THE STORY OF LONDON’S ELYSIAN FIELDS
By ANDREW GOUGH
Part 1: Dancing with Death
It was the darkest of days and a time when plagues crept unbridled, like a shadow of death, and the blessed died quickly. From Mongolia to China and across the Middle East it spread. In Italy the surviving faithful feared the end of the world was nigh. It swept through France at an alarming rate and, in 1348, the Black Death arrived in England with a vengeance. The country was devastated and in London, where many families lived in vile, rat-infested rookeries alongside cattle, pigs and assorted rodents, the outbreak rendered the city a wasteland virtually overnight.
London was a cesspit for disease and there was simply no containing the carnage. As the death rate soared, cemeteries could no longer accommodate the bodies and consecrated ground was scarce. A new cemetery was created, aptly named No-Man’s Land, and then another, and still another, but to no avail. Most cemeteries could not keep up with the hundreds upon thousands of plague victims, and those that did simply became dumping grounds for disease-infested corpses. London was decimated, Parliament was suspended and life was forever transformed by a notion that had long preceded this particular plague; memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember you must die”.
Rich and poor, man, woman and child, it made no difference; over 25 million people died in the worst epidemic in human history. The plague was cataclysmic and those who survived it dealt with the devastation as best they could, often in a philosophical manner. The emotional aftermath was palpable and spawned a variety of traditions, such as the 1347 nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around the Rosy’, which referred to the red rash experienced by plague victims, and was not the innocent children’s song, and dance, practised today.
The after-effects of the plague were characterised by a renewed appreciation for life. A curious obsession with one’s inevitable fate emerged, giving rise to the Danse Macabre, an ode to death, preserved in dance, theatre and art. The essence of the custom is the belief that we are all equal in death’s eyes and that it mocks our blissful preoccupation with the mundane and, ultimately, our fear of departing the realm of the living. The Danse Macabre was performed by ensembles of all sorts, including clergymen, whose provocative performances featured dramatic antics to instil fear into the masses. The theatrical ritual was known as the ‘mother of all dances’ and was held in Europe’s most acclaimed cathedrals and cemeteries, usually after mass, with participants often paid in wine. Similarly, small groups of Danse Macabre performance artists toured the countryside, preaching that death was omnipresent and could appear unannounced at any moment. It is worth noting that the word Macabre appears to recall a reference to the Maccabees, the ancient Jewish martyrs who are associated with reverence for the dead.
The Danse Macabre was intended to motivate parishioners to repent through fear and intimidation, thus allowing the church to exert further control. Its ecclesiastical origins are complicated and far darker than they first appear, for they are rooted in the powerful Penitent Orders, Brotherhoods and Guilds that manipulated the ‘underground stream’ across Europe. In fact, the tradition of the Danse Macabre predated the Black Death by hundreds and, arguably, even thousands of years and was practised in centres of worship revered by the peculiar societies, suggesting that various Orders may have exploited the plague as an opportunity to further their cause, spiritually, politically and financially.
The Dance of Death was popular across Europe, especially in Germany, where it may have originated, and in Denmark, Italy, Spain and Scotland, where images of the tradition are preserved in the Lady Chapel of Rosslyn Chapel. It was also popular in London, where St Paul’s cathedral contained a cloister with images of the Danse Macabre that had been translated from the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris by the monk, John Lydgate, who had travelled to Paris in 1426. Slight variations exist in the texts that accompanied the images, but, for the most part, each began with the phrase, ‘O creature roysonnable’, or ‘Oh rational creature’, and is followed by an opening verse, roughly translated as:
“…who desires eternal life. Here you have wisdom, worth noting; to properly end your mortal life. It’s called the dance of death, which everyone will learn to dance. For man and woman it’s natural, Death spares neither small nor great. In this mirror everyone can read that he will dance likewise. Sage is he who mirrors himself well. Death makes the living advance, You will see the greatest begin for there is nobody whom Death does not vanquish. It’s a pitiable thing to consider. All are forged out of the same material.”
With respect to the Dance of Death tradition at St Paul’s, a 1548 survey reported: “About this Cloyster was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonly called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloister at Paris in frāce.” Sadly, in 1549, Edward Seymour, the first Duke of Somerset and older brother to Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, ordered the chapel and its cloisters to be destroyed and London’s memorial to the Dance of Death was no more. Befittingly, Seymour was executed for treason at Tower Hill on 22 January 1552.
Art and literature echoed society’s obsession with death and the image of a solitary skull became the symbol ‘du jour’ for the frailty of life. Nowhere was the theme better encapsulated than in the painting, Et in Arcadia Ego (circa 1625), meaning “Even in Arcadia, I hold sway”, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also known as Guercino. The painting, which depicts two men quizzically examining a skull, with a mouse exploring the right cheekbone and a bee on its cranium, and another unidentified object in the tree behind it, inspired a generation and served as a fine example of a medieval memento mori.
Mice are common symbols of both death and the divine, and in the oldest Hindu scriptures they were used by Ganesha, Lord of Beginnings, as the ‘vehicle’ for his last incarnation. Bees are also renowned for their regenerative qualities and their symbolism can be found in cultures of all epochs. Curiously, the bee rests on the left side of the brain, which produces analytical thought, and on a spot known as the thalamus, whose function relates to states of consciousness. The sound of bees humming is frequently heard during changes in consciousness, such as near death experiences, apparitions, alleged UFO abductions and even yoga. A decade later Nicolas Poussin produced his first rendition of Guercino’s painting and included the image of a skull in an idyllic setting as a symbol of death’s unexpected presence in the abode of everyday life.
In the late 1630’s Poussin painted a second version of the painting, this time without the skull, yet, unlike the first painting, the tomb is intrinsically in harmony with the landscape and the shepherds appear more reflective and less surprised to have discovered death in Arcadia. Poussin’s biographer, his friend, Gian Pietro Bellori, confirms that the painting is an example of a memento mori when he explains that the meaning of the painting is: “Death occurs in the very midst of delight”.
Poussin is thought by many to have been one of the greatest initiates of his time. He was believed to have known secrets that even kings did not possess. It is likely that his work was known to the English poet, John Milton, who in 1667 published the epic Paradise Lost. Notably, the ending of the poem reinforces a theme that Poussin had championed decades earlier; that is, that harmony exists, even in death, but especially if one is buried amidst nature, in a garden. Milton, like Poussin and Guercino before him, had foreshadowed the synthesis of death and landscape that would so characterise nineteenth century art and architecture:
“The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.”
There is little doubt that Milton drew upon a multitude of sources and the timing of Paradise Lost was nothing if not sublime, for England had just been consumed by the Dance of Death once more.
Europe had survived many devastating epidemics, yet London’s Great Plague of 1665 was one of the worst. Unlike prior plagues, we are left with vivid accounts of the outbreak, including grisly details of its aftermath. Samuel Pepys lived through it and noted: “It is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near ten thousand, partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.” Despite the creation of plague pits, burying the dead was more problematic than ever and many who were merely suspected of being infected were buried alive, simply as a precaution. As if the devastation of another plague was not enough to break London’s spirit, the following year the city was laid waste by fire, leaving seventy percent of its buildings in ruins.
Out of the ashes, quite literally, came Christopher Wren. London’s proverbial phoenix rising was an accomplished Freemason and architect who was bestowed with the responsibility of rebuilding St Paul’s and, in the process, of restoring the lost grandeur of one of the world’s greatest cities. Wren was important for another reason. He understood the need to relocate London’s cemeteries outside the city. Not only was he painfully aware of the disease that accompanied urban burials, but he had witnessed the structural damage that overcrowded cemeteries were having on the foundations of London’s churches. Sadly, Wren did not live to see his vision realised, for his proposal for rural cemeteries was rejected by the Corporation of London and would only be achieved several generations later. Ironically, Wren’s burial was the product of the custom he had sought to abolish. He was laid to rest in consecrated ground in the basement of St Paul’s cathedral, the New Jerusalem he had dedicated his life to rebuilding. Miraculously, within 50 years of Wren’s death, London was the largest city in Europe. Hope sprang eternal and a new Arcadian era was dawning.
The Power of the Pyramid
As the 18th century approached, everyday life returned to normal. London was restored and the quality of existence was continually improving. The new-found prosperity afforded many an opportunity to ascend the pyramid of needs that would so eloquently become institutionalised by the 20th-century psychologist, Abraham Maslow. Indeed, Maslow’s use of a pyramid to depict man’s ascent through a hierarchy of five levels of ‘being’ is likely to have been inspired by life during this era.
Basic needs of survival, essentials like food and warmth, existed in the bottom tier of Maslow’s pyramid, while the top tier was about morality and creativity, which he termed ‘self actualisation’. The characteristics of Maslow’s top pyramid level mirror the Benben stone of Egyptian mythology, the capstone of Egyptian pyramids, named after the mound of creation and a sacred stone that was worshipped in the solar temple in Heliopolis, representing the spot where the first rays of sun fell on the enlightened. Serendipitously, the pyramid would prove to be the quintessential shape of the new Arcadian age; the period of enlightenment that commenced in the early 1700’s and lasted through to the end of the Victorian era, circa 1900. It was an age characterised by a fascination with death, inspired by plagues, fires and famine. It was also a time that saw England and France uncharacteristically express admiration for each other’s artistic vision.
At Castle Howard, a magnificent stately home in the North of England, a new breed of landscape was fashioned that featured an innovative architectural element called a folly; a peculiar, historically stylised building set precariously in the landscape that exists for the sole purpose of provoking thought and providing decoration. The follies at Castle Howard included a mausoleum, a temple of the four winds, and a commemorative pyramid, built in 1728 by the esteemed architect and student of Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, a craftsman who was fond of pyramid and obelisk shapes and frequently incorporated them into his designs. The otherwise hollow pyramid contained a colossal bust of Lord William Howard, descendant of Lady Godiva, the legendary Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry in protest of the taxes levied by her husband.
According to a 1733 poem written by the daughter of the estate, entitled Castle Howard, the landscape had been developed as homage to the lost Golden Age of man. It also stipulated that the artistic intent of the design was to create an Elysian Fields; the final resting place of the souls of the beloved departed in Greek mythology. The Greek word (elysion) has been attributed to an Egyptian root (iaru) meaning “reed fields”, or an Arcadian landscape where the dead, especially the souls of the heroic and virtuous, spent eternity. The romantic notion has been embraced by literature of all ages, such as Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which dedicates Canto IV to the notion of Elysian Fields; a limbo where souls contemplate their past lives.
Castle Howard was greatly admired, as were the Elysian Fields at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, a stunning 1730’s landscape that would influence French design more than any other. Here, various follies and political allegories were featured, along with a strong commemorative theme. The English politician and writer, Thomas Whatley, was an admirer of Stowe’s Elysian Fields and wrote about them in an influential 1770 journal. The following year his review was translated into French by the philanthropist, François-de-Paule Latapie, and Stowe’s ‘graves in the garden’ design was enthusiastically embraced by Parisian society. Not surprisingly, the French would soon improve upon the English designs.
Unlike London, Paris had a history of burying its dead outside the city. However, as Christianity grew in popularity, burials in consecrated church grounds became the norm and churches moved closer to the city centre. Before long, cemeteries in Paris were overcrowded and rife with disease, especially the Cemetery of the Innocents, whose church contained images of the Danse Macabre. Like so many inner city cemeteries, the Cemetery of the Innocentsbegan as a resting place for individual sepulchres, but by the 12th century it was nothing more than a mass grave. Coffin burials were a charade and trap doors dropped the body of the deceased into a pit, out of view from loved ones. Each had a capacity of roughly 1,500 bodies and, when full, another was opened adjacent to it; the bones of the oldest pit were moved to the charniers (charnel houses) for storing. There was, however, a darker element to the business of managing the dead, and the shadowy practices associated with it are hinted at in a fascinating and anonymous print that appears in a collection by Anne Lombard-Jourdan, a scholar, who coincidentally had traced the national symbol of France, the fleur-de-lis, to a transformation of the Merovingian crista, or a symbol of the rising sun. The collection was called Paris, Genèse de la “Ville” and included a portrait of daily life in the Cemetery of the Innocents in around 1565.
The Cemetery of the Innocents was supervised by the Confraternity of Butcher Penitents, and the central image in Lombard-Jourdan’s collection depicts a burial with hooded penitents collecting money for a ritual. The viewer’s left-hand side of the portrait shows a body being exhumed, and then skinned, with its head & bones collected for the charniers that run the length of the cemetery.
Guilds were powerful societies dedicated to the betterment of a particular trade, and Guildhalls, their meeting places, were established in cities, large and small, around the world. In Paris there were over 100 Guilds and most were associated with penitent confraternities of one sort or another. Death was big business, and the Butchers’ Guild in Paris oversaw the Cemetery of the Innocents, which adjoined a bustling market place.
The Chronicle of Dino Compagni, a 13th century Italian historical writer, confirmed that the Butchers’ Guild was considered the ‘most scandalous’ of all Guilds. All we know for certain is that they appear to have been a serious and self-regulating group. One account recalls a butcher who required two witnesses to confirm that the animal, whose meat he was selling, had been alive as it entered the city. Failure to do so carried heavy consequences. The 1911 book, The Guilds of the City of London and their Liverymen, states, in reference to the Butchers’ Guild, that “the trade represented by this Company is older than even civilisation”. The Butchers’ Guild adopted St Luke, known for penitence and atonement, as its patron Saint, and this association is affirmed in Luke 15:7: “I say unto you that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” Luke’s proclamation recalls the notion of Purgatory, or a realm that exists after death, where the soul is purified and made ready for heaven by undergoing temporary punishment; an ancient concept that was accepted as doctrine in the 13th century.
Soliciting money for the care of the soul in the afterlife appears to have been big business. Some believe it still is. The belief that ritual could alter the fate of an individual’s fortune in the next world, regardless of the virtues exhibited in life, was a source of considerable income to the penitent brotherhoods who administered the ritual. Orders such as these exist today, as they have for hundreds and even thousands of years. In France they are called La Sanch, meaning The Blood, and in Perpignan, where they have their headquarters, hooded penitents, dressed in theatrical regalia, process through the city each Easter, as they do across France and Spain and other European countries. Vincent Ferrer, a Valencian Dominican missionary, who was born in the aftermath of the Black Death (circa 1350), was the Order’s founder. Ferrer gave lectures about the end of the world across Europe and is believed to have used manipulative tactics, such as the Danse Macabre, when disseminating his message.
Curiously, the annual La Sanch Easter procession in Perpignan goes out of its way to pass by the local butcher’s shop, which acknowledges the pageant by displaying ‘Hal Hal’ in its front window. Whether the gesture is a coincidence or an explicit reference to the Butchers’ Guild, plague inspired the resurgence of the Danse Macabre, which was unveiled at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris in 1425, just in time for Easter. As France was a devoted Christian country, most would have abstained from eating meat during Lent, the symbolic period of 40 days from Palm Sunday until Easter, observed by penitence and self-denial; traits of the Penitent Confraternities. As Lent came to an end, butchers would once again be employed and the conventional French Easter feast of lamb would have been served.
The Church of the Holy Innocents, and Cemetery, remained at the heart of Paris’s underground esoteric stream for hundreds of years and the French alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, was associated with the institution in a rather peculiar way. Flamel died in 1418, although many believe that his empty grave and the peculiar tombstone symbolism indicate that he lived on. The alchemist was said to have discovered the so-called Philosopher’s Stone on 17 January 1381, a few years after discovering a peculiar 21-page book and travelling to Spain in around 1378 to receive assistance in translating its many arcane symbols. On his way back Flamel claims to have come across a sage, who informed him that the book was actually a copy of the Book of Abraham the Mage.
Many believe that Flamel’s sensational account lacks authenticity and veils the truth about his true position. Those who have studied the intricate politics of the day believe his movements to more closely resemble those of a banker than an alchemist. Then there is his allegiance to the Culte des Morts, in the form of the Butchers’ Guild, an organisation with strong Burgundian connections. Supporting the assertion that Flamel is not what he claimed, A E Waite writes in his book, The Doctrine of Transcendental Magic, that: “There is a very strong feeling on the part of scholarship that the Flamel legend is a comparatively late invention”.
In 1613, an alchemical book attributed to Flamel was published by the name of Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, and featured symbols that Flamel had commissioned for the Church of the Holy Innocents and Cemetery in Paris, over two hundred years earlier. Flamel writes: “I and my wife have given that Arch…Placed by me Nicholas Flammel, Scrivener, in the Church yard of the Innocents, in the fourth Arch, entering by the great gate of St. Dennis Street, and taking the way on the right hand.’
The carvings on the arch at the Cemetery of the Innocents have long since disappeared, but drawings of them reveal that they resemble the symbols on Flamel’s home. The oldest house in Paris, Flamel’s residence is more likely to have been a retirement home for members of the Butchers’ Guild, and this is confirmed by the images that remain on the residence to this day.
The Cemetery of the Innocents was not only at the centre of Europe’s underground stream, it was also the focal point of the Parisian social scene. In the 1530’s, the anatomist and physician, Andreas Vesalius, studied the bones in the cemetery, enabling him to author one of the most influential books ever written on human anatomy, On the Workings of the Human Body. A few years later, in 1550, the Fountain of the Nymphs was created in the style of the French Renaissance, and placed against the cemetery walls on the site of an earlier fountain, dating from the reign of Philip II of France. The stunning structure was commissioned to commemorate King Henry II’s arrival in Paris in 1549.
With the closure of the Cemetery of the Innocents and its transformation into a vibrant market square, known as the Marché des Innocents, the Fountain of the Nymphs was moved around the square and modified several times. Today, it is known as the Fountain of the Innocents, the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and an early prototype of the follies that would follow. The exquisite structure is the remaining testament to one of the most amazing cemeteries the world has ever known.
With the Cemetery of the Innocents (and others) overflowing with bodies, the fear of plague was constant. The solution, however, was simple, albeit ingenious: relocate the remains of the overcrowded cemeteries, which had quite literally begun to explode through the walls of neighbouring businesses (leaving powerful local merchants irate), to the abandoned quarries beneath the city, near Montparnasse. The transfer of bones to the catacombs, as the quarries are known today, commenced in 1785. The Church of the Holy Innocents was soon destroyed and the catacombs ‘officially’ opened on 7 April 1786, two days after the feast day of Saint Vincent Ferrer, founder of the Order of La Sanch, whose death rituals and exploitative use of the Danse Macabre is recalled, as we have seen, in the order’s present-day incarnations.
The Paris catacombs provided a sanitary repository for the remains of the dead, whose bones were arranged by cemetery, and the primordial darkness of the oppressive underground chambers provided the perfect setting for an underworld realm that separated the dead from the living. The subterranean necropolis is much celebrated and has been featured in many works of literature, including Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, Foucault’s Pendulum, which portrays the catacombs as the hiding place of a parchment belonging to the Knights Templar.
Paris’s subterranean sanctuary was only part of the remedy. New cemeteries were required to accommodate the recently departed and it was imperative that they be located on the outskirts of the city once more. Governing bodies were established and new standards were created to ensure that a design ethos consistent with the Elysian Fields of England’s Stowe and Castle Howard gardens was employed. In 1793, France set out to ban the use of religious symbols in cemeteries altogether. Tombs were to be placed near trees and inscribed with the phrase “Death is an eternal sleep”. A few years later, Napoleon I, Emperor of France, established a decree on burial standards and cemetery construction and, in 1804, chartered the construction of the grandest of testaments to the Elysian Fields: Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, the modern standard of Arcadian splendour.
Père Lachaise Cemetery was named after Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), the father confessor to the Sun King, Louis XIV, King of France. He studied in the French esoteric centre of Lyon and was later appointed to his esteemed role in the King’s court. François de la Chaise was a Jesuit and lived in the Order’s residence on the site of the chapel. De la Chaise was known to possess a curious trait; on more than one occasion he was said to have claimed to be ill on one day in particular, thus rendering his services unavailable to the King. That day was Easter Sunday, the day that the Danse Macabre was remembered by cults of the dead across Europe.
A curious footnote is that the Sun King’s Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet, was a trusted confidant of the painter Nicholas Poussin. Fouquet was alleged to have been the real king of France and one of the most influential men in the world. His brother Charles was archbishop of Narbonne, a city in the South of France not far from Perpignan, where the Penitent Order La Sanch is based. He and his mother were members of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, an alleged component of the shadowy organisation known as the Priory of Sion. In 1656, Fouquet dispatched his brother Louis, a priest, to Rome and soon received a most peculiar letter from him that recounted the testimony to Poussin’s status of an initiate.
“He and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail – things which will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible that nobody else will ever discover in the centuries to come. And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on this earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.”
We may never know what secrets Poussin possessed, but what is interesting is that Louis XIV had Nicolas Fouquet arrested in 1661 on rather dubious charges. The trial lasted three years and resulted in Fouquet being sentenced to life imprisonment. Many believe Fouquet was the character portrayed in the historical account of The Man in the Iron Mask. Louis XIV, who is said to have obsessively examined Fouquet’s private papers, acquired a copy of Nicolas Poussin’s Shepherds of Arcadia and, for reasons unknown, is said to have studied it in the security of his private study.
In the twenty or so years preceding the creation of Père Lachaise Cemetery French artists competed for the Grand Prix of design for the cemetery of the future. Their entries were bold and visionary and included a pronounced Egyptian motif, in part inspired by Castle Howard and Stowe and a number of similar designs in Rome and, of course, in Paris. This was before Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and, while the radical elements of design for cemeteries of the future were never fully implemented, some core elements, such as pyramids, fake doors, obelisks and winged serpents, were included. In fact, influential French architects of the day endorsed the design by stating that every cemetery should have “a large pyramid of a rustic order”. Père Lachaise was the first to adopt the new design ethos and featured a plethora of splendid pyramid designs.
In 1804 Napoleon awarded the esteemed French architect, Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, the commission to design Père Lachaise. Brongniart was the perfect man for the job and his ambitions were inspired by his good friend, Jean-Antoine Houdon, the most accomplished sculptor of his day. As a member of the influential Parisian Nine Sisters Lodge, which was instrumental in organising French support for the American Revolution, Houdon was renowned for producing busts of Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Molière, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Louis XVI , Robert Fulton and Napoleon Bonaparte. Busts and sculptures at Père Lachaise are clearly influenced by his brilliance.
Napoleon was delighted with Brongniart’s Père Lachaise design and awarded him the commission to construct Paris’s new stock exchange. Nevertheless, Père Lachaise cemetery opened to mixed reviews, due to the fact that it was located further from the city centre than Parisians would have liked. As a result, in 1804, shortly after it opened, Napoleon introduced a clever marketing strategy that consisted of relocating the remains of popular French figures to the new cemetery. The strategy worked and, within a few years, Père Lachaise increased its residency from under 50 to more than 33,000. Today there are over 300,000 bodies buried across its 105 acres, including notables such as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf. In a relatively short time Père Lachaise had become all that its advocates had hoped, and more.
The monuments of Père Lachaise were inspired by thousands of years of history, with images such as pyramids, tombs and other archetypes sublimely juxtaposed with their pastoral setting. Elements of the Danse Macabre are found in the statues of the Grim Reaper, as well as more peculiar symbolism, such as owls, bees, pine cones, winged hearts, draped urns and wreaths, each of which, in one manner or another, represents the wisdom of the ages and eternity. Everywhere memento mori is echoed in tombs with sculptures of penitent Magdalene statues, unfinished pillars, and inverted flames representing a life extinguished too soon. If sculptures such as these were featured in museums they would be considered priceless masterpieces. Instead, they are largely ignored, weathered and left to rot, like the deceased they so eloquently commemorate.
Part 2: London’s Elysian Fields
The impact of Père Lachaise was felt around the world, much like the plagues that inspired its design and necessitated its creation. Inspired by this French masterpiece, the United States followed suit in 1831 with Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the first real, rural graveyard in the county, the cemetery provided a perfect balance of nature, remembrance and eternal sleep. In England, Liverpool introduced Low Hill General Cemetery in 1825 and in 1832 Scotland unveiled the stunningly gothic Glasgow Necropolis, which remains one of the most spectacular cemeteries in the world. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the Glasgow Necropolis drew from the dramatic designs of Père Lachaise, while introducing elements all its own.
Pre-Victorian England was a melting pot for characters of all walks of life, such as Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an eclectic Venetian, whose career can be summarised as ‘circus man turned Egyptian tomb raider’. Belzoni travelled extensively and in 1813 fled to England to avoid imprisonment. In 1815 he journeyed to Malta to showcase his newly developed hydraulic lifting machine, which he hoped to use to raise the waters of the river Nile in Egypt. Although Belzoni’s proposal was never adopted, he was commissioned by Henry Salt, the British consul to Egypt, to apply his innovative machine to the business of relic removal, in Luxor. Much to the horror of bona fide archeologists, Belzoni and his 130 men spent 17 days dragging the ‘Young Memnon’ bust of Rameses II from the Ramesseum in Thebes to the River Nile. Within a few weeks the gigantic statue arrived at the British Museum, where it was heralded as a remarkable achievement. Belzoni’s spoils were featured in an exhibition in 1821 and Londoners were enthralled. It was not only the French who were obsessed with all things Egyptian, but the English too.
The great cholera epidemic arrived in Europe in 1831, and although largely confined to London and Paris, it underscored the need for Londoners to progress what Christopher Wren had suggested nearly 15 decades earlier: move London’s cemeteries outside the city. Each cemetery was to be privately funded and have its own act of Parliament and each was placed at a necessary distance from the centre of the city in a rural landscape, fitting for a Victorian era obsessed with melancholy, nature and death.
A governing body was established and designs for London’s new-era cemetery were underway. Unlike Castle Howard and Stowe, which merely hinted at the synthesis of nature and death, London’s vision for a series of evocative fields of rest surrounding its urban residents in a commemorative circle was its Elysian Fields on a scale not seen before or since. England’s architects were inspired by Père Lachaise, but Belzoni’s Egyptian booty had ignited their fire, and perhaps none more so than Thomas Willson, who proposed a gargantuan, 15-acre pyramid-shaped mausoleum be built on Primrose Hill, North London.
One would think that Willson was competing for the Grand Prix himself when he submitted his plans for a granite-faced pyramid with over 5 million beehive-shaped combs spanning 94 tiers, complete with veneration shafts and four entrances. Willson’s design, which would have dwarfed St Paul’s in size and austerity, was, in the end, rejected. He was, however, forgiven his boldness, for the bee and its hive have represented regeneration for thousands of years. In fact, Napoleon, who commissioned Père Lachaise, was nicknamed ‘The Bee’, and, in France, the shape of the country is thought to represent a 6-sided honeycomb. The Fleur de Lys was understood to have been a stylised bee, not a lily, and Childeric, the most famous of the ancient French kings, was found buried with golden bees in his tomb. Napoleon had just returned from Egypt and the region where he fought the Battle of the Nile was known as ‘The Bee’. In Egypt the pharaoh’s cartouche contained an image of a bee and he carried the office of ‘beekeeper’. The mythology of the bee would not have been lost on the designers of the day.
While Willson’s pyramid necropolis never evolved from the drawing board it was conceived on, there was appreciation for his vision. In 1830 London’s General Cemetery Company was founded, at the insistence of a local barrister, George Carden, who had lobbied for cemetery reform since the 1820’s. Willson and the gothic revivalist, Augustus Pugin, were duly appointed architects of London’s first Elysian Fields, Kensal Green. Sadly, Willson’s propensity for bold ideas ultimately led to his dismissal and a contest was held for the commission; a gothic designer by the name of Henry Kendall was awarded first place, only to be replaced with the more palatable classical artist, John Griffith. Contention and controversy of this sort were common, as competition for design work in London’s Elysian Fields was taken very seriously.
London’s Kensal Green was but one of seven Elysian Fields, each inspired by Père Lachaise: Kensal Green (1833), Norwood (1837), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Brompton (1840), Nunhead (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841). Their existence was premeditated by the 1836 Act of Parliament, ‘for establishing cemeteries for the interment of the dead, northward, southward and eastward of the metropolis’ built by the London Cemetery Company (LCC). The reason that the Act of Parliament did not mention ‘westward’ was because Kensal Green was already in existence at the time. The LCC was founded by Stephen Geary, who would direct the design of three of London’s Elysian Fields, including Highgate Cemetery. London’s Elysian Fields form a circle around the city, symbolising protection, unity and eternity. Serendipitously, a microcosm of this symbolism can be found in each of London’s Elysian Fields, but perhaps most poignantly in Père Lachaise, where a snake eating its own tail represents eternity.
As noted, Kensal Green cemetery in West London was the first of London’s Elysian Fields and opened in 1833 with considerable fanfare. From the start it was apparent that its designers had paid great attention to detail; the left-hand road of the cemetery led to the tombs of “Turks, Jews, infidels and heretics”, while the right-hand road led to consecrated graves. Despite the segregated nature of the layout, which was considered perfectly acceptable, if not desirable at the time, the cemetery was deemed a great success. Kensal Green also incorporated catacombs into its design, no doubt inspired by the success in Paris, and befitting of London’s first, Père Lachaise-inspired, field of rest.
London’s Elysian Fields owe much to another figure, and one who is tied to Kensal Green in a rather ironic way: John Claudius Loudon, an outspoken Scotsman, botanist and editor of a popular gardening magazine. Like many young men, Loudon embarked on the Grand Tour and learned of the intrinsic value of gardens in the schema of high society. In 1830 he reviewed The Mummy!, a book by an anonymous author. He eventually met the author, who revealed herself to be Jane Webb, an early pioneer of the science fiction genre. They married and her Egyptian-influenced novel, set in 2126 AD, would influence her husband’s work on London’s Elysian Fields for years to come. In 1843 Loudon published his own book, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries: and on the Improvement of Churchyards, and in the process established the standard for cemetery design that is still practised today. Ironically, Loudon is buried in the grounds of Kensal Green’s stunning 72-acre park; a cemetery he was critical of, but which inspired him to greatness.
In 1837, four years after the creation of an Elysian Fields at Kensal Green, West Norwood Cemetery opened on a haunting 40-acre estate, just south of the city. Although its chapels are badly eroded and damaged from World War II bomb attacks, what is left of West Norwood’s stunning gothic design stands testament to a time when design and layout were paramount. Buried within its confines are famous entrepreneurs, and sports figures, such as cricketers and prize fighters, as well London’s most accomplished composers, surgeons and writers, including Sophia Poole, whose book, Englishwoman in Egypt, rode the crest of England’s wave of fascination with the mysterious land of the ancients.
A couple of years later, in 1839, the most popular, and certainly the most renowned, of London’s Elysian Fields opened north of the city, in the hill-top village of Highgate. The cemetery is perhaps Britain’s best example of a Victorian Valhalla and owes more to Père Lachaise than any other, complete with catacombs and famous residents, such as Karl Marx and, most recently, Malcolm McLaren, the iconic grandfather of punk music and manager of the legendary band, the Sex Pistols. Time will tell if McLaren’s grave becomes the focus of pilgrimage, like Jim Morrison’s tomb has in Père Lachaise, but one thing is certain: the cemetery has attracted more than its share of eccentrics over the years.
In addition to having been a favourite film set for vintage Hammer Horror movies, the cemetery has suffered repeated vandalism over the years by the likes of Satanists, necromancy cults and vampire hunters. The mother of Bram Stoker, author of the horror classic, Dracula, lived nearby and often recounted the legend of a tall, dark, supernatural-looking figure that roamed the area before the cemetery was created. There have been many vampire sightings in and around Highgate Cemetery and a local priest is said to have tracked it down and killed it in the early 1980’s, complete with a stake to the heart. Recent reports claim that the vampire or (according to the President of the British Occult Society) an entity, conjured by Satanists, and which has been mistaken for a vampire in the past, has recently returned. Whatever the truth may be, Highgate Cemetery does not require legends of vampires in order to be mysterious, evocative and grandiose; it is one of the most magical and mythical fields of rest in existence.
The construction of Highgate Cemetery was followed within a year by Abney Park Cemetery and, in 1840, the north London village of Stoke Newington opened its gothic gates to the public for the first time. By design, Abney Park Cemetery, like the others, was more than just a cemetery. It was, and remains, a remarkable achievement in landscape design and a synthesis of Arcadian themes, influences and symbols, reaching back thousands of years. Abney Park Cemetery is also the foremost burial ground for Dissenters in London, replacing London’s Bunhill Fields cemetery as the home of London’s non-conformists. It is also one of the most diverse cemeteries in flora and wildlife. At its heart is a hauntingly derelict chapel that sets the mood. Like Highgate Cemetery, Abney Park is a favourite haunt of Satanists and other neo-cults of the dead. It also contains Egyptian-influenced design and bee symbolism, like Kensal Green and its mentor in France, Père Lachaise.
1840 was a prolific year in the construction of London’s Elysian Fields and Brompton Cemetery, west London, opened shortly after Abney Park. Today, the stunning cemetery is listed on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register and managed by the Royal Parks Agency. This is no wonder, for these particular Elysian Fields are a truly remarkable testament to the union of death and nature and featured prominently in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes. The once financially troubled cemetery is now part of an inner city community and, with the growth of London over the last 150 years, has been transformed into an urban cemetery once again. A stroll through Brompton Cemetery’s lush grounds reveals the forgotten tombs of once-famous thespians, musicians, artists and war heroes.
Nunhead Cemetery, south west of London, was the third cemetery opened in 1840. Draped across 52 acres of hillside, the cemetery offered unique views of London to the north, as well as surrounding areas. Nunhead was designed by Thomas Little, who was awarded the project for his design of an octagon-shaped cemetery with a crypt beneath. The entrance gate is adorned with two large inverted torches signifying that one is about to enter a land where life as we know it has been extinguished. Once again, the architectural style is decidedly gothic, with Egyptian overtones and, like the rest of London’s Elysian Fields, many of its finest monuments either no longer exist or are badly damaged. Befittingly, its residents include Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery opened in 1841 and completes the group of seven Victorian, gothic cemeteries, inspired by Père Lachaise, known as London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’. At 33 acres, Tower Hamlets is the smallest of London’s Elysian Fields, but a striking exhibition of refined gothic architecture and a splendid wooded park, full of meandering paths and alcoves. Sadly, its Egyptian-styled tombs and lodge have been replaced and burials were discontinued in 1966, when the privately owned cemetery was purchased by the Greater London Council. Today, the cemetery is, like so many others, home to more dog walkers than visitors. The atmosphere, however, remains evocative and typically melancholy. Its famous residents include Charles Brown, the antique collector and ‘uncrowned king of Limehouse’, whose funeral attracted over 10,000 mourners.
And so concludes our review of the Magnificent Seven, which I term London’s Elysian Fields, for they are truly fields of rest for the beloved faithful of Britain’s capital. The story of London’s Elysian Fields would not be complete, however, without mention of Brookwood Cemetery, which was opened in 1856 and, at over 450 acres, remains the largest cemetery in Britain. Brookwood is also the only cemetery to have been located truly outside London, in the suburb of Woking, some 23 miles outside the capital and even had its own railway station, with trains departing from Waterloo Station, near the River Thames in London. The cemetery qualifies as an extension to London’s Elysian Fields and offers what is arguably the most diverse assortment of tombs in the world.
Ancestor worship is perhaps the oldest form of commemoration in the archaeological record. London’s Elysian Fields extend this tradition by paying homage to its ancestors in a way that incorporates the mysteries of life in symbolism, juxtaposed against the backdrop of everyday life, nature and the elements. The British and French cemeteries, and the individuals, politics and societies that inspired them, drew from each other to produce a stunning testimony to the fate that awaits us all: death. The 21st century, however, has seen mankind become less concerned about ancestor worship and more focused on celebrity, notoriety and the instant gratification that comes from social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. As a result, we fear death, as opposed to incorporating it into our world view. Let us hope that a renewed appreciation of our ancestors evolves naturally and does not require an epidemic of calamitous proportions to inspire us once more.