An Archive of Mourning: Body, Texture and Trace

Doctoral candidate, Jasmine Allen, reflects upon the threads–material, textual and thematic–that emerged from the Materials of Mourning conference.

The mourning pins that featured in Helen Frisby's presentation and were shared at the roundtable

The series of papers presented at the Materials of Mourning symposium last weekend demonstrated the ways in which we might think about Victorian death and memory in terms of material textures and bodily traces, which form an archive of mourning. On Saturday we glimpsed the extent of this archive, a compendium of objects, materials, texts and artworks associated with mourning. These included hair relics; mourning jewellery which often contained these relics (bracelets, lockets, rings, brooches); mourning costumes (crape fabrics, silk, velvet, and other textiles; the precious stones jet, ebonite and vulcanite; pins; elastic armlets and cufflinks; trimmings; bonnets); gothic novels; life/death plaster casts; sculpted marble busts and effigies; post-mortem photographs; poetry, and paintings. It struck me that all these ‘materials of mourning’ functioned to preserve and celebrate the ‘departed body’. As keynote speaker Marcia Pointon reminded us, objects are important because they define our existence. It might be argued that all of these objects have an embodied presence; many acted as material substitutes for an absent body, often modelled or cast from the body/corpse, others were visual and physical reminders of the deceased to be carried or worn by living bodies (literally textured with meaning), and some were actual physical remains or traces of the body.

Portraiture and mortality have long been associated with one another, as both expressions of ‘physical likeness’ and visual records of one’s lived experience. Eoin Martin’s paper interpreted Queen Victoria’s strong emotional and physical connections with the sculpted hands and busts of her beloved Prince Albert in the private settings of Osborne House and Windsor Castle. In contrast, Sarah Clark’s paper examined how Victorian visual culture and children’s literature perpetuated a widespread public myth of the life of Princess Elizabeth Stuart. Significantly, Queen Victoria played an important part in the public mourning and (re)presentation of the young Princess when her corpse was rediscovered, and commissioned a marble effigy from Carlo Marochetti for St Thomas’ Church, Newport, in 1856. These papers both shed light on the role of sculpture in public and private mourning, and the use of white marble as an idealising and immortalising material. Marcia Pointon’s keynote lecture ‘Inversions, Cats, Masks and Mortality’ developed some of the issues raised in these earlier papers. Her detailed thinking of the plaster life/death cast as a visceral trace, a material imprint that serves as a reminder of a physical absence, presented a strong case for scholarly revaluations of the plaster cast and death mask in the history of material culture, sculpture and relics.

Sarah Bissell’s examination of the corpse in late Victorian supernatural tales suggested a number of factors which may have contributed to the increasing visibility of the corpse in late-nineteenth century fiction, including a better understanding of anatomy due to medical dissection, interest and newspaper reportage on Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders, and sanitary reform. Lucetta Johnson considered the multiple experiences of loss, mourning, death and memory in her interpretation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Prosperine (1874), combining visual symbolism, classical mythology and Pre-Raphaelite poetry to expound upon the evolution of grief and the worship of sorrow in this period. The social, moral and political connotations of death in the Victorian era, especially related to the death of children and the working classes, was addressed by Miruna Cuzman in her paper on Social Realist Painting. These paintings were imbibed with social commentary and political messages. Two more papers focussed on the gendered customs and fashions of mourning and its commercial exploitation. Helen Frisby’s paper considered how costumes and accessories were developed and adapted from a combination of medieval garb and secular sartorial fashions. Drawing on rare and fragile surviving examples of mourning costumes from both public museum and private collections, as well as D.I.Y. articles such as ‘Mourning Millinery’ and ‘A Ladies’ Guide to Constructing a Memorial Hat’, this paper drew attention to the volume of business generated by Victorian mourning, the advertising and packaging of mourning commodities. The subsequent paper by Ann Christie penetrated deeper into the nature of such businesses; her archival research shed light on the industrial manufacture of mourning fabrics, especially the production of embossed mourning crapes by a Norwich Company. We were reminded of both the artisanal and mechanical labour involved in this industry, and the factory production of these delicate textured fabrics by complex industrial, chemical and mechanical processes.

Some of the most potent reminders of Victorian attitudes towards death and mourning (and those that provoked strong individual reactions at the conference) were presentations on post-mortem photography and hair relics. Jane Wildgoose reminded us of the part that relics played in national mourning as well as private mourning, especially in relation to the cult of Nelson. Brittany Hudak shared with us a sample of some post-mortem photographs of children from a private collection, many of which showed children in the pose of death’s sister ‘sleep’ and reflected a renewed interest in sleep like contemporaneous consolation books. Others were more disturbing and presented the children fully dressed and awkwardly slumped on chairs and couches, intended to appear lifelike. Like hair relics these carte-de-visite photographs played an important part in personal grief, and were distributed amongst family and close friends. Although many of these post-mortem photographs might appear shocking to contemporary viewers, they are evidence of Victorian preservation of the memory of a lost child and family member, and must have played an important part of the grieving process. It is telling that literature on the practice of post-mortem photography in England is scarce. These papers reminded us of the emotional potency of these objects and the sensitivity we must have when approaching issues of death.

In a symposium on Victorian death and mourning I was surprised by the absence of some topics. In particular, the popular practice of Spiritualism, which reached its peak in this era, and the role that religion (particularly the Anglican rite of burial and Christian belief in the soul’s resurrection and afterlife) played in Victorian death and mourning and the ‘performance’ of mourning through processions, and funeral services. Parish churches, graveyards and cemeteries are filled with personal and public objects of commemoration; here memorial windows, commemorative brass plaques and gravestones contain personalised dedications and inscriptions and remain as physical traces of lives lost and remembered. In my own area of research, the stained glass memorial window is another important visual record of Victorian mourning. Since attending this symposium I have revisited some of these windows and find that I have much more to say about their place in this archive of mourning than before.

Jasmine Allen is a PhD student at the University of York. Her doctoral research focuses on the classification, display, and international circulation of stained glass at selected International Exhibitions held in Britain, France, America, and the Australian colonies, between 1851 and 1900. She has a wide interest in stained glass and its relationship to Victorian visual culture, spectacle, and gothic revival architecture.


Many thanks

Eoin and myself wanted to take a moment to thank everyone that has helped to make the conference such a success. We’re grateful to our wonderful speakers and keynote for their stimulating, thought-provoking papers; to the delegates, many of whom travelled a considerable distance to share in the discussion; and to Siv, Jane and Helen for their contributions to the blog. We would also like to extend our thanks to Helen Jacobs for her help in the organisation, to Oli and Marc for their stewarding and tech support, and to our sponsors at the University of Warwick, the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York, and the Humanities Research Centre.

Picturing the dead

International delegate, Siv Jansson, meditates upon the resonances of the striking post-mortem image below, ahead of tomorrow’s discussions of post-mortem portraiture.

I haven’t yet been able to find out the back story to this picture, although I suspect it may be American. For me it is a striking examples of post-mortem photography because the dead girl looks relaxed, rather than stiff, and the pose is natural: the hands look relatively comfortable rather than forcibly linked. If you zoom in the eyes do have a fixed look, but this isn’t obvious from the perspective of the usual size of the photo.  It indicates the ease with death of past generations: there is no repulsion, no recoil from the dead body on show here. The shrouded furniture in the backdrop is far more supernatural than the human beings on display. As with many of these photographs, the corpse is clothed in daywear, rather than a nightdress: this is probably to add to the sense of ‘lifelikeness’, almost ordinariness, of the image, reminding us, perhaps, how familiar death was to nineteenth-century culture. It also speaks to one of the imperatives behind this kind of photography: the image of ‘life’ continuing, even though it is extinguished. Many pictures, of course, actually feature the corpse propped up, or standing, and these do betray an unnaturalness. This photo also indicates the desire to retain the dead girl as a family member, and to fix that in memory through a photograph, rather than memorialise her as explicitly dead, which would have been the effect had she been laid out with her eyes closed.


The Wildgoose Memorial Library

On Saturday Jane Wildgoose will be speaking about the role of hair jewellery in the ‘language’ of Victorian mourning. Here the artist, writer, broadcaster and consultant takes a moment to talk about her fascinating personal collection.

The Wildgoose Memorial Library © Jane Wildgoose

The Wildgoose Memorial Library is “a place where the heart remembers; where tender connections are made with forgotten feelings; and where the emotive power of the lost rituals of death is explored and interpreted by Jane’s sensitivity and unerring eye for the compelling.”

Roger Bowdler, World of Interiors (Nov. 2006)

The Wildgoose Memorial Library (WML) is an ongoing collection of reference material that informs Jane Wildgoose’s practice as an artist and writer. A constantly evolving work in progress, and a place for meditation and consultation on universal themes of life and death, the WML began as an informal collection of objects and books relating to Wildgoose’s  enduring fascination with the interest of the dead to the living, and a research resource for her work as a designer for theatre and film.

Setting the scene for 'On One Lost Hair' for BBC Radio 4 at The Wildgoose Memorial Library © Jane Wildgoose

In 2003 the collection took on a more formal aspect when it became the consultation basis for the BBC Radio 4 documentary On One Lost Hair – a meditation on a wisp of hair from the head of Horatio Nelson, bought on eBay, co-devised with producers Gregory Whitehead and Neil McCarthy. Encouraged by critical  acclaim for the programme, and a NESTA Dream Time Fellowship to develop her role as Keeper of the WML, Wildgoose has gone on to establish a multi-faceted approach to collecting that offers perspectives on a broad range of associated values – ranging from the historical, aesthetic and sociological, to the emotional and instinctive – while embracing an acquisitions policy that places emphasis on the capacity of an object to resonate with the viewer’s imagination through its appeal to the senses.

The Wildgoose Memorial Library (WML) has a digital home at devised and designed in collaboration with Harry Willis Fleming. Elsewhere, the WML makes regular appearances ‘on location’ as Wildgoose presents her collection to the public in a variety of settings, which have included: the 1930s marble and wood-panelled municipal splendour of Hornsey Town Hall in North London; the white space of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, Portland, USA, and – on a foggy midwinter night – the candlelit, vaulted cellars of Copped Hall, a magnificent derelict eighteenth-century mansion in Epping Forest. Back at home in the WML, Wildgoose hosts consultations by appointment with interested members of the public; she also uses the unique setting she has created as a forum and reference resource for collaborative work and for debate, as well as the backdrop for digital photographs informed by her research into Victorian studio portraiture and seventeenth-century vanitas paintings. She is currently investigating the potential for a permanent and more public-facing home for the WML – part artist’s studio, part reliquary, part research centre – which she envisages being built from reclaimed materials, overlooking the sea.

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Victorian death culture pioneered many new technological developments, such as inventions like the Shillibeer ‘funeral omnibus’. The conference also seeks to innovate by inviting international participation on the day.

In order to allow for wider participation and dissemination, we are planning to stream parts of the Materials of Mourning conference live on the 3 December. Allowing for the caprices of technology, you can watch a selection of the papers by visiting our UStream channel. On the day, downloads of the presentation slides will be available on the ‘streaming’ tab of this blog. We are very keen to take questions and comments from virtual participants: if you would like to ask a question to any of the speakers, please add it on the ‘streaming’ tab.

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A Fashion for Mourning

One of the most enduring images of the Victorian age is Queen Victoria as the ‘Widow of Windsor’. Helen Rappaport, conference delegate and the author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (Hutchinson, 2011) tells us more about the commercial consequences of this fashion for mourning.

It always amuses me that in her widowhood Queen Victoria, a woman whose personal sartorial style was much derided in her youth, became the most unlikely of fashion trendsetters. When Prince Albert was alive she had always plumped for a rather conventional, outmoded style of dress. But during her forty years of mourning for Albert, she became a master of the most flamboyant protocols – turning the wearing of widows’ weeds into her own art form.

The year 1861 had begun with the court in deepest mourning for the King of Prussia. When he died, Victoria immediately donned her crape and sent out directives: nothing but black silk, bombazine and crape; black gloves, black collars, black flowers, feathers, lappets and fans and festoons of jet mourning jewellery were the order of the day at court. When her mother died three months later, Victoria’s hysterical grieving was a foretaste of things to come. The more extravagant her mourning, the more she felt it demonstrated her devotion, and as queen there were no limits placed on her right to indulge it. Further catastrophe followed when Prince Albert died on 14 December.

The universality of public grief that followed ensured that most people, however poor, donned some form of mourning for the prince, even if only a black armband. The world of commerce was quick to recognize the money to be made from this unexpected and unprecedented run on all things funereal. British manufacturing went into mass production of every conceivable kind of commemorative item: plaques, busts, plates, handkerchiefs, even special mourning tea sets – all bearing Albert’s portrait. The middle classes besieged the drapers and milliners shops to order mourning outfits for themselves and their children; so grief stricken were they that ‘people could not give their orders for crying’. In particular Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse did a roaring trade, enjoying  sales never before seen in its twenty-year history.  Although general public mourning officially ended on 10 February, there was no let-up in what had become an ‘almost incalculable demand’ for mourning goods.  Victoria had already made it clear that she intended to remain in black until at least the beginning of 1864. This was not in itself exceptional, but merely emphasised an already existing code observed by many pious widows.  But such was the level of public sympathy for the queen that many followed suit and remained in mourning for longer – not just for the prince but, following Victoria’s example, for their own deceased relatives.
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Feeding grief

One of the more unusual elements of the conference is the concluding roundtable and Victorian funeral tea. Although unorthodox, it seems curiously appropriate to debate how people experienced the materials of mourning while sampling the refreshments traditionally served after funerals. Claire finds out more.

Dickens wrote satirically of the ‘impossibility of getting on without plum-cake’ and the ‘ceremonious apparition of  a pair of decanters containing port and sherry and cork’ at the customary funeral tea. For him, the consumption – both material and gustatory – that was considered necessary for a ‘respectable’ funeral was incompatible with genuine grief. The disconnect between feeding and feeling is clear when Dickens describes the behaviour of one inheriting nephew, who:

“ate as much plum-cake as he could possibly come by; but […] felt it decent mourning that he should now and then stop in the midst of a lump of cake, and appear to forget that his mouth was full, in contemplation of his uncle’s memory”

– ‘Medicine Men of Civilization’ (1863)

A clear tension underlies a ritual that combines nourishment of the living body with sympathy for a dead one. The inheriting nephew fails to reconcile the two. Despite this incongruity, food has long been an essential part of funeral ceremony that unites families and communities. The feast was a central component of sixteenth and seventeenth-century funerals, sometimes amounting to over half the total cost. The provisions varied according to the wealth and social standing of the deceased, but often it was considered a point of honour to supply a generous repast. When the wealthy Mrs Currer of Kildwick Hall died in 1697, her funeral feast included an expensive variety of meats, pickles, creams and cakes. During the nineteenth century arrangements became more modest: ale, port wine and sherry were typically offered, sometimes accompanied by spiced buns and cakes, funeral biscuits, bread, cheese and fruit. In recreating elements of the funeral repast, we hope to bring delegates into direct sensory engagement with some of the more palatable materials of mourning.


  • Professor John Chartres for trying to help me locate an authentic recipe for Victorian plum-cake.
  • Peter Brears, ‘Arvals, Wakes and Month’s Minds’ in Laura Mason (ed.), Food and the Rites of Passage (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2002), 87-114.
  • Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: OUP, 1996).
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Charles Dickens and Mary Hogarth

Claire’s interest in the materials of mourning springs from a broader concern with the tensions between the Victorian ‘celebration of death’ and a burgeoning consumer culture, particularly in the works of Charles Dickens. Here she focuses upon Dickens’s relationship with the objects and spaces associated with his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, following her tragic death in 1837.

Dickens often satirised tangible forms of mourning, such as crape dresses and hatbands. In Great Expectations, the clerk Wemmick emphasises the financial value of his collection of ostentatious mourning jewellery by designating it ‘portable property’. Yet Dickens was more ambivalent about personal mementos. When Mary Hogarth died in his arms, aged just seventeen, the author was traumatised. In grieving for Mary he was comforted by wearing a ring he took from her dead hand and a locket she had given to him. At the same time he sought to detach himself from this reliance on materiality. In a heartfelt letter of condolence to William Bradbury on the death of his child, Dickens described how:

“I have never connected her idea with the grave in which she lies. I look upon it as I sometimes do upon the clothes she used to wear. They will moulder away in their secret places, as her earthly form will in the ground, but I have long since learnt to separate her from all this litter of dust and ashes, and to picture her to myself with every well-remembered grace and beauty heightened by the light of Heaven and the power of that Merciful Being who would never try our earthly affections so severely but to make their objects happy, and lead our thoughts to follow them.”

– 3 March 1839

Here the memory of Mary is separated from her remains, both material and physical. Dickens suggests that the most satisfying form of remembrance is to combine the memory of an individual’s appearance and attributes with an imaginative projection of their enhancement in the afterlife. While the associations evoked by material relics allow the mourner to look backwards, the only true comfort is a fusion of memory and imagination that opens a future perspective. Yet the continuing presence of the dead girl’s dresses within Dickens’s home suggests that an attachment to the materiality of relics is not as easily overcome in practice as it is in writing. Why is the tangibility of mourning so important, even when it seems irrational to the bereaved? Do things have a power of consolation that speech and language lack?

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Prince Albert Memorials

In the first of a series of posts that focus upon the research of participants, Eoin explores the Scots National Monument to the Prince Consort, as part of his wider interest in the collection of sculptures that Queen Victoria commissioned after Prince Albert’s death.

The death of the Prince on 14 December 1861 was one highly significant in terms of the material culture it generated. Queen Victoria herself acquired and commissioned a large number of memorial works – in various media. These ranged from private mementos such as plaster casts of Albert’s hands to large public memorials in Windsor and elsewhere. The works she commissioned were paralleled by numerous public memorials. Within days of the Prince’s death, towns and cities across the United Kingdom and the British Empire began to plan public memorials. The Scots National Monument to the Prince Consort in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square was one of four national memorials –the others were in Dublin, London and Tenby in Wales.

Begun in 1865 but not completed until 1876, the Edinburgh monument was the work of numerous Scottish artists – Sir John Steell, one of the foremost sculptors in Victorian Scotland, executed the equestrian statue of the Prince that surmounts the monument. As an art historian, one of my first responses would be to think about processes of production, from the type of stone used for the monument’s pedestal to the bronze casting of the equestrian statue, statue groups and relief panels. I would also think about the monument’s three-tiered representational scheme. At each corner of the monument’s base are four statue groups representing the various strata of Scots society – the Upper Classes, the Lower Classes, Artists and Scholars, and the Services. Inset into the statue’s pedestal on the next level are four bronze relief panels representing Victoria’s and Albert’s marriage (pictured), Victoria and Albert with their children, the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851, and Prince Albert presenting diplomas. Surmounting the whole is an equestrian statue of the Prince as a Field Marshal. The intention here is clear: to demonstrate the Prince’s life, deeds and virtues, and to represent the community of mourning generated by his death. Yet, one of the primary aims of the conference is to encourage us to think about memorial artworks, objects and texts, not simply as artworks, objects and texts, but to think about the ways in which they might have functioned as part of the Victorian experience of grief and expression of mourning. We want to think about what these memorials mean in themselves, but also to consider how contemporaries might have viewed, engaged with and potentially found solace in them.

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‘The Solace of Objects’

 Central to The Materials of Mourning conference are the material traces of Victorian mourning practice. In exploring artist Felicity Powell’s ‘Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects’, currently exhibited at the Wellcome Collection, Claire reflects upon the comfort of things.

‘Charmed Life’ emerges from Felicity Powell’s engagement with the collection of Edwardian amateur folklorist, Edward Lovett. The result is a beautifully eclectic display, featuring a small selection of the 1400 amulets gathered by Lovett from working-class Londoners, alongside Powell’s intricate works in wax, modelled in low relief on mirror backs. Among the many things kept as ‘lucky charms’ are small shoes, fragile glass seahorses, keys and pressed metal votives. Other amulets are more macabre, such as an animal vertebra carved with a human face (pictured), a mole wrapped in fabric kept to ward off danger, and the tip of a rabbit’s tongue against poverty. The exhibition also includes two films, ‘Sleight of Hand’ and ‘Scanning’, in which the artist explores connections between these objects and her own mortality.

These are objects of solace rather than grief. However, like hair-jewellery, post-mortem photography, and other forms in which the dead were commemorated in the Victorian period, they retain the power to fascinate and repel. Similarly, many of the amulets rely upon a complex intermingling of religious, secular, folkloric and superstitious beliefs for their potency. This exhibition led me to question the attachments that we form with objects, particularly in an accompanying video about ‘Charmed Life in Contemporary London’. Are our attachments to keepsakes any weirder than that of the unknown person that carried around a fabric-wrapped mole? Part of understanding the complexity and strangeness of Victorian mourning culture might lie in exploring our own present-day material responses to death.

‘Charmed Life’ is part of the free ‘Miracles and Charms’ exhibition hosted at the Wellcome Collection, London, between 6 October and 26 February.

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