A Wander among the Tombstones

Anyone who came to this page hoping for some shots of Liam Neeson looking menacing in a corduroy coat, please click here now. To anyone still reading, I thought Halloween was a good time to introduce you to some unexpected objects that keep popping up in the work of 19th-century architect-designers… Designs for tombstones.

Design for a gravestone for Caleb Hill by Philip Webb, 1888

Design for a gravestone for Caleb Hill by Philip Webb, 1888. Museum number E.444-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Philip Webb was one of the best-known architects of his day, and by the 1880s had completed a number of prestigious projects, including a home for his dear friend William Morris. It may seem slightly odd, therefore, that he would want to spend his time designing comparatively tiny objects like tombstones. Yet as shown by the number of drawings we have in the Collection, Webb seems to have designed graves quite often:

Design for a gravestone for Alphonse Warington Taylor by Philip Webb, 1870. Museum number E.398-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design for a gravestone for Alphonse Warington Taylor by Philip Webb, 1870. Museum number E.398-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victorians, of course, loved the paraphernalia associated with death. While people have always created memento mori—reminders of death and the dead…

The Torre Abbey Jewel, memento mori pendant in the form of a skeleton in a coffin, enamelled gold, England, ca.1540-1550

The Torre Abbey Jewel, memento mori pendant in the form of a skeleton in a coffin, enamelled gold, England, ca.1540-1550. Museum number 3581-1856

… the Victorians took this to its logical extreme. Who else would have thought of creating daguerreotype portraits showing a loved one both dead and alive?

Daguerreotype of an elderly woman, alive, and dead, unknown photographer, ca. 1845-1855. Museum number E.642-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Daguerreotype of an elderly woman, alive, and dead, unknown photographer, ca. 1845-1855. Museum number E.642-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It stands to reason then, that following their Queen’s lead, 19th-century mourners wanted to make lasting and beautiful monuments to their loved ones.

An original design for the Albert Memorial, possibly that submitted to Queen Victoria in January 1863, showing the monument in Kensington Gardens, with groups of spectators.  Watercolour  and gouache drawing, possibly by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Museum number E.2601-1962 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An original design for the Albert Memorial, possibly that submitted to Queen Victoria in January 1863, showing the monument in Kensington Gardens, with groups of spectators. Watercolour and gouache drawing, possibly by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Museum number E.2601-1962 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even though most tributes were quite humble by Royal standards:

Design drawing of gravestone for Mary Mowat by Philip Webb, ca.1910-1915. Museum number E.446-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design drawing of gravestone for Mary Mowat by Philip Webb, ca.1910-1915. Museum number E.446-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Webb wasn’t the only architect-designer of his era who designed gravestones. Tombs were a place where public memorials met the decorative arts, and Henry Wilson, best known as a jeweller and metalworker, was commissioned to design a spectacular monument at Aberdeen for Bishop William Elphinstone, the founder of the University.

The Elphinstone tomb, Henry Wilson, modelled and cast bronze, c.1910. ©Alan Findlay

The Elphinstone tomb, Henry Wilson, modelled and cast bronze, c.1910. ©Alan Findlay

Nelson Dawson, another architect-turned-metalworker, also turned his hand to tombstone design.

Design for a memorial tablet to Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) for Leeds Parish Church, by Nelson Dawson. Museum number E.718-1976 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design for a memorial tablet to Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) for Leeds Parish Church, by Nelson Dawson. Museum number E.718-1976 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Full size design for a memorial tablet in beaten copper to Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911), for St Andrew's Church, Blagdon, Somerset, by Nelson Dawson, 1898. Museum number E.719-1976 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Full size design for a memorial tablet in beaten copper to Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911), for St Andrew’s Church, Blagdon, Somerset, by Nelson Dawson, 1898. Museum number E.719-1976 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dawson’s memorial tablet for Wills was published in ‘The Studio’, the most influential design journal of the day. The reviewer noted that his work was  ‘a recognition of the fact, which is beginning to be realised, that lettering can be in itself decorative enough to dispense with any other ornament’.

As this review hints, tombstone design is an important source for the history of typography. Many of Webb’s designs in fact focus on the lettering as much as on the shape or design of the stone. Below you can see a sample alphabet made as part of a design for a memorial to Charles and Mary Howard, the parents of Webb’s client George Howard.

Design for a memorial for Charles and Mary Howard by Philip Webb, c.1879. Museum number E.309-2014

Design for a memorial for Charles and Mary Howard by Philip Webb, c.1879. Museum number E.309-2014

Webb’s drawings generally show his belief that inscriptions should be ‘as simple and direct as possible’, and the designs are often accompanied by strict directions for the masons who would execute the work. The notes on the left of this design indicate that ‘the face of the stone is to be fairly evenly tooled (NOT rubbed or ‘polished’) and not mechanically  and the tooling to be done diagonally on the surface… The lettering is to follow the drawing, EACH LETTER in accordance with it… The letters are to be sunk into the stone (NOT raised) with a sharp angled sinking…’

Design drawing for gravestone of Archibald Macdonald by Philip Webb, 1896. Museum number E.473-2014

Design drawing for the gravestone of Archibald Macdonald by Philip Webb, 1896. Museum number E.473-2014

The design of lettering can also give clues about the media in which it would eventually be produced. Lettering that would be beaten in metal, as in Dawson’s design above, is softer and rounder than Webb’s angular designs, which were intended to be carved directly into stone.

Design for a tombstone for Charles Wentworth George Howard, by Philip Webb, 1879. Museum number E.310-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design for a tombstone for Charles Wentworth George Howard, by Philip Webb, 1879. Museum number E.310-2014 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kate, or Kitty, Stanley, who died at only 3 years old, was the granddaughter of Sir Lowthian Bell, a long-time client of Webb. Here you can see the lettering for her tombstone, and the beginnings of a sketch of lillies which would adorn the final stone.

Design for a tombstone for Kitty Stanley by Philip Webb, c.1884. Museum number E.311-2014.

Design for a tombstone for Kitty Stanley by Philip Webb, c.1884. Museum number E.311-2014.

Wanting to create something lasting and beautiful in tribute to a loved one is of course not just a 19th-century idea. This tombstone was designed by the artist and designer Sir Frank Brangwyn, and probably relates to the death of his wife in 1924.

Design for a tombstone by Sir Frank Brangwyn, ca.1924. Museum number E.1216-1995

Design for a tombstone by Sir Frank Brangwyn, ca.1924. Museum number E.1216-1995

But in case things are getting too grave…

Promotional shot from 'A Walk Amongst the Tombstones' © 2014 Universal Studios

Promotional shot from ‘A Walk Amongst the Tombstones’ © 2014 Universal Studios

Happy Halloween!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *