Review: Victorian Cemetery Art by Edmund V. Gillon Jr.

I’ve known there was a copy of this book in my University library collection since I began my undergrad dissertation almost 5 years ago, but because it was held at another campus library (which somehow I never found time to visit) It took me an inexcusably long time to go and find it!

When I finally did, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. I had presumed from the inclusion of ‘Victorian’ in the title, it would be British cemetery art, but it’s actually about American memorials. Also, I hoped that the book would contain a detailed explanation of different art styles, symbolism and their development, but other than 5 pages of text in the introduction, it’s entirely a collection of photographs – 260 of them.

But what photographs! These black and white images, all taken by the author, are stunning. The level of detail is incredible and the light is superb, making these solid stone monuments look somehow fragile and otherworldly. The Amazon page for the book describes them as ‘Hauntingly beautiful’ and I have to agree. Each photograph is helpfully accompanied by the name of the cemetery where it was taken, and in some cases a few additional details about the memorial or deceased. I would love to know more about all of the memorials though. That’s a researcher’s prerogative I guess! The photographs are roughly divided into 6 categories; angels, children, personal symbolism, fixed symbolism, Roman & Egyptian styles and ironwork, they aren’t separated into chapters, but most of the enjoyment from this volume is flicking through at leisure.

The introduction also contains a series of engravings, reproduced from Green-Wood and Mount Auburn (1847) which is a rare treat because the original text is not easy to come by (see here), and although I’d seen some of the Greenwood ones before in Etlin’s Architecture of Death that’s a rare book too! Some of the Mount Auburn engravings are in Silent City on a Hillbut it’s lovely to see them together here.

The one real weakness of this book is it’s failure to deal with the symbolism of these monuments. The introduction explains that by the 19th century, the standard iconography used by Renaissance artists was no longer as widely recognized and so new symbols were created by craftsmen to personalize memorials- for instance the use of an open bible to represent a minister. The book showcases many of these personal symbols, but also contains a series of images of ‘certain fixed symbols – logs, trunks of trees, baskets of flowers, lodge emblems. Animals are shown – dogs guarding their master’s graves, as well as lions, eagles, doves’ (page xi) but the book contains no information at all about what those symbols meant to the people who commissioned or constructed the monuments.  The author tells us that ‘None of these symbols, however, was meant to be literal. We see the literal because we have forgotten the symbolic meaning. But to their first viewers and to their creators, the symbolic meaning was immediately apparent.’ (page xii) but doesn’t let us in on the secret… Therefore I recommend those less familiar with 19th century symbolism read this in conjunction with a guide, such as Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister (available here, I recommend this particular guide because it also deals with American memorials). However seeing as the main aim of the book was to publicize the wonderful art of American cemeteries, then I’m sure it fulfills this role admirably.

I will be very sad to return this book to the library though, because of the wonderful photographs, so perhaps one day I will add a copy to my ever growing collection! It’s available fairly widely on the secondhand market (for instance here and here).

victorian cemetery art gillon

Bibliography

Cleveland, N and Walter, C. 1847, Green-Wood and Mount Auburn, R. Martin, New York.

Etlin, R, 1984, Architecture of Death: Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth Century Paris, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Gillon, E. V. 1972, Victorian Cemetery Art, Dover Publications, New York.

Linden, B. M. 1989, Silent City on a Hill; Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Keister, D. 2004, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Gibbs Smith, Layton.

Comments

  • adding another book to the wishlist then i guess *__*

    • Me too! My shelves are already groaning under the weight of cemetery books, and still I find more…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *