The language of mourning

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

“…Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
Into something rich and strange…”

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit

Shelley Memorial, Edward Onslow Ford (installed at University College, Oxford, 1893) (Pic credit

These hauntingly beautiful words, as sung by the ethereal spirit, Ariel, in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, tell of the passing of a man from life into death. Rather than describing the process as a simple loss of life, here death is a metamorphosis from a literal state into one less defined, yet no less vital.

Shakespeare’s famous words can be found carved into the gravestone of English romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, which lies in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The former husband of Gothic novelist Mary Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822, after his boat was caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia.

Shelley’s life and death were consequently memorialised by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, who depicts his body nude and washed up on the shore. While the white marble statue has been housed ever since at University College, Oxford, it has ever been linked in art history to the Italian gravesite; the physical rendering of Shelley’s death merges with the power of Shakespeare’s words.

It is this interplay between word and image which has long fascinated Professor Hilary Fraser, executive dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She recently shared her fascination at the Sally Ledger Memorial lecture (this year a major component of the Arts and Feeling Conference), held at Birkbeck’s Clore lecture theatre which brimmed with colleagues and peers from the arts and academia.

Her lecture, ‘The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture’ explored the aesthetic response to art, and how writers and critics conceptualise the emotional aspects of it. A stimulating, and at times very poignant presentation, it seemed an appropriate topic for exploration, given the fact the biennial lecture marks the loss – and celebrates the life – of Professor Sally Ledger, a leading scholar of 19th century literature at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway who died in 2009.

Bridging the gap between public and private experience

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit,

Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889), Auguste Rodin. (Pic credit,

To frame her presentation, Prof Fraser shared her experience of attending the 2006 Royal Academy exhibition of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work. At the time experiencing bereavement in her own life, Prof Fraser had a powerful response to the series of mournful sculptures on display – most notably Les Bourgeois de Calais (1889).

“It was a tremendous exhibition, but I had to walk out,” Prof Fraser explained.

“It made my heart swell too much for me to remain comfortably. Why? Because it spoke to me about my own grief.”

This experience affirmed her research interest in how public monuments can bring forth a private response, and how this sentiment is reflected in critical and poetic responses to sculpture.

During the course of her lecture, Prof Fraser drew on many examples to illustrate this strand of her research, firstly on the writing of Rainer Maria Rilke – once Rodin’s private secretary – who also noted the ability of art to bridge the gap between public and private experience.

Other examples included:

  • Roland Barthes’s thoughts on photography and its link between the “then” and the “now”, much like in sculpture
  • Frank Rinder’s writing on Edward Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift – a sculpture of a dead, or perhaps merely sleeping, female figure which is noted for its haunting realism, serving to strengthen the viewer’s emotional response
  • British aesthete and intellectual Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget), who wrote about the ability of art to invoke “the human realities” of what they represent
  • Andrea Carlo Lucchesi’s memorial to Edward Onslow Ford, which stands in London’s Abbey Road; its mournful female figure (a reference to Onslow Ford’s Muse of Poetry) who is seated, not playing her lyre. This direct sculptural reference to Onslow Ford’s comparatively joyful figure in turn evoked within Prof Fraser’s mind such writing as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, and Frederic Leighton’s The Great God Pan

“We respond with our hearts”

In conclusion, Prof Fraser reiterated that, in carrying out her research into The Language of Mourning in Fin-de-Siècle Sculpture, she hopes to affirm the importance of feeling ‘then’ and ‘now’, both in the experience of the arts and in the academic community.

Powerful sculptures like the Shelley Memorial, she said, “break down the distinctions between public and private grief”. And as has been recurrently reflected upon by writers and critics through the centuries, the affective experience of viewing a public piece of work is so often defined by the private experience we bring to it.

“We respond with our bodies, with our hearts and tears perhaps, across space and time,” Prof Fraser concluded.

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