Category Archives: england

London Day 4: Kensal Green Cemetery

With my fourth day in London wide open to any plans I cared to make, I naturally decided I was going to visit as many of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries as possible. The term refers to seven garden-style cemeteries established in the 19th century in London to alleviate cemetery overcrowding, and all have some haunting Victorian imagery in their statuary. I started my morning in Kensal Green Cemetery, the oldest of the Magnificent Seven, and therefore the oldest public burial ground in London, having been established in 1832.

Overgrown with moss and with walking paths of soft earth, Kensal Green is definitely atmospheric, with a heavy air over its tranquil grounds. It is located in the Kensington and Chelsea borough in West London, a short walk from the Underground on Harrow Road. Above is its mausoleum-like entrance.

The cemetery was once divided between members of the Church of England and “Dissenters,” aka people who had left that church to found their own, but the fences have now been reamoved, although there are still three separate chapels on the grounds. The most visible is the Anglican Chapel shown above, a Greek Revival structure that sits above an extensive catacomb serviced by a catafalque elevator for lowering down the coffins.

On one side of the cemetery is the Grand Union Canal; the circular metal things you can see in the background of the above photos are the gasometers that rise up on the other bank. Apparently coffins were once delivered via canal boats and you can still find the landings if you’re brave enough to walk that way.

While it wasn’t completely in shambles, Kensal Green was in some state of neglect, and I saw tombs definitely toppled by time rather than vandalism, and vines claiming large territories. But it was a tidy sort of disorder, almost like I was on a creepy cemetery film set.

Although worn down, or maybe because of that, there were plenty of beautiful examples of funerary sculpture. This sphinx was one of four guarding the grave of Andrew Ducrow, a circus performer who is considered the father of British circus equestrianism.  Originally his Egyptian-style mausoleum was painted in pastel colors, but these have faded away.

Around 250,000 people are now buried in Kensal Green, although it doesn’t appear that many of their graves are visited. Here you can see how the soft ground is tilting, and I certainly hope that whatever is below is solid enough so that no cemetery wanderers will fall through the earth…

Here is one particular mausoleum that stopped me in my tracks. As you may know, I live quite close to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and have explored it extensively and even give some tours there sometimes (I’ve leading one this Saturday!). If you read the above inscription, you’ll see: “In Loving Memory of My Beloved  Husband Imre Kiralfy: 1st Jan. 1845-27th April 1919. At rest in family mausoleum, Green-Wood New York, USA. Erected for the Interment of our children and grandchildren by Marie Kiralfy.” Okay, so leaving aside that my birthdate is his death date (not the year of course), how very bizarre to stumble upon this inscription about a place I know so well when I am so far from home. Next time I’m in Green-Wood, I definitely have to track down the Kiralfy family mausoleum. I read that Kiralfy was a rather successful producer of stage spectacles, even working on one with Thomas Edison.

This being a Victorian cemetery celebrating the “beautiful death,” there were some beautiful lady mourners in stone, including angels with solemn expressions and this lovely weeping lady, with some incredible detail to the draping of her dress, even to the bend of her knee. The bricked up mausoleum behind the angel is that of Sir Patrick O’Brien, an Irish politician. There are many notable burials in Kensal Green, but as I had arrived with no map and could not find one there, everything I saw was purely serendipitous.

This is the grave of Alexis and Elizabeth Soyer. Alexis was a chef from France who fled to England during the Revolution of 1830, where he later met and married the portrait artist Elizabeth Emma Jones. She died in 1842 during childbirth, and here she is memorialized in the ornate tomb they now share together, although Alexis died some years after.

The elaborate grave of Gen. Sir William Casement includes a Greco-Egyptian stone canopy supported by four giant figures. Beneath is sarcophagus draped in mourning.The highly decorated British Army Major General was a member of the Supreme Council of India.

The monument to John Saint John Long has a lady with a downturned face in the shadows of a column structure. John Saint John Long was something of a “quack” doctor and was even found guilty of manslaughter in the death of one of his patients, although he was acquitted of another charge. However, his former “grateful” patients paid for this ostentatious memorial. But it’s the epitaph that is really something:

It states: “It is the fate of most men to have many enemies, and a few friends. This monumental pile is not intended to mark the career, but to shew how much its inhabitant was respected by those who knew his worth and the benefits derived from his remedial discovery. He is now at rest and far beyond the praises of censures of this world. Stranger as you respect this receptacle for the dead as one of the many that will rest here, read the name of John Saint John Long without comment.”

SO THERE.

The artist William Mulready is memorialized with a statue of him in repose, miniatures of his paintings etched in the base.

General Sir Archibald Galloway KCB of the Bengal Army has both his knighted status and military acclaim eternally on view atop his grave.

Here is my nominee for creepiest grave of Kensal Cemetery, where it seems that a long gone tree that once wrapped its branches on this tombstone’s cross still is in an eternal embrace, the dry limbs coiled on the cold stone.

This area of columns seemed to be attached to a building that served as a hostel.

I read that there are tours offered by the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery that include the catacombs, which I unfortunately could not make on this trip, but would absolutely love to do sometime. I felt like I got a bit lucky in seeing some of the more interesting graves, but I feel like there is much more beneath the surface. I mean, there literally is more under its physical surface, but I really would prefer not to see too much of that, unless I can ride the catafalque.

London Day 3: Dennis Severs’ House

It was raining when I arrived for my evening visit to Dennis Severs’ House, and ringing the bell at the dark door I was greeted by the friendly overseer of the house and my eyes then started to adjust to candle light. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of this London house in Spitalfields that was set up as a “living painting” by the late artist Dennis Severs, as photographs I’d seen online made it look like any other carefully preserved historic home. Yet this was all built by one man over 20 years, from 1979 to 1999,  while he lived in and laid out the meticulous rooms, capturing different time periods in an effort not to celebrate the beauty of single things, but a build a tableau vivante that you moved through as much with your imagination as your body.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

Although Severs was born in California, he was drawn to London by the “English light,” and the house he has left behind feels like its creator has only just left, and that its fictitious Jervis family has also only momentarily stepped out from the rooms. Fresh fruit rests on tables, fire crackles from inviting hearths, there is the soft mumble of voices around corners, the words difficult to catch. You feel like you may be intruding on the lives of the people who have placed the flowers in vases and left their food half consumed. Only a few visitors are permitted to enter the house at a time, so you go through much of it alone, with no phones or photographs allowed. While visits are offered in daylight, I really recommend going to the house once the sun has set and the flicker of candles softly lights the way.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The structure of the house dates to 1724, and the Jervis family is meant to have lived there from 1725 to 1910. You follow their family through wealth and misfortune, eras captured by the tone and emotion of each room. It may be odd to say that there is emotion in the spaces empty except for you the visitor, but there is something entrancing that’s difficult to describe that comes from the combination of the natural, yet deliberate, arrangement and choice of furniture, along with the subtle sounds, and smells that place you in a moment. The motto of the house is “Aut Visum Aut Non!,” or “You either see it or you don’t,” but I think it would have been more accurate as “You either feel it or you don’t.” I liked the notes left by Severs around the house that emphasized this, harassing you about looking at objects instead of the big picture and telling you to “pay attention!”.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The visit starts in the basement, which was quite dark, and then you move up through salons and sitting rooms, bedrooms and parlors. Some are the realms of a particular family member, others capture a moment in their story, such as a ladies’ party that has a chaotic edge with tipped over tea cups and a pastry stabbed through with a fire poker while a clock wildly chimes a frantic hour.  In another you walk by an unmade bed, and make small connections between the woman in the portrait and the clothing that has been arranged just beyond. All the details are suddenly part of a larger world, the objects are belongings, the rooms breathing with these people. I got so lost in the place that it was a shock to suddenly be at the top floor and stand in a room in ruins, the family’s fortune gone with the turn in the economy, the once lavish furnishings in tatters.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

I highly recommend a visit to the Dennis Severs’ House, as it is now one of my favorite places in London. Less a historic time capsule, it is more akin to something like the immersive theatre experience Sleep No More, where you are transported through all senses to another world. Yet unlike that experience which relies much on human interaction and dance, here you are left with your own mind to absorb and decipher the intense details and pull them into a complete work of art, a still-life painting where you are able to move through the brushstrokes.

London Day 3: A Walk Along the Thames and Further

The evening I returned to London from Manchester, after a short rest following my visit to the Wellcome Collection, I took a long walk along the Thames to the Dennis Severs’ House, an immersive, living painting of sorts. Yes, if you are looking at a map from the Victoria Station area to the Dennis Severs’ House, this is quite a long journey, but I prefer to spend most of my time above ground while traveling and sacrifice my shoes to the streets. The Thames is a particularly interesting walk, with plenty of nautical touches, like this fish lamp (or dolphins?), as well as some other interesting sights.

There were some great iron benches supported by sphinxes and camels, all with views of the south bank of the Thames, where the London Eye turned and the Tate Modern loomed.

There are a couple of large sphinxes guarding a large obelisk, which, like the one in Central Park in New York, is called the Cleopatra’s Needle. It was a gift in 1819 from the then-ruler of Egypt to commemorate British victories in Egypt. However, it wasn’t moved to London until 1877, although the boat on which it was traveling faced some tumultuous seas and nearly capsized. It was finally put in its place in 1878. Beneath it was placed a time capsule which had a ridiculous list of items that I just have to quote here from Wikipedia: “A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3′ bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.”

There were many interesting monuments along the Thames, the names of which I unfortunately did not note. I especially liked all the tiny anchors on a wall with this woman hold a mirror.

Here is another creature that caught my eye along the Thames. There were actually quite a few of these dancing dragons around the city. You might recognize them from the crest of the City of London.

Eventually, my path to Dennis Severs’ House brought me back into the streets of London, where I found myself below St. Paul’s Cathedral. Adjacent, I saw this statue of a woman with a skull by her foot on the St. Lawrence Fountain, a Victorian structure that was actually dismantled over 40 years ago before being restored in the 2000s.

I then walked up by the London Stock Exchange, and noticed this curious detail on a building of four hands grasping at a point. A symbol of unity, I’m sure, and I like how the character of each of the hands makes them represent and individual person.

Here was another symbol on a nearby door, even less subtle with a sheep in a sunburst, no doubt on the door of a religious household.

It began to rain, and even though I’d walked quite a ways, I found myself in the neighborhood early, so I took a short jaunt by the Spitalfield’s Market to see some street art. This whimsical monster was my favorite.

Here is some more delightful graffiti, although a little more scary than the whimsy monster.

Finally, it was time to go to Dennis Severs’ House…. TO BE CONTINUED