gistofthegrist

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Hydriotaphia

“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

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5 thoughts on “Hydriotaphia

  1. I think that’s a flambeau on the top, signifying resurrection. All these lapidary objects are packed with masonic meaning; Portland stone cartouches, particularly ‘vacant cartouches’ abound too; just waiting for someone to die so their details can be inserted/inscribed; you know Nat Insurance number, infamous last words etc.

  2. Yes. Also suspect that having something of the ‘chalice’ about them, holds a key to their symbolism? Of course urns are commonplace [or used to be] as monuments in cemeteries, but why on the front of your house? Keeping loved ones close/as a form of security [though not sure that grave-robbing ever extended to stealing ashes? Though they would have a monetary value as fertiliser] but can find no evidence that these architectural urns were ever more than ornamental, rather than functional, so their use is most intriguing.

    • Probably to do with status (so when visitors got out of their carriages they were immediately reminded of Rome and Greece, thereby adding gravity and amazement to the occasion); also the 18th century was the age in which the landed gentry with country piles started to buy elegant terraced houses in London, so they could come up to “town” for the party season for instance; in fact this is where the trendy concept that London is a “town” derives: the Georgian second home brigade, though the central, polite district of what is now Londonistan was town-sized, ie manageable as a mental model, albeit being the biggest conurbation apart from Constantinople in the western world. The street plan was further codified by “Harris’s List” (1757-95) [authored by Jack Harris -pimp general of all England], a proto A-Z guide to smart Covent garden brothels, bagnios and bawdy houses for young rakes, who might also need reminding of their own mortality by stern patriarchy from time to time, hence the Regency urnage everywhere, whilst it shouldn’t be forgotten that before the reign of George III, London’s roads didn’t have fixed names, or were referred to in shorthand by locals. So, it’s possible that all kinds of objects from apothecary flasks to dead dogs acted as waymarks, or mnemonic devices for navigating a dangerous city.

      • yes am leaning towards thinking that if other than merely decorative, that these objet d’mort functioned thus: these were households that HAD suffered a bereavement and that publicly wanted others to know that fact AND to recognise their social status i.e. well off enough to be able to afford such ostentatious displays of grief. I come to this conclusion looking at the history of funereal ‘art’ in cemeteries – which fulfilled similar functions. Interesting then the anthropological data to be gleaned from such ‘furniture’. Also fascinating that this practice died out [groan] after WWI due to the changed nature/beliefs in death/grieving that that conflict brought about.

      • The industrialisation of death, that reached its terminus in the Nazi death ‘camps’; some of which operate nowadays as destinations for so called ‘dark tourism’.

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