Rock Creek Cemetery
Who says cemeteries can’t be beautiful?
You see those mausoleums? They gave me shade from the relentless August that I had to endure during my stay in Washington D.C. I walked a mile from the Catholic University of America campus (where I was staying) to the first and finest of the cemeteries in the States. Dripping with sweat, I composed myself. The heat didn’t deter me; what did this 18th century garden of the dead have here?
The gates to the Aldrich Mausoleum – a columbarium for William Farrington Aldrich, thrice US Congressman for Alabama’s 4th District.
1. It’s one of America’s oldest cemeteries
Opening in 1719 under the Province of Maryland (which at that time was under British control) its expansion was assured as it became the burial ground of the city of Washington D.C in 1791. It was formally established through an Act of Congress in 1840 which saw it change from enormous churchyard to a place of rest, reflection and a place where scale is far bigger than back in Blighty. One commentator described it having a ‘barren golf course look‘ – which does it a disservice, it’s ruddy beautiful.
2. It’s got the little brother of a BIG artwork
Scuplture! Good grief, the sculpture. Tonnes of it, here. The immaculately kept grounds hold some of the finest bronzes I’ve ever seen, easily rivalling the ones I’d seen in London.
Rabboni was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum and serves as the tomb of banker and tapestry collector Charles Matthew Foulke (1841 – 1909). It’s a representation of Mary Magdalene as she recognises the risen Jesus from his tomb at Easter. Ffouke had a short career teaching in Quaker schools before entering the wool business in Florence in 1861 and after 11 years, he retired and went on a two year sabbatical in Europe.
His collection of tapestries had to be housed in a rented convent in Florence, because of the high import tax that he would have incurred had they be shipped to the United States. Only the best made it back to the family home at 2013 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in a room that not only held his daughter’s weddings but also visits from foreign dignitaries.
You may not have heard of the sculptor, but you’ve definitely seen his most famous work.
3. It’s like stepping back in time
Many Americans I’ve met cannot fathom the state we keep our cemeteries in. Rock Creek is essentially what the grand cemeteries of long ago were like – there are no unkept grasses here. Beautiful lakes, stout mausoleums and a team of dedicated gardeners keep this looking like Kew Gardens. Also boasting the luxury of space, these are living spaces which boats the remains of Edgar Allan Poe’s sister and Mrs. Simpson’s mother.
Thompson, of the Thompson-Harding Memorial. Ms. Harding is round the back – this was built in 1898 and surveyed as part of the Save Outdoor Sculpture programme back in 1993.
4. It has a headstone inspired by a British artist
One of the most famous portraits to have been created in the Victorian era was created almost as an afterthought. Frederick Leighton (1830 – 1896) originally painted the motif that would become the seminal ‘Flaming June’ as part of another picture of his, entitled ‘Summer Slumber’ – it was to adorn a bath. He became so fond of the image that he decided to make a painting of it in its own right. Leighton worked on several poses and states of undress before he settled on the finished version – the pose suggests that the girl knows she’s being watched; with the oleander branch above her head acting as a symbol of the fragile link between sleep and death.
Considered his magnum opus, the painting gained worldwide acclaim and has manifested itself as a bronze on this grave.
5. The Godfather of Grudges is here
The last resting place of Gore Vidal and his lover Howard Austen draws a steady number of visitors. Vidal was an essayist, writer and author, often referred to as ‘the last surviving giant of American literature’s golden age’ who was known for his blunt views and inability to suffer fools gladly.
One handshake away from Oscar Wilde and just as waspish, one of my favourite quotes of his is: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”.
Famously shunning labels such as ‘gay’ and claiming that ‘we are all bisexual to begin with‘, one anecdote remarks on an encounter he had had with Noel Coward. “Let’s have a roll in the hay.” said Coward, with Gore remarking, whilst it was enjoyable, it was nothing new.
His spats with commentator and conservative William F Buckley are legendary.
6. There’s a link to Shakespeare
The Kauffman monument commemorates the life of former Washington Star owner Samuel Kauffman. A massive investor in art, Kauffman’s memorial depicts Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It, with a figure representing Memory working, with her head bowed, on a wreath made out of asphodel – a plant which in ancient Greek mythology has strong links to the dead and the underworld.
Shown here in 1914, seven years after its installation.
Kauffman, originally from Ohio, had a background in telegraphy and print and alongside his associates Crosby and Noyes, purchased the paper in 1867. He was a huge patron of the arts – at the time of his death he was the expert on equestrian statues in America, apparently, as well as being a trustee of the now defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art.
He was the patron of Max Weyl, a German watchmaker-cum-painter. After taking his watch in for repair, he was struck by the paintings in the window – a side project that Weyl had built up the courage to display. He loved his work and spread the word, to the point that two First Ladies hung his work in the White House and thus sealed his new career as a painter.
7. ‘The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding’ makes you ask questions
This tomb deserves a post all of its own, because the stuff associated with it is corking – the fact its nearly taken me twelve months to even try and work out how to fit this into a blog post says a lot about that.
It was erected in memory of Adams’ wife Clover, who committed suicide by drinking the potassium cyanide she used to develop her photography – one of her great loves. The architect, Augustus Saint-Gaudens took inspiration from Buddhist devotional art from Japan where a seated figure called Kannon was a major influence on the overall design of the sculpture (and encouraged in this direction by Adams who travelled to the country in the year after Clover’s death in 1885).
People commonly refer to this piece as Grief, which annoyed Adams no end. A replica is also in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (pictured) which poses the question, where does cemetery art truly deserve to be – in a cemetery or a museum?
I only had ten days in D.C although I managed to visit this one three times – twice in the early mornings, when the humidity and temperature were bearable. Gosh, how I pined for the cooler climes being enjoyed by its residents below. There are *so* many more stories to share from this one – it’s probably my favourite cemetery that I’ve visited in D.C thus far; watch this space for more!