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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.

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