“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819, John Keats
Churning around the Capital, as is my wont from time to time, I snapped this all too easily seen as just decorative, twiddly-bit ornamentation in South West London [in fact there were two, one either side of the gateway]. I think what caught my eye was the juxtaposition of the square aspect wrought iron scrollwork, the topiary corkscrews, and this fairly large gatepost finial amid the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the windows [with the dark brickwork cross so made between].
Of course, being an architecture and street furniture fan, I have seen this type of feature thousands of times before. However it was only today that its full peculiarity hit me.
urn. Lidded ovaloid vase on a circular plan used in Classical Antiquity to contain cremated remains. It was a form later revived for purposes of architectural decoration, on balustrade pedestals, set in niches, or used as garden-ornaments.
So the grandiose ostentations on the frontages of many abodes are essentially funereal in nature. When and why did this fashion arise? I can only assume during the mid 18th Century Neoclassical period of Architecture, heralded by the discoveries being made from the 1740’s onward of ancient Roman antiquities. For the wealthier classes anyway [visions of architectural urns outside mansions as containing the ashes of faithful footmen, ladies in waiting, and favourite hounds] as led by the Style of the Brothers Adam. And then again later for the more middle-class upon the classical revival in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras [visions of more modest sized urns filled with the ashes of scullery maids and nannies].
But why? Were they in a more religious age seen as an act of piety? In times of higher/earlier mortality some form of memento mori? Or simply an expression of taste [keeping up with the Whittington-Smythes]?
I assume the parts of a decorative urn have names – foot/pedestal/neck/lid? and an expert could date examples by the type of vegetation used to cover the base [much like columns] or the fluting on the body for instance.
Seen this way London is certainly one giant dissipated Columbarium inside an even larger Mortopolis.
Here is a copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall