Category Archives: Research interests

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.


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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