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.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Way We Die Now - Seamus O'Mahony (£7.99 Head of Zeus)

“This is not a book of consolation: death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.” Seamus O’Mahony
One of my earliest memories is my grandfather dying. Neither I, nor he for that matter, were very old at the time; I wasn’t yet four and he had just reached sixty. Given that I was barely out of infancy I don’t remember much;  he was a big man, a painter and decorator, and in my memories is always dressed in capacious white overalls curiously free of paint stains.  I loved being tormented by him and he would lunge and grab me as I sidled past him, half in fear, half eager to be caught and folded into acres of white cotton drill from where it was impossible to escape. Once I was a prisoner he placed a chin bristling with stubble and abrasive as sandpaper next to my soft and defenceless cheek and rubbed until the side of my face was aflame and I squealed for mercy.  When he became ill he wasn’t, as he would be today, admitted to hospital. Instead he took to his bed where I was only allowed to see him once, after much pestering, ushered in by my grandmother when he was asleep, an elephantine bulk to my three year old eyes, swathed in white linen sheets and frighteningly immobile beneath the bed clothes. I didn’t ask him to see him again. My mother told me, much later, that she had been shocked when he told her that he was tired of living and wanted to die. “When our time comes, let us say our goodbyes and die as creatures,” says Seamus O’Mahoney, “if we choose to turn to the wall, to withdraw from our families and the world, then there is no shame in that. The dying have turned to the wall since the time of Isiah.” That is how I think of my grandfather dying, metaphorically turning to the wall and relinquishing life. He may well not have escaped so easily these days; “the default setting of modern medicine is full intervention,” says O’Mahony, keeping people alive in acute hospitals, intubated and on ventilator if necessary, for as long as medical science makes possible.
The Kansas-based pathologist Dr Ed Friedlander proudly sports a tattoo on his chest saying ‘no CPR’
Seamus O’Mahony, a Gastroenterologist with a literary and philosophical bent, has experience of both the Irish and the British health services. His day job is a Consultant at Cork University Hospital and with whatever spare time he has he contributes to the Dublin Review of Books. His first book challenges the medicalisation of death, expressing a deep frustration with notions like “death is something that medicine should somehow ‘sort out’”. He writes “I was, in part, prompted to write this book because my limited, strictly medical, expertise was inadequate to meet the demands placed on it by society and by my dying patients and their families. I had no answers, no profound insight. It is as difficult to advise someone how to die, as it is to advise them how to live.” He seems a deeply humane and caring man, exasperated with the system and with the expectations of patients and relatives that he should somehow be able to indefinitely defer the inevitable, the dying that comes to us all. It seems that however hopeless the situation most of us prefer to be deceived when a diagnosis or a medical crisis forces us to ask a doctor if our condition is terminal. We want to be told that there is a new treatment in America,  or hear about a doctor who is getting extraordinary results with a new drug or even about people cured by quackery like homeopathy when all the doctors had given up on them. “There is little reward, professionally or emotionally, for doctors who tell patients the truth,” says O’Mahony, “but the Lie is heavily incentivized. Nearly all families, and many patients, prefer the Lie. I try to engage with the dying patient with the intention of being honest, but the path of the Lie often looks so much more inviting. And no one has ever complained to me for taking the path of the Lie. Doctors, like their patients, are human and flawed, and the easy path of the Lie is the road commonly taken.”
Being dead is easy but dying is hard. O’Mahony’s sobering book is about the process of dying, when we have to cope not only with the existential anguish of our imminent demise but with the physical pain and suffering that accompanies it. He is attracted by Philippe Ariès notion of tame death as described in the French historian’s 1975 magnum opus Essais sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident: du Moyen Âge à nos jou (published in English as Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present).  Ariès argued that before the 17th century people were acutely aware and accepting of their own deaths. Death was a public event and people rarely died alone without the comfort of friends, relatives and religion. Excessive expressions of emotion were avoided in the presence of the dying; these only became normal when death became feared and shunned from the 17th century onwards. Today, O’Mahony observes, “death has become fashionable as a topic of public discussion, but, despite all the celebrity memoirs and earnest newspaper articles, it is still largely hidden. In Europe, the process of secularization has advanced so far that we will never see a return to Philippe Ariès's 'tame death'. Could we fashion a secular version of tame death? I doubt it: death is tamed by ritual, and ritual is primarily a religious phenomenon. We will never go back to a pre-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe, and secular rituals will not emerge.”

Seamus O'Mahony, the literary gastroenterologist

O’Mahoney points out that most medical practitioners, who after all should know what they are talking about, are deeply sceptical about the value of excessive and aggressive intervention of dying patients. He cites a 2003 study carried out by John Hopkins University which “examined doctors’ preferences for their own care at the end of life. Most had an advance directive. The overwhelming majority did not want cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, dialysis, major surgery or tube feeding.  They were unanimous in their enthusiasm for analgesic drugs. The uncomfortable conclusion of this study is that doctors routinely subject their patients to treatments they wouldn’t dream of having themselves. The Kansas-based pathologist Dr Ed Friedlander proudly sports a tattoo on his chest saying ‘no CPR’.”  He thinks we “need to have less lofty ambitions for death: such as a death without terror, a death without futile medical intervention, a death that is not hidden from the dying, a dying that takes place with a degree of respect and decorum.”

Seamus O’Mahony’s excellent book makes uncomfortable reading.  Highly recommended.

Monday, 30 October 2017

'The Apostle of Peace'; Henry Richard (1812-1888) Abney Park Cemetery

Since Lytton Strachey punctured the reputations of his ‘Eminent Victorians’ it is impossible to accept at face value the assessments made on their distinguished contemporaries by Victorian opinion makers.  Apparently bereft of anything resembling a flaw, of vices, of sex, selfishness, the hagiographic accounts of the lives and deaths of the Victorian great and good do not portray anything that the early 21st century would recognise as a normal human being.  It is difficult to take an interest in these starched and stuffed but completely flavourless individuals.  According to the South London Press of 25th August 1888 Henry Richard “was born Tregaron, in Cardiganshire, in 1812. His father was Ebenezer Richard, a preacher of great repute in the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist body. The son early developed an inclination to follow his father’s profession, and when he left his Welsh grammar school he was educated for the ministry in the Congregational College Highbury. At an early age became minister of the Marlborough Chapel in the Old Kent-road, which flourished under his pastorate. During his ministry there Mr. Richard threw himself heartily into the cause of peace, and entered upon the duties of secretary to the Peace Society.” His duties as secretary to the Peace Society kept him employed for the best part of 40 years. In 1868 he became the Liberal MP for Merthyr Tydfil. The paper also fondly remembered his oratorical style, claiming that “at many South London ‘Liberation’ meetings he has been listened to with keen interest. His speeches were weighted with solid fact and close reasoning. Profound earnestness was their prevailing characteristic, an attribute that does not belong to mere ear tickling oratory; but underneath this gravity of style there was in Mr. Richard a fountain of humour which now and then would bubble up in the midst his serious speeches and startle his audience into laughter. This mixture of earnestness and sedate fun made him a favourite with popular audiences, with whom he also obtained great credit for his aptitude at Scriptural illustration and quotation.”

Portrait in the South London Press
The Victorian press was much keener than todays to give detailed accounts of the death of a worthy; again from the South London Press:
The deceased, who was his seventy-sixth year….had been in failing health for some time.…  For the past two years he had been subject to angina pectoris, and had been cautioned against undue excitement. Since the rising of Parliament he and Mrs. Richard had been staying with Mr. Davies —Mr. Colman, M.P. for Norwich, being among the guests. On Monday night there was dinner party at Treborth, during which Mr. Richard appeared to be in his usual health, but shortly afterwards he complained of faintness, and Mrs. Richard was summoned. At eleven o’clock the deceased retired to bed. Dr. J. Roberts, Menai Bridge, and Dr. Richards, of Bangor, were sent for. Shortly before their arrival, however, he said that he felt very ill, and turned over and expired. The doctors certified as to the cause of death, and so an inquest was not necessary.

From his place of death in Wales Henry Richard was brought back to London to be buried. The Cardiff Times, apparently mourning a national hero, devoted almost 5000 words to his funeral obsequies  (under the headline ‘An Impressive Ceremonial’:
Mr Henry Richard resided at 22, Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, one of the quiet aristocratic-looking buildings typical of the locality, and here since last Wednesday his body has reposed. It was cased in a leaden shell, which was enclosed in a massive oak coffin, with ornate brass mountings. A large burnished plate, topped by a perforated cross, bears the plain inscription ‘HENRY RICHARD. Born April 3rd, 1812. Died August 20tb, 1888.’ The coffin was placed in the library, where its presence was a mournful commentary on the shelves of standard books and works of reference, which showed signs of the care and attention bestowed on them during his lifetime by their gifted and cultured owner. Piled high over the bier, and littered over the purple pall, which fell in graceful folds from the head of the coffin, were a very large number of wreaths and other floral tributes of affection for and respect to the memory of the deceased gentleman. These were beautiful in the extreme. The Carnarvon Reform Club sent what must be regarded as the largest and most varied wreath.
A view of the Richard monument from the Graphic of November of 23 November 1889
The newspaper was impressed by the cemetery:
A more beautiful spot than Abney Park Cemetery could hardly be found in London, for the wealth of foliage and the neatly kept flower beds formed over and around the graves contrast with much effect with the handsome and costly monuments which deck the undulating slopes. Some of these are veritable works of art, containing statuary and other pieces of sculpture of great merit. Indeed the whole appearance of this burial ground is very suggestive of a French cemetery, notably Pere le Chaise, in Paris where sedulous attention to and lavish expenditure upon the graves and tombs of departed friends is held to be of great importance, a duty imposed upon the living which by no means must be neglected… Close to the south gate of the cemetery, in the shade of some fine chestnut and yew trees, was the spot selected for the final resting-place of the departed Welsh patriot. On all sides are lying famous and well known men connected with the Congregationalist communion. Brilliant divines and prosperous laymen, members of Parliament and gifted professional men—they are all gathered in one sad and solemn brotherhood of the grave.
The service was conducted in Abney Congregational Church on Stoke Newington High Street rather than in the Cemetery Chapel:
A strong posse of police from the 18N division under the command of Inspector Holland and Sargeant Trudgett, preserved order with ease and facility , and without their services the crowd of sightseers who had collected in Church-road North could not have been restrained from filling the seats in the church or unduly pressing round the grave. Punctual to the appointed hour, the hearse and mourning coaches arrived, and the coffin, which was quite covered with the wealth of wreaths and andother flowers, was carried into the church by six bearers and placed on a large catafalque, covered with a purple cloth, which was erected in front of the lofty reading desk. The relatives of the deceased followed.  Succeeding them came representatives of the political associations and educational and other bodies with which Mr Heenry Richard was identified so prominently during life but as no regular procession was formed those present simply congregated inside the Church. Inside the chapel the scene was very awe-inspiring and, at the same time consolatory. It was something to have lived a life which was an example of the truism that “Virtue alone outbuilds the Pyramids”…. Through the stained-glass windows of the church came a soft, mellow light which toned down the sombre effect of the funeral garments of the congregation and made golden and crimson and blue diamond shaped patches on the walls and pavement.
Henry Richard’s Portland stone and pink granite memorial was paid for by public subscription and designed by Mr E.J. Physick who also carved the marble medallion attached to the front elevation. The ceremony for the unveiling in November 1889 was attended, according to the Graphic, by about 1000 people.

E.J. Physick's medallion portrait of Henry Richard - the nose appears to have lost as a result of vandalism

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington

The Venezuelan electronica and hip hop musician Alejandro Ghersi, better known by his stage name Arca, lives in Hackney and found at least some of the inspiration for his latest album, according to the Guardian earlier this year, in Abney Park. He enthused about the cemetery’s ecosystem to the interviewer; “they don’t chop down a tree there if it dies,” he says “they just leave it to rot, which allows for different fungus and plants and insects to thrive there, so there’s that poetry of death being allowed around death and the organic textures of decomposition that are much more beautiful than any other kind of texture.” The cemetery’s other big attraction for the 27 year old is the gay cruising scene. He explained to the Guardian, “most of the men that cruise at Abney Park are older, from a different generation, before you could hook up with apps. It’s just so beautiful, looking someone in the eye. I have such beautiful interactions with all kinds of men that I would never meet normally, if I wasn’t there all the time.” When Alejandro is locked in an embrace with a beguiling stranger, in the undergrowth, losing himself in the poetry of sex and death, he likes to imagine that the cemetery’s occupants look on approvingly. After all Abney Park is a non conformist cemetery “where outcasts and misfits have been buried for hundreds of years” he says. English is a tricky language always waiting to trap the unwary non native speaker. Abney Park’s non conformists are not the outcasts, misfits, and outsiders Alejandro imagines; they are the Methodists, Baptists, and Salvationists whose most outrageous acts of rebellion were not to join the established Church of England. The inhabitants were probably far more pious and conventional than the average person buried at any of the other magnificent 7 cemeteries. Every other grave seems to belong to a dissenting minister, a lay preacher, missionary or philanthropist. The cemeteries most celebrated burial is the founder of the Salvation Army. No one buried there is smiling kindly at grown men engaging in sexual activity with other men in the bushes. If it were physically possible to turn in ones grave the non conformists of Abney Park would be rotating like rotisserie chickens at the shenanigans that go on above ground.  In truth the cruising these days is so discreet as to be barely noticeable and the cemetery’s once louche atmosphere has mellowed considerably. In the early nineties it could be quite an alarming place with not only the cruising but the drug taking and street drinking brigades also out in force.    
The Cemetery Chapel - Grade II listed, designed by William Hosking, built by John Jay and opened in May 1840
Stoke Newington still had a village atmosphere when the cemetery opened in 1840 in the grounds of Abney House, once the home of the former Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Abney. The area was revered by dissenters because of its connections to Dr Isaac Watts the poet and hymn writer.  Watts attended the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington and then after a short break away to live and work in London, returned to live there for the rest of his life, first in the house of the Hartopp family in Church Street where he worked as a tutor and then at Abney House to keep Sir Thomas’ widow company when her husband died. A small platform of stamped earth with a headless classical statue in the most distant corner of the cemetery remains dedicated to him; a plaque claims it was the “favourite retirement of the late Isaac Watts”.  With its strong dissenting tradition and its location on what was then the outskirts of London, Abney Park seemed the ideal site to found a non denominational cemetery when it became clear that Bunhill Fields was finally filled to capacity. It was opened by the Abney Park Cemetery Company under the auspices of the London Missionary Society in 1840. The park already had a famous arboretum and the new owners, inspired by Mount Auburn cemetery in Massachusetts, commissioned George Loddiges, a Hackney nurseryman, to lay out and plant the cemetery to increase the number of plant species on display. 2500 shrubs and trees were planted and carefully arranged around the perimeter of the cemetery in alphabetical order starting with an Acer (a maple tree) and finishing with a Zanthoxylum (the American Toothache Tree). The owners hoped the cemetery would prove to be an educational attraction as well as a popular burial site.  By the 1880’s the company shed its association with religious dissent and became a purely commercial organisation operating not only Abney Park but sister cemeteries at Chingford Mount and Hendon Park.

Isaac Watts (1674 to 1748) is actually buried in the non conformist Bunhill Fields but his statue presides over Abney Park Cemetery which was partly built on land belonging to Abney House, the home of Sir Thomas Abney
My favourite new story about Abney Park was reported in the Aberdeen Evening Express in 1885 under the headline Startling Discovery at a Grave:
On the twelfth inst. an infant, aged three months, whose parents live at Hillside Road, Stamford Hill, London, was seized with convulsions, to which it apparently succumbed. The body was conveyed to Abney Park Cemetery on Saturday for interment. While the coffin was being lowered, however, a child's cry was heard and then another, and the coffin was drawn up again. On being opened the infant was found to be alive. It was taken home, and is now recovering.
Tonight the Lion sleeps on Abney Parks best known memorial; the grave of Frank Bostock (1866-1912) famous menagerie owner.
A gorgeous motor-car used by a firm for advertising purposes, decked with a driver and a footman in gold laced uniforms, was speeding along Stoke Newington Road on Tuesday afternoon when the machinery suddenly gave a sharp crack and broke down. The liveried attendants were obliged to descend from the vehicle and push it slowly along from behind. A number of cabmen in the neighbourhood promptly entered into the humour of the situation, and formed themselves into a procession, one of them performing an imitation of a Dead March on an old trumpet which he had picked up somewhere. Abney Park Cemetery was not far distant. The spectacle afforded much amusement to many observers.
Reynolds's Newspaper - Sunday 03 January 1897

Autumn in the cemetery.
Influenza is still very prevalent in Hackney, Stoke Newington, Islington, and South Hornsey, and it is remarked that doctors and undertakers are the busiest men in the district, The latter, in many instances, are working night and day. During last week the staff of grave diggers at Abney park Cemetery were further increased, and the number of funerals which daily pass along Stoke Newington road  is simply enormous when the fact that the cemetery is a private one is considered. On Saturday Coroner Macdonald was informed of a sad case of suicide. The wife of Edward Smith, aged 61, was carried off by the prevailing epidemic about a week ago.  This so preyed on Smith's mind that on Wednesday he cut his throat with a razor.  He was removed to the German Hospital, and died on Friday.
Bristol Mercury - Monday 01 February 1892

An Interesting case of Longevity:  On Tuesday last the mortal remains of the late Mary Hillum, the oldest inhabitant of Stoke Newington, were committed to the grave in Abney Park Cemetery. The Rev. Jobn Jefferson, the venerable minister of Abney, Park Chapel, of which the late Miss Hillum was a mem bar, officiated, and the event brought together a large concourse of the inhabitants of the village. After reading the portions of Scripture usually selected for funeral services, the Rev. John Jefferson made a brief address on the personal history and character of the deceased. He described her to be a person of pure and simple tastes, and unaffected manners, known in the village for her good sense and earnest piety years before a large proportion of his present hearers were born. By the kind providence of God she had been spared to see her 100th year; she was, in fact, 105 years of age in February last. Hers had been a useful but not an eventful life. The house at the corner of Albion-road, in which she resided, was the only home she ever had in this world. She was born there, and there she died, and during upwards of a century-indeed, from the day of her birth to the day of her death, she had never once slept out of that house. Her journeyings to and fro in times gone by were limited to Enfield on the north, and the Elephant and Castle on the south; and in the days when she was in the full activity of life, the suburbs of London wore very different aspects to those they wear now. To the remarkable changes which had taken place during the past 25 or 30 years she was a stranger; and, as might be expected, what little she learnt by reading of the changes that were taking place only served to engender in her mind a distaste for all modern improvements.
North Wales Chronicle - Saturday 08 October 1864

Sunday, 15 October 2017

199 Cemeteries To See Before You Die - Loren Rhoads (Black Dog Publishing £14.99)

A bucket list of cemeteries? It doesn’t sound like a potential bestseller but Hachette imprint Black Dog Books has lavished enormous care on the production of ‘199 Cemeteries To See Before You Die’ launching it at the start of the Christmas market publishing season, apparently confident that they have a sure fire stocking filler on their hands.  The title is great but why 199? There must be an arcane art to choosing the number of items to include on lists of this sort. No one is actually going to do, visit, read, see (or whatever) everything on a bucket list so overinclusion seems to be an accepted part of the process. 1001 is apparently a customary number for rock albums and Arabian nights. 100 seems to be appropriate for  anything expensive (like visiting exotic places) so 200 sounds about right for cemeteries which amongst all their other multifarious merits are pretty cheap places to visit, with no entrance fee (generally speaking,  though there are some dishonourable exceptions, Highgate) gift shops, or overpriced on site catering.

Loren Rhoads was the publishers inspired choice to write the book and is probably uniquely qualified for the job. Loren is a San Francisco based writer and taphophile who acquired her graveyard fixation during an enforced stopover in London with her husband in 1991. Browsing in WH Smith’s in Victoria Station she came across a copy of Highgate Cemetery; Victorian Valhalla featuring John Gay’s celebrated photos of the cemetery. On the last day of the unexpected break they abandoned plans to visit the Tower of London and set off for Highgate instead and so, as she later wrote “on a bitterly cold January day during the first Gulf War, Highgate Cemetery was where our cemetery adventures began. Since then, we’ve visited graveyards from San Francisco to Singapore, Prague to Paris, and all across the USA.” Loren’s impressive list of publications include ‘Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries’ and ‘Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel’, she is a regular contributor to a variety of magazines and for a decade edited the cult magazine Morbid Curiosity which dedicated itself to true first person accounts by ordinary Americans of life’s edgier moments. She currently edits the blog Cemetery Travel.

Loren doing what she likes best - cemetery travelling
Before we go any further, in the interests of transparency, I need own up to having written a post on Loren’s blog about the cemitério do Alto de São João in Lisbon. This led to Loren including the said cemetery in 199 Cemeteries and a request from the publisher to use one of my photos of it in the book. It can be found on page 145, reproduced the size of a commemorative postage stamp (one of the few serious editorial mistakes by the team which assembled the book, I can’t help feeling). For the publication rights to my picture I received $100 US (and yet to be paid if anyone from Black Dog is reading this) and a free copy of the book.  I also get mentioned on the Special Thanks page as someone who expanded Loren’s list of cemeteries to be included. Having said all this nothing which follows is remotely influenced by my very small and tangential involvement in the project.

This is a book aimed at the American market and so 100 of the 199 cemeteries featured are in the States or Canada and the rest of the world is represented mainly by places where Americans are likely to travel with Europe getting the lion’s share of the non US attention (62 of the remaining 99) and Africa and Australia barely getting a look in. Most of the burial places listed are cemeteries but there are a small number of churches and archaeological sites in the non US sections including Westminster Abbey, Sutton Hoo, the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, Petra and the beehive tomb in Mycenae. The cemetery movement in the US has almost as venerable a history as its European counterpart (Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts opened a couple of years before Kensal Green and was an influence on the design of Abney Park) and there is a glorious variety to its burial places that is probably unrivalled anywhere else in the world. There are pioneer and cowboy graveyards in the western states, large Victorian garden cemeteries in the eastern, French inspired Saint Louis and Metrairie in New Orleans, Spanish colonial and Hollywood glamour in California, there is even, uniquely, an undersea cemetery at the Neptune Memorial Reef in Key Biscayne, Florida. The book features every cemetery you would expect it to, Highgate, Brookwood, Pere Lachaise, Poblenou, Recoleta, San Michele in Isola, the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Staglieno, Mount Auburn, Forest Hills but also many that you will never have heard of – the Merry Cemetery in Romania anyone?  

My photo of the cemetery do alto de Sao Joao in Lisbon, belatedly getting the space it deserves.
Loren’s book is full of fascinating insights into the places we create to house our dead. She doesn’t have much space to describe her chosen burial places but manages to produce lucid sketches in 200 or so words that evoke their history and ambience. At the very least she manages to whet the appetite to find out more which is probably the most you can hope to achieve in a whirlwind tour like this. 199 Cemeteries is a handsome volume, beautifully illustrated with at least one photo of each cemetery featured. It is well set out, easy to read, pleasing on the eye and like little Jack Horner’s pie, impossible to thumb through without pulling out a plum. If you know anyone with even a mild case of taphophilia 199 Cemeteries would make a great Christmas stocking filler.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Sometimes the one, sometimes the other - Charles de Beaumont, the Chevalier d'Éon (1728-1810), Old St Pancras burial ground

d'Eon's entry in the St Pancras burial register

The counter-examinations and declarations of the two sets of Surgeons respecting the sex of the late Chevalier d'Éon, reminds us of the examination of a well-known blockhead at Cambridge for his degrees, who, as the last question was asked, Whether the sun revolved round the Earth, the Earth round the Sun?” replied, as the Chirurgical Gentry might perhaps, with more propriety have done—“Sometimes the one, sometimes the other.”                                                                   Bristol Mirror - Saturday 02 June 1810

The body of the late Chevalier d'Éon, was privately interred within the parish church of St. Pancras, on Monday morning ; on the coffin was inscribed: - Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothe d'Éon de Beaumont, ne 17 Octobre, 1727. mort. 21 Mai  1810." The Duke of Queensbury allowed the Chevalier D'Eon an annuity of £50 to the day of his death.                                                             Lancaster Gazette - Saturday 02 June 1810

In 1913, when Havelock Ellis, the great pioneering British sexologist, turned his attention to transgender phenomena, needing a name for it but disliking the term transvestism invented by his German rival Magnus Hirschfield, he came up with the clumsy alternative sexo-aesthetic inversion. He soon realised that his 23 letter 3 word rival to transvestite was never going to catch on (“I’m just a sweet sexo-aesthetic invert, from sexo-aesthetic invertual Transylvania….” The Rocky Horror Show has a lot to thank Hirschfield for….). In 1920, casting around for a substitute, Ellis stumbled upon the details of the 18th century career of Charles Genevieve de Beaumont, the Chevalier d'Éon and came up with the much snappier Eonism.  Unfortunately transvestite was by then too well established to be dislodged even by a term coined in honour of perhaps the most celebrated cross dresser ever (except, perhaps, for James Barry).
The Chevalier as painted by Thomas Stewart

Born in 1728 in the pretty but sleepy Burgundian town of Tonnerre,  the Chevalier d'Éon was the scion of impoverished nobility, his father scraping a living as a royal official, director of the king’s dominions, and eventually becoming Mayor of the commune.  He was a bright student who was sent to study law in Paris when he was 15 and who eventually followed his father into royal service by becoming a secretary to the intendant of Paris and a royal censor of history and literature. He entered the shadowy world of Bourbon espionage, the Secret du Roi, in his late twenties and, by his own account (not always completely reliable) was sent on a clandestine mission to the Empress Elizabeth in Russia. It was during this episode that d'Éon first donned women’s clothing, disguising himself as the Lea de Beaumont and passing himself off as one of the Empress’ ladies-in-waiting. Louis XV awarded him 2000 livres for services rendered on his return to France where he temporarily hung up his petticoats and cambric frocks and instead kitted himself out in a dragoon’s uniform before setting off to fight in the seven years war. At the end of that conflict the King dispatched him to London where he helped draft the peace treaty and discovered a taste for the former enemy’s capital. A reward of 6000 livres, the Order of St Louis, the title of Chevalier and the post of chargé d'affaires at the London Embassy were d'Éon’s rewards this time. He was clearly ambitious and acted as interim ambassador when the duc de Nivernais was recalled to Paris, using the freedom from supervision to spy privately for the King. When the Comte de Guerchy was appointed as the new ambassador the humiliated d'Éon was promptly demoted to secretary.  Seething with resentment d'Éon caused endless trouble at the embassy and eventually received orders to return home.  When he refused to obey orders the British authorities were asked to extradite the stubborn secretary but they declined to involve themselves in the dispute. When the French stopped paying his salary the Chevalier retaliated by publishing reams of secret diplomatic correspondence but taking care to keep back the most damaging documents (relating to potential French invasion plans). The French suddenly became very cautious in their dealings with d'Éon even when he commenced a lawsuit against the ambassador for attempted murder. The lawsuit failed and the ambassador sued for libel; d'Éon was declared an outlaw and forced to go into hiding. Eventually the French Government reached an agreement with d'Éon, paying him a pension in return for his silence over the secret documents.

Despite strutting around town in a dragoon’s uniform it was in London that the first rumours about his true sex began to circulate, rumours quite likely started by the Chevalier himself.  18th century gentlemen loved to bet and speculation regarding the Chevaliers true sex became so rife that money started to be staked on the controversy.  Amongst others the Stock Exchange started a betting pool and the stakes were sometimes astronomical; one Da Costa bet Mr Jones £700 guineas that the Chevalier was a woman. When Da Costa felt he had sufficient evidence he demanded settlement of the bet but Wallace refused on the grounds that the evidence was unconvincing (the evidence seemed to simply be the word of other gentlemen ‘in the know’). The matter ended up in the courts where Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Mansfield, had the pleasure of hearing it. The jury found for Da Costa, effectively setting up a legal judgement that the Chevalier was indeed a woman. Lord Mansfield was unhappy with the verdict and encouraged a retrial at which he ruled that the contract for the wager was ineffective because it was not made in good faith; his issue was the matter of the Chevalier’s sex could not be resolved with a gross indecency and intrusion on his privacy. But as far as the British public were concerned d'Éon was now a woman. Astonishingly the Chevalier seemed to agree; it was from this period that he cast aside the dragoon’s uniform and started dressing and living as a woman, initially in France where he had returned in 1777 only to find himself effectively under house arrest at the family estate in Tonnerre. In France he claimed to have been born a girl and been forced by his family, who were concerned that a female heir could not inherit the estate, to pass as a male. He also claimed that the new king of France Louis XVI accepted this story but only allowed him to retain the privileges of a male if he wore women’s clothes.  One memoirist  later wrote that “the desire to see his native land once more determined him to submit to the condition, but he revenged himself by combining the long train of his gown and the three deep ruffles on his sleeves with the attitude and conversation of a grenadier, which made him very disagreeable company.”  In 1779 d'Éon published La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Éon and began petitioning to be allowed to return to England. He was only granted the right to leave France and return to London in 1785. The 1789 revolution ended d'Éon’s royal pension and he lived in straitened circumstances in England until his death ending up in debtor’s prison at least once. He earned a living by taking part in fencing tournaments dressed as a woman, a sight unusual enough to guarantee sizeable crowds of punters willing to pay for the privilege.  
"The Assault or Fencing Match which took place at Carton House on the 9th of April 1787"

In his final years  the Chevalier lived with an elderly widow, Mrs Cole, at her house in Millman Street, a thoroughfare lined with small terraced houses mainly occupied by artisans and jobbing craftsmen a short walk due south from Coram Fields and the Foundling Hospital.  The Chevalier was paralysed through illness for four years before he died on Monday 21 May 1810. Mrs Cole claimed to be astonished when she came to lay out her friends body because she had never, not even for a second, suspected that he might be a man. What she discovered on lifting the dead woman’s nightdress so disturbed her that she immediately alerted the medical fraternity. On Wednesday 23 May in the tiny bedroom of the long since demolished house a group of smartly dressed men gathered around the bed on which lay the corpse of the 83 year old French (wo)man. They were a distinguished assembly, mainly but not exclusively medical men but all ‘persons of consideration’ according to newspaper reports. The group of at least 11 persons included Francis Seymour-Conway, the Earl of Yarmouth and member of parliament for Lisburn,  Sir Sydney Smith,  wit, cleric, and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review , Marie-Vincent Talochon (‘Le père Elisée’), a 57 year old French émigré and former  surgeon to Louis XVI who had attended d'Éon in his last illness,  Mr. Wilson, a Professor of-Anatomy, Mr  Ring and Mr Burton, two respectable  surgeons,  Mr. Hoskins, a respectable solicitor, Mr. Richardson, bookseller of Cornhill, the Hon. Mr. Lyttleton, Mr. Douglas, and  a Mr Adair. Holding onto a corner of the bedclothes was an up and coming member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Thomas Copeland who had just celebrated his 29th birthday and, despite being back less than a year from Spain where he did a stint as an army surgeon during the Peninsular War, had already published the well received study Observations on some of the principal Diseases of the Rectum.  The group watched in silence as Copeland pulled back the bedclothes and then, after pausing to glance around the room, slowly exposed d'Éon thighs and pudenda.  The lifted nightgown revealed withered thighs, a rather distended belly and, nestling between them, a perfectly formed set of male genitalia. A group of well bred British gentlemen would never do anything as vulgar as gasp in astonishment and so the assembly had to content itself with conveying their surprise by the furious raising of quizzical eyebrows.   

In a signed statement about the examination appended to a drawing of d'Éon’s cock and balls Copeland later wrote “I hereby certify, that I have inspected and dissected the body of the Chevalier D'Eon, in the presence of Mr. Adair, Mr. Wilson and Le Pere Elizie and have found the male organ in every respect perfectly formed. (Signed) T. Copeland, Surgeon, Golden-square.”  It seems the medical men were not content with just outward observation of this astonishing phenomenon; it was cut and sliced open with scalpel and scissors until learned opinion was certain that they were not dealing with something that merely resembled the male sexual organs but the genuine thing. Perhaps there was some disappointment; no doubt at least a few of the company would have been hoping for something more remarkable than an old lady who turned out to be a man, at the very least a hermaphrodite. 
Charles Turner's drawing of the Chevalier's profile based on the death mask

The following day Copeland was back at Millman Street bringing with him the Professor of Anatomy at the Duke of York’s Hospital, Joseph Constantine Carpue and a draughtsman Charles Turner. While Carpue examined the old lady’s corpse Turner set about drawing the view between her flaccid thighs and also making a death mask. Turner’s final drawing shows circumcised penis and testicles intact and without the least sign of dissection.  As Copeland signed this last draught with the declaration that he had inspected and dissected the body and dated it the previous day, then Turner, for whatever reason, decided not to show this post mortem intervention of the surgeon and drew the body as he imagined it would have looked before Copeland got to work with his scalpel. Carpue added his own statement to the drawing – “In consequence of a note from the above Gentleman (Copeland) I examined the Body which was a Male. The original drawing was made by Mr C. Turner in my presence. Dean Street, Soho, May 24th 1810.” These were not the last visitors to view the Chevalier’s corpse; according to the Morning Chronicle ““the body has been inspected by nearly 80 other gentlemen”, while the Morning Herald claimed ‘hundreds’ had been to Millman Street:

The body of this extraordinary character has undergone not only the anatomical inspection of the whole faculty, hut also many hundreds of the most distinguished Curiosi of the metropolis. Strange to say, the female visitants have exceeded those of the other sex as three to one. His Highness the Duke of Gloucester, and several other persons of distinction, were among the latter. It lies in a handsome oak coffin, covered with black cloth, and a black velvet cross on the lid, at the house of Mrs. Cole, of New Millman-street, to whose benevolent kindness and attention, the Chevalier was indebted for the principal comforts of his latter days. A cast was taken from the face on Friday. It is proposed to inter the body in St. Pancras Church-yard the day after tomorrow.

On the following Monday, the 28th May, d'Éon was buried in a private plot at St Pancras, the coffin plate stating his name as the Chevalier Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont; the burial register giving his age as 81. The Morning Advertiser alleged that “some minutia of his mortal remnants are said to have been clandestinely conveyed away, to decorate the cabinets the Medical Virtuosi.” The insults to the Chevaliers memory did not end there; exactly a fortnight later the Morning Chronicle carried an outrageous advertisement announcing that a few days hence, by subscription, could be purchased a copy of the death mask of the Chevalier “also an engraving from the Original drawing of THE BODY. The Engraving, when published, will be signed by Gentlemen of the Faculty, testifying its correctness. Published and engraved by C. Turner, No. 50 Warren-street, Fitzroy-square.”

The Chevaliers grave was one of those later cleared to make way for St Pancras station and commemorated on the Burdett Coutts memorial.