Archive for the ‘Decay’ Category

Myths of the Near Past

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

This article touches on so many of the themes I’ve commented on here, it’s difficult not to want to quote more of it:

"In that case, one could look at the remnants of the avant-garde project that litter the former USSR as the detritus left by the Martians: the incomprehensible, incommensurable ruins of a strictly temporary visitation by creatures not like ourselves. The Strugatsky Brothers’ tremendous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic depicts just such a visitation. A city that has been ‘visited’ is left with the Zone in the area where the visitation took place: a fenced-off, contaminated and ruined area, marked by scatterings of bizarre and technologically fantastic objects left by the alien visitors. The Zone is a dangerous, melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. Within it, however, is quite literally the answer to all human wishes, something which in the last instance holds the promise of eternal happiness for all humanity.

Filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker, the Zone is visualised as a Chernobyl-like scarred, postindustrial landscape of ruins, waste, rubbish, of the remnants of industrial civilisation corroded, dilapidated and rapidly being reclaimed by nature . Tarkovsky’s version of the Zone has gradually, over the last thirty years, become the foundation of an entire aesthetic. If Modernity, or Modernism, is our Antiquity, then its ruins have become every bit as fascinating, poignant and morbid as those of the Greeks or Romans were to the 18th century. Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR and a few locations in Estonia, yet practically every industrial or post-industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it. Such an area would be, for instance, the remnants of industrial districts of East London. Beckton, Woolwich, Stratford, outposts marked by the cyclopean remains of silos, gasometers, factories. These are the places that inspired the Modernists of the 1920s: every manifesto from Le Corbusier’s Vers d’une Architecture to Moisei Ginzburg’s Constructivist response Style and Epoch had their lovingly photographed silos and power stations. Appropriately, also in the Zone can be found the bastard children of the Modernists, the scatterings of overambitious social housing, with their crumbling highrises and streets in the sky. These are remnants of something as alien and incomprehensible to the seamless mallscape of 21st century Capital, or the heritage Disneyland of European Urbanism, as Shklovsky’s Futurist Martians were to their contemporaries: only here without any of the insurrectionary promise of a new world, merely the ruins of a defunct future…

So we have here, via these two models of alien visitations in the imagination of Russian Modernists, whether of the 20s or the 70s, two competing models of Modernity. On the one hand, the advancing, gleaming, ruthless aesthetics of Futurism, particularly, for our purposes here its mutation into the more humanist, politicised Constructivism. On the other, an aesthetic of disintegration, of the aforementioned Futurist world’s gradual descent into an overgrown, poisoned wasteland….

In contemplating these images however, one is reminded of the interesting element to Albert Speer’s otherwise utterly banal ‘Theory of Ruin Value’. Not the bit about the impressiveness of ancient ruins, and the need to leave similarly imposing remains. Rather, the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-drive architecture, where posterity’s opinion is internalised to such a ludicrous degree that, in a sense, the corpse has been designed before the living body…

Today, the aesthetics of everyday life are provided by ultra-conservative developers (the likes of Barratt Homes in the UK) and the aesthetics of Art or Commerce by the avant-garde of a few decades ago (from Foster to Koolhaas). The remarkable thing about Constructivism, something that can still be seen as a shadow in Pare’s work, is that the everyday was so frequently the area for experiment. A much-used Russian term here was Byt, translated usually as Everyday Life, specifically in its most habituated, domestic sense. So most of the projects here were applications of the aesthetic that would be branded ‘alien’ by the Stalinists to the most basic architectural elements of society. That is, housing, public leisure facilities, schools. Equally frequently, there were administrative or industrial buildings. Although even these were often in the poorer quarters of cities and towns, the growing nomenklatura’s presence is unavoidable.

Superficially, these buildings might seem similar to corresponding Western models: social housing, working men’s clubs and so forth. So it’s the differences that are especially key here. This was frequently a teleological architecture, one could even say a Pavlovian one: particular social affects were intended to be produced. Although a socialist state power of some sort was claimed (rightly or wrongly) to be in place by 1922, its leaders were well aware that old habitus died hard: religion, patriarchy and ‘petty bourgeois’ attitudes still pervaded. In 1924, Leon Trotsky, a few years before his expulsion, published a book called Problems of Everyday Life. Here there was a cautious endorsement of ‘Byt reform’–the experiments in living being carried out at the time by communes and co-operatives–and the particular material forms that might house them. ‘Public laundries, public restaurants, public workshops’ would take the place of all that used to take place in the kitchen, thus abolishing ‘household slavery’. A poster from around this time shows a dingy, cramped kitchen being opened up to a glittering, glassy new world of futuristic structures and open space, and this was what was, tentatively, being constructed at the time. "

I’ve written before about ruin value, noting that the interest of modernist architecture here lies precisely with its status as a forgotten future (particularly given that many of the architectural projects referenced above where essentially futile attempts to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was not being left behind economically by the United States by seeking to rival the likes of the Empire State Building), but this is something I’m nonetheless much less able to relate to than the author of this piece. I don’t especially feel any nostalgia for the failure of either communism or architectural modernism, both seeming to be essentially utopian projects that sought to reform humanity by deforming it. To my mind, Tatlin’s tower can comfortably remain in the same category as Speer’s New Berlin. By coincidence, I’ve also recently comes across this article, which serves as an interesting contrast (albeit one that is often rather too conservative for my taste):

"Much of the left was and remains "anti-anti-communist." This is what accounts for what Ferdinand Mount calls the "asymmetry of indulgence" afforded communistic and fascistic state-sponsored murders… On walking into the first room of the exhibition, the visitor was greeted by a sign asking "What is Modernism?" and answering as follows: "The Iconic Objects in this room…were created by practitioners who believed that their art could help bring about Utopia within their lifetimes." This belief was expressed in all kinds of ways, as the exhibition shows, from calisthenics to kitchen design, from the cantilevered chair of Mies van der Rohe to the colorful rectilinear paintings of Piet Mondrian…

Beginning with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists before the First World War and continuing with Die Stijl and Bauhaus after it, there was always a strong element of political radicalism associated with Modernism. Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s when it was in its heyday, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and others envisaged a sweeping architectural revolution—more or less explicitly as a complement to the political ones that were projected or actual at the time—to provide for simple, efficient, undecorated "workers’ housing" and do away with luxury, sentimentality, ornament and other "bourgeois" values. Tradition had to be cleared away along with traditional images and traditional architectures in order for ideological and architectural engineers to build a new civilization from the ground up…. As the title of Nathan Glazer’s new book puts it, Modernism has gone From a Cause to a Style. The rags of a failed utopianism still hang from it long after it became routine for banks to commission for their headquarters Mies-style glass towers or for reproductions of Picasso and Matisse—the originals, are of course, only available to the very richest—to decorate the "living rooms" of the haute bourgeoisie. We may not be conscious utopians ourselves anymore, but we still believe that those who are (or were) are entitled to full credit and even a certain veneration merely for the goodness and the nobility of their intentions."

I find myself much more drawn to two quotations offered late on in the piece, of Stoppad’s descriptions of Herzen; "He came to the conclusion that there was no abstract formula at work on our history. There was nothing going on that was inevitable. The big bond between me and him is that he found an appalling arrogance in the way that people might construct an abstract narrative of our society and subordinate the individual life to it. He found that morally repellent." Although it was Schoenberg who formed the central protagonist in Mann’s depiction of the culpability of German romanticism in Nazism (incidentally, this piece has an interesting observation on how Schoenberg’s descriptions of tonality decaying through “inbreeding and incest" mirror those of racist politicians of the time), I do wonder if an equivalent narrative might not assign similar roles to figures like Corbusier.

Where London stood

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

“Beauty has never been absolute and immutable but has taken on different aspects depending on the historical period and the country” – Umberto Eco

In Italian Hours Henry James wrote that “to delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.” Perversity is perhaps the correct term for interest in decay and ruins, in spite of figures like Midas Dekkers who are prepared to see such matters in a Heraclitean spirit of celebrating cycles of destruction and renewal. Dekkers cites the example of how the bombing of the Natural History Museum during the blitz led to the rebirth of ancient silk tree seeds from China, woken by the fire brigade’s hoses. Modern society, according to Dekkers, is obsessed with realising the dreams of Dorian Gray, in opposition to earlier conventions of memento mori; the skull in Holbein’s paintings or Donne’s tolling bell. Seeing, as Eliot had it, the skull beneath the skin.

In practice though, although few can bring themselves to be so sanguine our interest in the derelict is rather more deep seated than Dekkers would have supposed. This may well be why I recently found myself standing amidst the burnt out remains of the Crystal Palace, originally built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. All that remains are a set of empty terraces, the sort of enigma that would leave archaeologists with endless speculation. The terraces of the Crystal Palace are graced with headless statues while Sphinxes guard the entrance way to nothingness. Based on the designs of ruined Egyptian temples, the Sphinxes seem entirely at home with their place amidst overgrown oak trees, returned to the same state as the Egyptian ruins they were based on. Behind the trees, a BBC transmitter mast now holds domain over the empty spaces of the park.

Crystal Palace Sphinx

Some architecture has within it the potential for decay and ruin; the ruins of the gothic St Dunstan in the East wear their decay as if they had never been anything else, while the baroque ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars are decidedly ill at ease with their decline. As this was one of Wren’s attempts at gothic, decay seems to become it, with the walls and spire still standing while the interior was been turned into a garden; water trickles from a fountain while blue pansies flower where the pulpit would have been; a haven of peace and serenity. The foliage within the church is lush and verdant; it is, however, rather odd to look through the empty gothic arches and see banana trees and magnolias. The delicate vaulting of the white Portland stone almost looks like bleached bones.

St Dunstan's Window

Visiting these places, it’s rather difficult not to think of Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value:

“The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that ‘bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My ‘theory’ was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.

To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins.’”

What often tends to be most disturbing about Nazi ideology is the manner in which it reflects other aspects of Romanticism that are deeply embedded in our culture, just as the spectre of communism casts a shade over certain Enlightenment ideals of progress. Consider the example of Joseph Gandy, the English Piranesi who illustrated John Soane’s designs. Like Gibbon contemplating the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he had been on the grant tour to Rome where he had explored the Catacombs and the Appian way. At this point, much of Imperial Rome remained in a stated of unconserved decay, with the Colosseum, overwhelmed with trees, vines and other vegetation. The grand tour certainly marked an important point in the history of decay, transforming interest into the theoretical symmetry of classical architecture into an interest into the ruined state of the buildings themselves. In 1855, the English botanist Richard Deacon had published his Flora of the Colosseum, recording the 420 species of plant growing there. The six acres of flora included species so rare in Western Europe that their seeds must originally have been carried there, Deacon conjectured, by the animals imported from Asia and Africa for the city’s games and spectacles. Gandy returned to England and imagined it through the lens of what he had seen, transforming Soane’s Bank of England into a Roman ruin. Just as Speer drew Hitler’s imaginings of Berlin as Babylon, so did Gandy draw Soane’s vision of London as Rome. Nor was Gandy alone in this; the pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire to claim descent from Imperial Rome led to the Hapsburg dynasty building fake Roman ruins on their estate at Schoenbrunn. The Gothic revival in architecture was prefigured with the building of such counterfeits, whether at Pottsdam or at the Hell Fire Caves in Buckinghamshire. All over Europe, country houses acquiried gothic folloies and manufactured ruins, often sitting alongside classical temples in the Palladian vein.
Villages would be moved to make way for these vistas, with only the church for company as a reminder of where the village had once been. Sometimes bits of the cottages would be retained as romantic ruins, evacuated and aestheticised according to the picturesque tastes of the upper classes.

The Hellfire Caves - Beware Marauding Shadows

Prior to this, Burckhardt, writing in his The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, had spoken of the Renaissance had seen the ruins of Rome as of interest to patriots and historians rather than to pilgrims, citing the example of Petrarch and of the unearthing of the corpse of a Roman woman whose remains were treated with as much veneration as those of a saint. The Renaissance came to see ruins as a bridge to the classical world, with inscriptions on monuments, tombs, stelae and fragments of statuary, columns and pediments representing an incomplete Rossetta stone that would unlock the secrets of the ancient world. Alternatively, Renaissance painting woukd depict as a hinterland upon which to present the sacred or suffering martyr, suggesting the ultimate triumph of Christendom over Roman paganism and representing the ambivalence of the Renaissance towards the reconstruction of the classical world.

In time, this was an ambivalence that was to be resolved in favour of the glory that was Greece and the splendour that was Rome, as with Fuseli’s The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins showing a figure against the remains of a titan statue (a trope that returns in the gothic novel, such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), despairing of matching its sublimity in his own work. The influence of the grand tour and travel in general was especially important in this regard; Chateuabriand in Ottoman Athens, Nerval in Constantinople, Ruskin in Venice, Flaubert in Egypt, Dickens at the Appian Way and Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla; Ozymandias being both an allegory of the fall of tyranny and a lament for the mutability of things. Equally, it lent a political aspect to things, as visitors from Western Europe went to see the remains of fallen Empires; Venice and Athens had after all, like Britain, once been great maritime powers. Later visions of where London stood were, to put it bluntly, frequently rather self-pitying melancholy prompted by the fall of Empire, as with Macaulay’s vision of a future New Zealand tourist standing on a broken arch of London Bridge and contemplating, “in the midst of a vast solitude,” the ruinous dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a desolate city.

Schoenbrunn Ruins

In spite of all this, the place of ruin and decay within Romantic aesthetics was a surprisingly precarious one; such things were not explicitly singled out by Kant, he did nonetheless discuss how architecture could partake of the sublime as much as nature. Ruins occupy a space between nature and civilisation that means they can either be seen as symbols of the sublime and transcendent (as one would expect from Kant) or as symbols of the ephemeral. While Romanticism was based upon an appreciation of infinity, this found its expression in an understanding of the world as fragments, as ruins. As Schlegel put it, “many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” The Romantic aesthetic prized the incomplete and the ephemeral, as with Coleridge’s fragmented epiphany in Kubla Khan or with De Quincey’s citation of Piranesi’s engravings of ruined civilisation in the midst of his disquisitions upon the transsendental.

In this sense, the uneasy relationship of decay to Romantic aesthetics is similar to that between the Gothic novel and Romantic literature. Where Romanticism largely concerned itself with the nounemnal and the transcendental, Ann Radcliffe’s distinction of terror and horror. The former, we are told, partakes of the sublime and expands the soul, the latter only creates revulsion, with many such tales creating horror far more easily than terror. Given the uncertainty as to whether ruins symbolise the transcendent or simply corruption, it was essentially inevitable that ruins would be prominent within the gothic novel, as with Dracula’s castle, Otranto’s ruins or this passage from Melmoth the Wanderer;

“He stood and saw another flash dart its bright, brief, and malignant glance over the ruins of ancient power, and the luxuriance of recent fertility. Singular contrast! The relics of art forever decaying,—the productions of nature forever renewed.”

The sublimity of the ruin was not to be stated fully until Ruskin, who saw architectural decay as a return to nature. Distinguishing between what he termed a lesser and higher picturesque, a concept that seemed to sit between beauty and the sublime. To Ruskin, the picturesque lacked a transcendental aspect and was essentially a response to what he saw as the monotonous, symmetrical and utilitarian character of architecture, a classical conception at odds with Romantic views of nature.

“A broken stone has necessarily more various forms in it than a whole one; a bent roof has more various curves in it than a straight one; every excrescence or cleft involves some additional complexity of light and shade, and every stain of moss on eaves or wall adds to the delightfulness of colour. Hence in a completely picturesque object, as an old cottage or mill, there are introduced, by various circumstances not essential to it, but, on the whole, generally somewhat detrimental to it as cottage or mill, such elements of sublimity — complex light and shade, varied colour, undulatory form, and so on — as can generally be found only in noble natural objects, woods, rocks, or mountains.”

Equally, Ruskin is also concerned with the decay and decomposition of the natural world, with pollution, industrialisation and building. In Modern Painters, he characterises the modern landscape painting as indistinct, occluded by cloud and fog. The natural world has come to resemble, in fact, the murky atmosphere of the modern city, or of the industrial hinterland. The landscapes of Constable, given way to the shrouded land found in Turner, Whistler and Monet.

St Dunstan's Spire

Ruin is a subject that is inevitably divisive, between the importance of conserving a past that is at risk of being irrevocably lost and the aesthetics of decay. This is perhaps particularly acute today, when ancient ruins have typically been preserved and restored. William Morris, who had happily depicted London and the Palace of Westminster as having falled into ruin, nonetheless established a tradition of preserving historical architecture that was contined through other figures like Betjeman. There can indeed be something rather disturbing about visited restored buildings. The act of restoring an old building frequently does so by destroying layer after layer of history to reveal the desired outcome, just as Schliemann did with all of the cities he found at Hissarlik until he was satisfied he had found the Troy he wanted, or as Evans did at Knossos. In other words, it can be an extremely destructive and arbitrary process. There is something rather awkward about the hyperreal recreations of buildings, which seems as lacking in authenticity as the faked ruins favoured in the eighteenth century. Not to mention that the very idea of conservation has the unwelcome tinge of conservatism to it, which sits uncomfortably for someone ill at ease with the idea of tradition for tradition’s sake. After all, most of the buildings prized as part of our heritage were built by either discarding the styles of the past or through the more literal means of destroying the buildings of the past.

Highgate Egyptian Avenue

So, I wanted to visit an unrestored building instead, of which there can be few better examples than the Midland Grand Hotel, now known as St Pancras Chambers. If there was ever a case study in architectural hubris it was this; built in luxuriant gothic style (it was not unknown for visitors to mistake it for a cathedral and ask when services began), its lack of either central heating or bathrooms ensured its downfall; perhaps rather incongruously so, since its ‘ascending rooms’ were state of the art at the time. Entering inside, elaborate columns coated in gold leaf sit alongside walls where the paint has flaked away and floors where the boards have rotted away. Pre-Raphaelite murals of Chaucerian scenes and wyvern gargoyles rest in the darkness. In spite of my above comments it’s difficult not to feel disconsolate at the Fifties beige or Edwardian burgundy paint covering the gold and crimson Victorian wall patterns. This is particularly so when one ascends the best preserved part of the building; the grand staircase. This imposing lined with gothic arches, through which light seeps into the gloom, leads up to a ceiling vaulted around a central boss, and incongruously painted with a blue sky and gold stars. Even in the dark the blazing colours shine out.

St Pancras Chambers

I’d certainly hate to think that such a building would fall further into decay and would love to see what these rooms look like once the paint has been scraped away to reveal the original frescos. But equally, much of why it is so striking is simply because it is a modern ruin; brightly lit and immaculate rooms as opposed to the current dark and cavernous interior would in many ways be a poor replacement. Now that St Pancras is set to become the main terminal for the Eurostar it is being restored; the prospect of what sea change it is now set to undergo is in itself a fascinating one. As Hugh Pearman puts it, cities regenerate themselves from their own scar tissue. It might seem perverse to appreciate the scarring, but perhaps that is just because it has the allure of the ephemeral. So an abandoned railway station in Paris, beloved of art-film makers, becomes the Musee d’Orsay, while a dilapidated power station becomes the Tate Modern. One further difficulty with the contemporary atttitude towards decay is that so many modern ruins are essentially visions of lost future, whose modernist architecture, such as that of Battersea Power Station or the many decaying art deco cinemas, remains more futuristic than was has replaced it. Similarly, much modernist literature was bifurcated between the modernist (the Futurists, most obviously) and the archaic, with its replacement of the medieval with Picasso’s reception of the Lascaux cave painting, the African influence on Modigliani or Pound’s fusion of ancient Greece and China.

Where modern literature represents decay, it only does so in an anomalous form, such as JG Ballard’s Drowned World or The Crystal World; “Down Oxford Street the buildings were festooned with ivy and Virginia creeper. Trees grew from the windows of Selfridges, the pavements and Tarmac were split by plane trees spreading across Marble Arch from Hyde Park… at the bottom of Oxford Street stood the tall Centrepoint tower, its remaining upper windows glinting, while most of the base was covered in vines.” UnlikeWyndham’s apolcalyptic fiction, Ballard sees decay as a form of death instinct, entropic regress, far removed from the sublime or picturesque.

Old Blackfriars Bridge

Ruin has essentially come to be regarded as a failure to preserve the past, and has ceased to represent the tragic, sublime or transcendent. John Piper’s “pleasing decay” has translated into “criminal neglect.” In short, it is increasingly difficult to think of Ruskin’s higher and lower picturesque as being readily distinguishable. On the other hand, the modern interest in the ruined and decay is more likely to explore derelict factories, asylums, Icelandic farms, places like Chernobyl, Russian submarine bases or ghost villages than ancient ruins; places that are out of kilter from the notions of urban space as productive, efficient and regular. This is in many respects a form of flaneurism, in the sense meant by Benjamin; bourgeois dilettantes seeking out the derelict and discraded as a vicarious thrill. A form of post-romantic fascination with decay that no longer relates to romantic aesthetics. Such experiences are seen as somehow more ‘real’ and less mediated than the conventional city, as with Benjamin’s own denunciation of the passing of the arcades into the department store; “In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled… it is the gaze of the flaneur, whose mode of life still surrounds the approaching desolation of city life with a propitiatory luster.”

Unquiet Slumbers

Monday, June 12th, 2006

Death held an especial place in the Victorian psyche. The combination of sentimental literature, with its stressing of the more pathetic (in the sense of pathos) emotions and the evangelical revival ensured that death acquired a prominence in Victorian life that it did not before and has not since.

Notoriously, Victorian literature loved to dwell on death of the pure and helpless, from Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop to Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. The horror genre, typified by Stoker and Poe, dwelt lovingly on bodily decay and life after death, playing expertly on fears of being buried alive. The elegy grew to particular prominence with Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Thrysis, while such works as Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel and Wuthering Heights aestheticised death as a state of romantic longing. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, noted the particular place tuberculosis held for the Victorian mind; it was a wasting disease founded on passion, a consumption of the life force. In painting, Ophelia was perhaps the most obsessive figure for the Pre-Raphaelite painter, perfectly unifying Thanatos and Eros and represented in her listless state by Watts, Rossetti, Millais, Hughes and Waterhouse. It is not for nothing for that Pre-Raphaelite angels grace most of the Victorian cemeteries. Much the same applied to children; throughout the likes of Dickens and Kingsley there is the sense that death is a blessed release that prevents children from ever falling from a primal state of innocence and being corrupted by the world (a rather palpable variant of which occurs in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). The work of Hans Christian Anderson (a house guest of Dickens) in particular can only be described as thanatophilic; the virtue of the little mermaid will be rewarded in heaven not through wedded bliss. Consider the mesmeric battles in Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm and how they leave that novel’s heroine drained of her vitality or the similar outcomes in Trilby. Spiritualism became increasingly popular, with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger proceeding from exploring a lost world of dinosaurs in one story to exploring the other world in a later narrative; not for nothing is it said that the Victorians treated death as simply another territory to be conquered.

More empirically, as the population of nineteenth century London increased and social conditions deteriorated, the demands on London’s cemeteries rapidly exceeded the available space. High property prices and the crowded condition of London’s churchyards led to incidents of bodysnatching and of older graves being emptied to make way for the new. The solution, for the upper and middle classes at least, was to build seven new cemeteries at a remove from the city, of which Kensal Green was the first. Funerals promptly went into fashion and came to cost far more than weddings, with both the ceremony and the tomb having to be as grandiose as possible. In short, the ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries represent a form of ritual, as much as photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased produced by the Victorians or jewellery that utilised a locket of the dead person’s hair, extravagant funerals and the wearing of black crepe.

Kensal Green Beasts

Covering a considerable expanse, Kensal’s necropolis represents as formidable an example of Victorian engineering and architecture as the museums in Kensington or the Houses of Parliament. The tombs cover a bewildering range of styles, from obelisks and pyramids to mourning angels (often with a trumpet to herald the day of the resurrection), to funerary urns half covered with veils, broken pillars (symbolising a life cut short) as well as the vogue for Celtic crosses. The results remind me of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial, wherein two profoundly different philosophies rest in uncomfortable proximity, namely Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other. The funerary urns are especially redolent of this, pointing as they do to Roman burial practices; in spite of cremation typically being considered pagan and unconscionable. One of the graves in Kensal Green is that of the judge who presided over a notorious case, whereby scandalised Welsh villagers realised that the self-proclaimed Archdruid William Price had taken the remains of his five month old son (rather inevitably named ‘Jesus Christ’) to a nearby hill in order to cremate the corpse. The villagers halted the ceremony and a court case followed, whereupon it was finally decided that cremation could be legalised.

Kensal Green was the first of the ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries to be constructed and perhaps the most impressive. While the trees were still leafless when I went to Highgate, Kensal had a perversely bucolic aspect in the sunshine with buttercups and daisies flowering as a Green Woodpecker perched on top of one of the graves and squirrels played between the tombs. Conrad mentions Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard and there seem little doubt that the design of these ‘garden cemeteries’ was an attempt to offer the dead a form of rest that was far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. Kensal Green would certainly have been rural when it was built, but today the cemetery is dominated by the rusting skeletons of two gasometers and the louring presence of Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower. Where Highgate has a hermetic aspect to it that leaves it largely divorced from the surrounding world, Kensal’s ugly brick walls do comparatively little to insulate it from the world of the living.

Kensal Green Tombs

Nonetheless, where a modern cemetery is orderly and utilitarian, Kensal Green is filled with the mythology of the underworld. The decaying monuments along the central avenue cover every conceivable architectural style, with sphinxes, angels, wyverns and atlantes guarding tombs designed in Neo-classical austerity, Gothic Revival intricacy and even in the Egyptian style that become fashionable after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Columns, pillars and caskets on one side of the central avenue compete with obelisks, spires and canopies on the other. The tomb of Sir William Casement is perhaps most striking in this respect. Egyptian tombs were often found to contain Shabti, funerary figures made of wood, stone or faience, that would serve as servants in the afterlife. Sir William Casement was a Victorian general who had served in India. This depiction of an Indian servant (allegedly), is one of four flanking each corner of his tomb’s canopy and rather reminds me of a Shabti.

Kensal Tomb Guardian

Most poignant is the tomb of Mary Gibson, a neo-classical canopy supported by two pillars at each corner and surmounted by four stone angels. Built in the ostentatious but less than durable choice of marble, the tomb has weathered badly, with the wreath previously held by the angels having already crumbed to dust. The pillars have already weakened badly and the collapse of the entire edifice will not be long delayed. My feelings about this are decidedly ambivalent; I am saddened to see so many of the tombs being slowly corroded into nothingness but am equally conscious that I am enough of a Romantic to be fascinated by decay and ruin (Conrad notes the disturbingly carious aspect assumed by many of the broken tombstones). Had I seen many of these tombs before they had been weathered and eroded I would doubtless have thought them the pretentious product of an over-moneyed middle class (lacking the need to gain a place in history through their monuments, the likes of Brunel, Babbage or Thackeray all have more restrained tombs).

Kensal Green Angels

Walking round it feels like discovering the ruins of an ancient city, a London Angkor Wat. Nonetheless, this remains a cemetery of the bourgeois and the excluded. The most impressive tombs belong to enterprising charlatans who had got rich through such fields as circus equestrianism or by selling quack patent remedies that they refused to take on their own death beds, while the other extreme is represented by writers like Trollope and Hood who were not considered worthy of being embraced by Westminster Abbey and by disgraced royals who had either committed indiscretions with Equerries or who had contracted morganatic marriages in contravention of the Royal Marriage Act, which states that permission for Royal offspring under a certain age to marry must be granted by the sovereign. These tombs only serve to reinforce the impression of Kensal Green as a city of the dead, with the list of characters residing there bearing a marked resemblance to the sort of caricature a Trollope or Thackeray novel would be filled with (though perhaps not a Dickens novel; internment here being sufficiently expensive to exclude the working classes). For example, there is Dr James Barry, a successful army doctor who worked tirelessly to improve Cape Town’s water system, performed one of the first known successful Caesarean sections, sought to improve the conditions of the common soldier and fought several duels whenever he felt himself slighted. He was only unmasked as a woman after her death, having concealed the fact (as well as the signs of pregnancy) from even her closest associates, a feat worthy of a Wilkie Collins heroine (or possibly a Sherlock Holmes story: The Strange Case of Dr James Miranda Barry perhaps).

Kensal Green Sphinx

For a further plot that could only have been contrived by a Braddon or Collins sensation novel, there is the tomb of the Duke of Portland. The Duke was an eccentric recluse, who permitted no-one except his valet to see him in person in his quarters and had double letterboxes built into his rooms; one for ingoing mail and another for outgoing mail. It was in short, inevitable that he became a source of gossip, ranging from suspicions of disfigurement, madness or wild orgies. These Lerouxesque rumours were only further fuelled by the fact that the Duke had built an underground labyrinth of passages beneath his estate. Built by a veritable army of workmen, the labyrinth had contained a ballroom, a library, a billiards room and an observatory with a glass roof. The ballroom had a hydraulic lift (admittedly not that uncommon; Kensal’s Greek revival Chapel comes equipped with hydraulic catafalque that leads down into the catacombs) that could carry 20 guests from the surface and a ceiling that was painted as a giant sunset, all of which seems somewhat excessive, given that the Duke was far too reclusive to hold any balls in it. The tunnels were alleged to have emerged at Worksop railway station and were wide enough at several points for two carriages to pass by one another. However, if the Duke had business in London, it seems that in practice he took his hearse to Worksop and had the whole carriage loaded onto a railway truck. Upon his arrival to his London residence in Cavendish Square, all the household staff was ordered out of sight when he hurried into his study through the front hall.

Kensal Green Cross

Upon his death the tunnels became the locus of a claim by a certain Anna Maria Druce that her husband and the Duke were one and the same, thereby entitling her son to inherit the Duke’s Portland estate. Her contention was that her husband had faked his death in order to return to a secluded existence on his estate, having previously used the tunnels and the railway to move between his two lives unobserved. A legal case of a similar order of magnitude to Jarndyce and Jarndyce ensued and was only resolved when the cadaver of Mr Druce was exhumed from Highgate Cemetery and found to be present and correct, in spite of the claim from Mrs Druce that the coffin contained only lead weights. Two witnesses were tried for perjury while Anna Maria was confined to an asylum.

Kensal Green does have one important characteristic that I have entirely elided from this account; it is still a working cemetery that is still run by the same company that established it. Though ostensibly Anglican, the presence of Cyrillic and Hebrew on many of the modern tombs suggests a more ecumenical approach. As graves here are every bit as expensive today as they were for the Victorians, it is notable that Chinese appears a popular lingua franca across many recent tombs, presumably representing one of the city’s more enterprising communities. It’s interesting to think of what future visitors will make of these once they are as worn and decayed as their Victorian forebears. It seems to me that the differences of language and style for the modern graves seem slight when set againt the Victorian profusion of imagery and its babel-like quality.

Kensal Green Mausoluem