At the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, I had the pleasure and privilege of recently delivering the opening speech for a pair of death-related museum exhibitions. In a previous post, I identified some of my favourite elements of the Dead Normal exhibition. However, I didn’t get a chance to explore and appreciate the companion art exhibition upstairs in any detail. Having spent some time on annual leave this last week, I went back to view it in more detail. So, I now can offer thoughts on Memento Mori: Tombs and Memorials in Cheshire.

Roman tombstone of ‘Sarmatian’ by William Monk: pencil

Open until 24 February 2019,  Memento Mori is a valuable and rich display of art on a mortuary theme: an exhibition exploring memorialisation across time through 19th- and 20th-century art’s engagement with past and contemporary monuments to the dead. Thus, in subject and timing, it complements the Dead Normal exhibition, showing 19th- and 20th-century images of the monuments and landscapes of death and memory in the county, relying in particular on the collections of the Chester Archaeological Society.

John de Witmore monument, Holy Trinity Church, Chester – sepia wash over pencil by unknown artist.

The value of this art is manifold, they reveal:

  1. the antiquarian and artistic interest in recording memorial fragments and monuments, particularly in church and churchyard settings;
  2. the skills and technology of local artists and photographers;
  3. conventions and perspectives on monuments and their settings;
  4. a sense of monuments’ likeness. In some cases, the 19th-century images are far better than any modern photographic single-perspective can hope to record. In the early 21st century, we are still struggling to capture these monuments in digital form, including 3D models, to rival some 19th-century renditions;
  5. a record of past positions and conditions, especially valuable where monuments are now inaccessible, have been moved or lost;
  6. how the art is itself a form of memorialisation: transforming and transmitting the original monuments to a new medium and potential audiences;
  7. how, together, the exhibition is itself an act of remembering, by assembling these images of past art about death into a narrative of past memorial endeavours.

As a gallery, chronologically ordered in terms of subject matter, the visitor encounters not only a narrative of past intent, and artistic attempts to capture these memorial expressions, but we are reminded of our continued struggle to make sense of past memorials, as well as our own mortality.

Monuments in Bunbury and Farndon churches by William Finden after George Pickering
Lady Lever memorial of 1914, Christ Church, Port Sunlight, 2017 by David Heke

The below picture distils these themes and affords a sense of medieval tombs in a Victorian churchyard setting. Depicted by J.P. Swanick in the early 1860s, it shows an east Cheshire churchyard: Astbury. The focus of the perspective is upon the oldest monuments in the churchyard: a dislocated late 13th century monument comprising a pair of effigies set in a 17th-century canopy. This monument – known as the Venables monument – is flanked by further medieval worn effigies upon tomb-chests, the one in view bearing a knightly effigy. All have been moved from their original intramural locations, presumably in the post-medieval period. They are thus shown set in the contemporary churchyard context of 19th-century memorials and trees, with prominent examples of iron railings around tombs, and the church in the far distance, as well as domestic buildings. This example shows the merit of the art as an artistic perspective, an historical record and interpretation, and as a memorial in itself to both individual tombs, and their dynamic landscape settings.