The Artists of Chiswick Old Cemetery
It’s long been an ambition of mine to go to the grave of William Hogarth. One of our greatest artists and political commentators: a man who more it less invented Have I Got News For You centuries before the medium that transmits it was created.
There’s a print that shows his tomb, newly constructed, give or take, with a view of the surrounding Churchyard, Chiswick Eyot and the Thames in the background. With a free afternoon I decided to examine my bucket list of places in London to visit and see that Hogarth wasn’t the only artistic guy buried in the Churchyard of St Nicholas.
A place of worship has existed here since the 15th Century and many of the surviving tombs are Georgian. There, towards the front, is Hogarth’s. Etched with an epitaph written by David Garrick, the George Clooney of the 18th Century and with various symbols denoting his trade as a draftsman and social examiner, I placed myself in the footsteps of that etching and looked.
Job done, head back to the path and say hello to Nanny Clare in nearby Chiswick New. But wait – what’s in the other side of that metal fence? Graves aplenty. Is that Chiswick Old?
Using land donated by the Duke of Devonshire in 1838, it was merely an extension of the Parish Churchyard. However, whilst walking around the tombs and graves, one thing became clear. There’s an awful lot of artists here – comrades in arms with William, albeit on the other side of the chest-height iron railings.
Standing proudly in a cleared area is the tomb of Ugo Foscolo. Here’s a man who was no stranger to graveyards; his seminal work, Dei Sepolcri, was written in response to his displeasure of Napoleon’s decree that all the dead of Venice were to be buried outside the City walls in uniform graves – much like us here on our blog, he saw the value and importance of art and individualism when it came to remembering the dead. An active writer, his tenure in England was as a result of his refusal to take the oath of allegiance when the Austrians marched into Italy. Writing for the Edinburgh Review and briefly teaching at a girl’s school in Stoke Newington, he died in poverty in 1827.
Forty years after his death his remains were brought home, to the Church of Santa Croce, under the instruction of the King of Italy. This was part of a plan to unite a divided Italy – bringing home an Italian hero could do nothing but bolster the cause.
Along the northern walk is another artist a long way from his homeland. Painter James Whistler, of Whistler’s Mother fame. Another man who called London his home, Whistler, originally born in Massachusetts, moved to London (its proximity to friends in Paris had him sample the best of both worlds)where he exhibited a painting of his mother and niece at the Royal Academy in 1859. By the 1870’s he was securing commissions such as contributing to the refurbishment of the home of shipping magnate Frederick Richard Leyland. Thomas Jekyll, who was focussing on the dining room, was taken ill and so Whistler volunteered to finish the job, with one or two ornamental changes.
Ornamental became monumental. In a room that contained wood panelling that was part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry, what was supposed to resemble a Tudor refuge was suddenly bursting with blue and gold paint, in an oriental style. Leyland was incandescent wih rage at Whistler’s ad hoc changes and poor old Thomas Jekyll, returning from his sickbed, was so distraught by what had happened to his work that he was discovered in the foetal position in his studio, covered in gold leaf. He died, insane, three years later. Coupled with Whistler taking a shine to Leyland’s estranged wife, Whistler and Leyland never spoke again.
An art deco masterpiece happens to be nearby. Edward Bainbridge Copnall’s best known work adorn the old HQ of RIBA in Portland Place, where his ‘Architectural Aspiration’ looms over the street – venture up to the top floor (it’s free to get in) and there’s a picture of Copnall, seemingly in Village People mode, holding a chisel and hammer in a very seductive manner. Here though, an early piece of his from the 1920’s sits atop the grave of Sir Percy Harris, who originally had it on display in his garden at Chiswick Mall and became his memorial upon his death in 1952.
One of the most imposing and impressive monuments in the Cemetery is to the memory of Frederick Hitch. Hitch, along with eleven others, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in defending the garrison in th fierce Battle of Roke’s Drift in 1879. This hero, who was forced to retire from the army due to the injuries he sustained, didn’t thrive in civilian life – the army pension was small and so he had to settle with being the Victorian equivalent of a cabbie to eke out a living.
Coupled with a fall in 1901 which had him awake in hospital, with his medal stolen (although the circumstances as to how it was stolen vary) he was accused of faking the story after selling his medal to raise money. His funeral had his body encompass full military honours and his memorial was largely funded from the matinee takings of 1912 cinematic success ‘The Miracle’, at what is now the Regent Street Campus of the University of Westminster – art funding death.
The clock was ticking and I had a Grandmother to visit in Chiswick Old’s successor, a 15 minute walk away – but do take the time to wander round this desolate little art gallery – its an exhibition worthy of anything at the Royal Academy.