figures are “classically austere and occasionally featureless, at one extreme, at the other, romantically voluptuous, barely clothed, in some cases starkly nude, lying, like the lovely figure gracing the cover of this book, in a pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender.” Staid Victorian Anglo-Saxons would have been perplexed, appalled and aroused in equal measure by these eroticised representations of grief and the fashion never caught on on this side of the English Channel.  There are just two photos from London cemeteries – one at Highgate from the classically austere end of the spectrum and the other the highly untypical memorial to Ninon Michaelis in Kensal Green by Henry Alfred Pegram. Although he was born in 1862 Pegram died in 1937 and both the Michaelis memorial and the even more spectacular statue at Golders Green Crematorium, Into The Silent Land, are early twentieth century works. Pegram would have been considered rather old fashioned in European artistic circles; it had essentially taken more than half a century for a pair of sculpted naked shoulders to be considered acceptable in a London cemetery.

The most arresting image in the book, and the one chosen for the cover, is a white marble statue from Staglieno cemetery in Genoa of a completely naked woman, a conveniently placed swag of shroud or winding sheet falling modestly across her loins in Oates “pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender”. Going by the evidence of the book it is the Italians who pushed the boundaries at the erotic end of the Saving Graces spectrum. The photographs are stunning; tightly composed and beautifully lit. The decision to shoot in monochrome seems absolutely right for the subject. The book is out of print but second hand copies are easy to find and generally very modestly priced. Highly recommended.     

‘Beautiful Death’ is largely shot in the same cemeteries as ‘Saving Graces’ and even includes a number of the same monuments but the photos are in colour and cover the whole spectrum of memorials from simple headstones up to the most elaborate mausoleums and funerary sculptures. The book includes a ‘text’ by Dean Koontz the prolific American author of gothic thrillers. Koontz’s contribution to the project isn’t billed as an introduction or a foreword or preface probably because the words seem to have little connection to Robinson’s pictures of 19th century cemetery art. His 5000 word riff on death is quite interesting. “Death,” he says “is not beautiful, going  on to describe what sounds more like Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, rather than any phenomenon that would have been recognised by the bourgeoisie of fin de siècle Paris or Milan; “he has the emotionless face of the unloving void, eyes as blank as polished granite, and a heart of maggots.” His revelations on the deaths of his parents are fascinating but completely out of place in this book. Robinson wasn’t keen on including all this but Penguin were not going to decline any involvement from a best selling author they felt so sure would help them shift large quantities of the book that they ordered an initial print run of 50,000 copies. It wasn’t the first time Robinson had had a project hijacked by a writer; his first book was to be a monograph of reflection shots taken in Italy. At the suggestion of Gore Vidal, who had declined the project, he went off to solicit help from Anthony Burgess. The author of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was then living 40 miles from Rome with his Italian wife and was enthusiastic about the work of the young American photographer. When Robinson shyly asked if he would consider writing the introduction to his proposed book Burgess roared “"No, no," before adding; "This deserves something more; this deserves a novel!" Poor Robinson just wanted a preface from a well known author to help him sell his book. What he got was ‘Beard’s Roman Women’, a novella which featured 17 of Robinson’s photographs in the first American and UK editions.  Subsequent editions “quietly dropped”  the photos he later remembered but “I ended up making more money on Beard's Roman Women than on any of my other books because I was on Burgess' pay schedule.”  

Robinson makes up for the deficiencies of Koontz’s text by supplying his own ‘Afterword’ which attempts to put his photographs in context by cantering through the history of burial practices since the middle ages and the development of the cemetery movement in Europe. He essentially rehashes Philippe Ariès’ arguments from ‘The Hour of Our Death’ but manages to make some inexcusable factual errors in the process. The old Parisian cemetery of Les Innocents closed in 1875 he says. Anyone who has read Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure’ knows that that date is at least a hundred years out – it was the closure of Les Innocents in 1780 and the subsequent exhumation and removal of the bodies to the catacombs that provided much of the impetus to open Pere Lachaise. He lists correctly the dates of the opening of the principal Paris cemeteries but for some reason completely fluffs the London ones claiming, incorrectly, that Highgate opened in 1836 and Kensall (sic) Green in 1838. Highgate actually opened in 1839 and Kensal (one ‘l’ please) Green in 1833.

But I suspect no one buys this book for the words, whether they are from Koontz or from Robinson himself. What matters are the pictures and they are very good indeed. They were shot in cemeteries all over Europe though France and Italy predominate.  There are just a handful of pictures from London cemeteries – 3 from Highgate, one from Brookwood and a single shot each from Chiswick and the catholic cemetery of St Mary’s, Kensal Green. If you discount Hogarth’s memorial in the background of the photo from Chiswick, none of the London images focuses on well known or spectacular memorials. Instead they focus on ordinary headstones, wild flowers, a bird box or a clutch of saints purchased from off the monumental mason’s shelf. London may have some spectacular memorials in it’s cemeteries but Robinson says that he was looking for the typical in the cemeteries of all the countries he visited; he is right, what is common in the Parisian or Italian cemeteries is pretty untypical in London. For me some of the best shots in the book are these quieter images – the beautifully hand coloured 19th century photos adorning Italian graves, the bizarre and brightly coloured ceramic cat with the word ‘Ricardo’ blazoned across its chest glowing amongst the mausoleums in a Spanish cemetery or snow blanketing the reclining figure on a chest tomb. Penguin’s decision to go for an initial print run of 50,000 hardbacks means that you can pick up very cheap copies of this now out of print title. They can be bought for as little as £2.99 on Abebooks. They would be cheap at 10 times the price.