What have the following got in common? GoldenEye, Stormbreaker, and Johnny English; the source of Beatrix Potter’s characters’ names; a purported time machine using ancient Egyptian technology; Emmeline Pankhurst, Brian Glover, John Wisden, Bernard Levin, Samuel Cunard, G A Henty, Samuel Smiles, George Borrow, and Samuel Leigh Sotheby.
Well, I spent some time pondering my mortality yesterday, wandering round Brompton Cemetery, rather overgrown (but in a nice way), with its crumbling mausolea and beheaded monuments. No wonder it’s been featured in a number of films.
The walk from Fulham Broadway underground station is along a typical London street until Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge looms into view, a rather ugly example of modern architecture. Immediately after this there’s a bridge over the railway line linking Clapham and Willesden Junctions, built over the route of the rather short-lived Kensington Canal, and then the south gates to the cemetery, which covers 16.5 ha.
During the first half of the nineteenth century the population of London was increasing at a vast rate, and the old churchyards were full to (literally) overflowing, and so a series of garden cemeteries were built beyond what were then the edges of the city, Highgate being another famous example. Brompton was designed by Benjamin Baud and consecrated in 1840.
The layout was designed to resemble a cathedral, with a long central avenue representing the nave, and the chapel the altar. There are two colonnades, one with a bell-tower (the other was never built due to financial restraints), and a great circle of colonnades over catacombs supposedly inspired by St Peter’s piazza in Rome.
There was also a catacomb along the entire west edge of the cemetery with a promenade on top affording views across the canal to the countryside beyond. Most of this was removed when the view changed to the railway with Fulham beyond. Little of Fulham is now visible as Stamford Bridge looms above the boundary.
As the crisis of corpses worsened there was a variety of hurried legislation which saw Brompton Cemetery nationalised in 1852; it remains the only Crown Cemetery, now administered by the Royal Parks Agency. There is a Friends organisation which among other things raises funds and organises tours.
The list of people at the beginning are some of the more well-known of the interred, apparently if you search hard enough (there are in the order of 35,000 monuments) you can find many of Potter’s characters’ names (she lived nearby), and there is a rather tenuous explanation for the time machine – an Egyptian-style mausoleum for which there are no plans lodged, no key to the door, and another monument nearby which has Anubis (representing a soul out of time) sitting on what might be a representation of, and staring at, the mausoleum. There is, of course, a very inventive back-story to this, including Egyptian papyri and a conspiracy theory involving secret plans and murder. And possibly watching Stargate too often.
The cemetery has a large number of listed structures, some of which have been restored, but there’s obviously a lack of funds as many are in a sad and dilapidated state, the one below is better than many.
One headstone in particular was particularly moving, ‘In memory of seven of the children of Henry and Lucy Cundell’: Lucy (1843), Patrick (1846), George (April 1848), Henry (December 1848), Eleanor (February 1849), Eva (1864) and Henrietta (1874).
I left the cemetery by the Main (north) Gate onto an Old Brompton Road which had absolutely no vehicular traffic on it whatsoever, and was almost deserted apart from a few people dressed in those purply Olympic clothes either standing around or sitting on the pavement, and at the junction at the end of the road a couple of people in high-vis jackets stopping traffic from driving down the road as it’s an Olympic VIP route.
Having spent rather longer than I had meant in the cemetery there was only just time to get to my intended goal, the National Gallery for a quick look at the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, the stars of which are obviously the paintings by Titian, Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon, although I wish he had been better at getting heads to scale with the bodies – some are quite tiny (but I don’t suppose Philip II bothered to look at the heads very often).
The new works of art on offer suffered from the juxtaposition with the three Titians, tending to look a little insubstantial, they were certainly rather forgettable. The Choreographic Room, with a film of the choreographers’ work for the ballets was interesting and my daughter’s favourite bit, and I liked the concept of Mark Wallinger’s Diana, which ‘offers us a contemporary encounter with a living, breathing Diana, while reminding us of the perils of looking’, although while I was waiting to have a peep there was one person who seemed to spend a rather unhealthy amount of time peering in.
The (free) exhibition is on until the 23rd of September, it’s well worth going to just for the Titians – the gallery is also showing Titian’s The Flight Into Egypt until the 19th of August, but be prepared to queue for there are airport levels of security while the Olympics are on.