My main interest in tombstones is for what they say about the dead: this has shaped the way I have designed this website. But in the course of my research, I have found myself more and more drawn to inscriptions as specimens of the stone-carver’s art. Here is a particularly lovely example, from the plaque of Philip Allanson, “gentleman”, who died in Bath in 1767. The man who carved it has made free use of italics and capitals, and also of the long ‘s’ (ſ) – though only in the middle, not at the ends of words. All these are typical features of eighteenth-century lettering. Notice also the spacing between letters and words. It is wide, and varies subtly for the sake of balance and emphasis. (Thus for example the middle line, “to all that knew him”, is more widely spaced than the line above. Presumably this is to make it longer, and to give it extra force, since it ends the first sentence.) In general, as my stone carver friend Emma Lavender has pointed out to me, eighteenth-century carved lettering follows the rhythms of handwritten, not printed text; this is what gives it its flowing, unconstrained quality.
Around 1815, the style changes markedly. Inscriptions from this date onward are modeled on print, not handwriting. The letters are evenly formed and spaced. Often capitals are used throughout. The overall effect is more mechanical, and less engaging. The tombstones of Anna Stanhope (1819) and William Arney (1824) are typical.
This tombstone of infant Samuel Friend and his sister Joan is quite special. For a start, it is unusually well-preserved for an eighteenth century tomb outside the church, being made of an extra-hard slate common on Dartmoor. (St. Petroc’s in Lydford contains several tombs cut from the same slate, some of them for other members of the Friend family.)
But the most charming feature of Samuel and Joan’s tomb is the naive angel which tops it, with her wild googly eyes. She is, presumably, blowing the last trump, but it looks more like she is smoking a huge pipe. There are other similar carvings in St. Petroc’s churchyard, possibly by the same local artist, whoever he was.
At the bottom of the inscription is a pious poem, of the sort common on children’s tombs, reassuring onlookers that “we are now where the angels be”. Above it are the Latin words: Memento Mori, Vita Brevis – “Remember death, life is brief”. I have created a special category for what I call “exemplars of death”. It brings up 28 records in all, with the highest concentration in the early 17th century. (Between 1610 and 1650, 6 out of the 13 recorded epitaphs have a “memento mori” theme. ) By the mid-eighteenth century, reminders of death have become much rarer. I have 13 records dated between 1730 and 1790, out of a total of 107. Six of these are from St. Petroc’s; another three are from the Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny. Perhaps it was only on the outer fringes of the British isles that this gloomy theme still persisted during the age of Enlightenment.
Daniel Pulteney (1684-1731) was a government official and politician, sitting in the House of Commons from 1721 till his death in 1731. Like his better-known cousin, William Pulteney, he was one of the “Patriot Whigs” opposed to the government of Robert Walpole, which might explain why he never held high office. His epitaph, in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, is long on patriotic virtues and short on actual achievements. Indeed, it mentions no achievements at all. Epitaphs of nineteenth-century public figures never fail, by contrast, to detail the ways in which they benefited the country. I think we can see in this a shift from a “virtue-centred” to an “achievement-centred” conception of politics. In the eighteenth century, it was considered sufficient for a public figure to have manifested certain qualities of mind and character. In the nineteenth century, he had to have actually done something.
Among the virtues for which Pulteney is commemorated are “independence” and “disinterestedness“. The one implies that Pulteney was his own man, in no one else’s pocket; the other implies that he judged all things according to the national, not his own private interest. Both were quintessentially Georgian virtues. “Independence” last appears in 1839; “disinterestedness” in 1824. Neither virtue made it into the post-Reform era of organised party politics.
Christopher Pitt, an eighteenth-century clergyman poet, was resident most of his adult life in or near Blandford Forum, Dorset, where his tombstone stands. He is hardly known today, but was well respected during his life for his translation of the Aeneid, which earned him a short mention in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets.
The inscription on his tomb is simple and elegant, and representative of a style which came into fashion in England in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century inscriptions are typically “unlineated”, meaning that their lines run on from edge to edge, as in ordinary prose. See the epitaph of Mary Marow (d. 1714) for a typical example. Christopher Pitt’s epitaph consists, by contrast, of short lines which have evidently been broken off at points carefully selected with a view to rhythm and “point”. This is a genre of writing all of its own, distinct from both prose and verse.
John Sparrow, the famous Warden of All Souls, wrote a fascinating little book, Visible Words (1969), on inscriptions as works of art. One chapter is devoted to the “lineated inscription”, which Sparrow sees as a typical expression of the seventeenth-century taste for concision and wit. But Sparrow’s survey is confined to Continental Europe. In England, still on the periphery of European artistic culture, the lineated inscription arrived somewhat later.
Lineation provided the epigrapher with some remarkable effects, which can only be appreciated by seeing his work in its original setting. This is, as Sparrow shows, a unique form of literary composition, which is addressed to both mind and eye together. It deserves more study than it has been given.
“Of great prudence, firmness and honour and a faithful member of the Church of England, she was loved by all who knew her for the gentleness and simplicity of her manners, her sweetness of temper, and her exemplary life.” Thus runs the epitaph of Harriet North, Countess of Guilford. “Prudence” (obscured by the reflection in the brass) is worth dwelling on. This classical virtue appears thirteen times in the records, at fairly regular intervals from 1670 through to 1874. If there is any change over time, it is in the sex of those it is ascribed to: before 1720, they are all women; after that date (with the exception of Harriet) they are all men. This chart shows the change.
Why this sea shift? I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect it has some connection with the declining importance of the household as a unit of production. In the seventeenth century, a wife of the upper class would be expected to “look well to the ways of her household”, as the Book of Proverbs puts it – manage the books, look after tenants, and so forth. “Prudence” was one of her essential attributes. But over the course of the eighteenth century, as managers took over the running of grand estates, the wife’s role was confined to that of companion and support to her husband and children. Tenderness, sweetness and love were now the virtues required of her, not prudence. Prudence became a masculine quality, something hard, dry and self-seeking – as it still is today.
Why Harriet North is the exception to this general rule, I cannot tell. It may be because because she outlived her very much older husband, Francis North, 6th Earl of Guilford (1772-1861) by thirteen years, marrying again two years after his death to a John Lettson Elliot of Pimlico. That suggests some degree of “prudence” and “firmness”.
This epitaph for “Nestor, a black, 22 years a servant to James Ramsay”, is one of a kind. Epitaphs for servants are rare enough – so far the collection contains only 4 out of 532 – and epitaphs for black servants are presumably much rarer. Fortuitously, we have one other, from the crypt of St. Martin in the Fields. But Nestor’s epitaph is exceptionally long and detailed.
Nestor is described as being of “neat dress”, “chaste, sober life”, “honest” and “diligent in Duty”, and “hating idle visiting” – all virtues which might well have endeared a servant to his master. “Chastity” is rarely mentioned on tombstones. We have only three other entries so far, from 1645, 1672 and 1730, all women. Nestor’s being praised for chastity suggests not just that it was expected of him but that it was not taken entirely for granted; young ladies from good families were not usually mentioned as being chaste. “Sobriety” is another rarely mentioned virtue. There are four other entries, from the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, where the word carries its older sense of decorum and restraint. Here, perhaps, it means simply that Nestor didn’t drink.
Nestor’s master, the Rev. James Ramsay, was an early opponent of the slave trade, having seen at first hand the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean. He was one of an influential group of abolitionists based in Teston, Kent, where he and Nestor are both buried – the “Testonites”, as they were called. ‘The plaque photographed here is a reconstruction carved by Emma Lavender, a stone-carver friend of mine, from the original; a resin copy resides at Teston Church.
This epitaph, from St. James’s, Westminster, illustrates many of the qualities which a grand lady of the early eighteenth century was expected to possess. Lady Mary is said to have behaved with dignity to both superiors and inferiors; she was “easy to ye meanest, not abject to ye greatest”, which made her “esteem’d by persons of ye first rank, valu’d by her equals, honour’d by her inferiors, & belov’d of all.” Kindness to social inferiors – or “condescension“, as it is sometimes called – is praised on five epitaphs, the last of them carved in 1835, after which more democratic attitudes prevail.
Lady Mary is also said to have possessed a “firmness of mind”, supporting her in all extremities so that “no cause of grief, no pain or sickness, could extort a complaint from her”. The virtues of patience, fortitude and resignation in the face of illness and death are frequently praised on Georgian and Victorian epitaphs, particularly in connection with women, to whom no other form of courage was available. A search of “virtues of endurance“, as I have called them, brings up 55 out of 527 epitaphs. 29 of these are of women, which given that men in general outnumber women by more than two to one means that women were much more likely than men to be praised for these particular excellences.
This epitaph for George Routleigh, watchmaker, is one of the main attractions of the little Dartmoor church of St. Petrock’s. The stone is eroded (it has only recently been moved inside the church, to preserve it) so here is the text in full:
Here lies in the horizontal positionThe outside case ofGeorge Routleigh, Watchmaker,Whose abilities in that line were an honourTo his profession:Integrity was the main-spring,And prudence the regulatorOf all the actions of his life:Humane, generous and liberal,His hand never stoppedTill he had relieved distress;So nicely regulated were all his movementsThat he never went wrongExcept when set-a-goingBy peopleWho did not know his key;Even then, he was easilySet right again:He had the art of disposing of his timeSo wellThat his hours glided awayIn one continual roundOf pleasure and delight,Till an unlucky moment put a period toHis existence;He departed this lifeNovember 14, 1802Wound up,in hopes of being taken in handBy his Maker,And of beingThoroughly cleaned, repaired and set-a-goingIn the World to come.
It seems that George Routleigh was not the first watchmaker to be memorialised in this way. The same epitaph was printed in the Derby Mercury in 1786, and then again in the 1797 almanac of a black American astronomer from Maryland called Benjamin Banneker. So the joke had been “going the rounds”. I have one other example in my collection of the same kind of humour, this one concerning a shorthand clerk called William Laurence, who died in 1621:
Short hand he wrot, his flowre in prime did fade,
And hasty death short hand of him hath made.
Well couth he numbers, and well mesur'd land,
Thus doth he now that ground wheron you stand
Wherin he lyes so geometricall.
Art maketh some but thus will nature all.
Perhaps there are other examples, but I haven’t found them. To us, these elaborate conceits upon the deceased’s trade seem in rather dubious taste, but they clearly didn’t strike people that way at the time. Death – or at least the death of clerks and artisans – was once a suitable occasion for wit.
Hannah Twynnoy, a barmaid at the White Lion Inn, Malmesbury, has the curious distinction of being the first person in England to be killed by a tiger. A local historian later recorded the incident as follows:
To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.
Hannah’s tombstone stands in the cemetery of Malmesbury Abbey. The poem on it reads:
In bloom of life
She’s snatch’d from hence
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
took life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.
The doctrine set forth so artlessly here is that of the “resurrection of the body” mentioned in the Creed, according to which the soul will be reunited with the body on the last day. The same doctrine features on a few other early tombstones too. “Her soul resteth with God till the general resurrection when she shall rise again” runs the epitaph of Elihonor Sadler (d. 1622). “Here lyeth deposited his mortal part untill it shall bee raised up unto immortal life and glory”, proclaims the inscription on the tomb of Sir Nicholas Martyn (d. 1653). This ancient belief seems to have faded away during the Age of Reason. On late eighteenth-century tombstones, bodies no longer “rise up” out of “beds of clay”; rather souls are “translated” or “wafted” to their divine abode, to be received by the “angelic quire”. Heaven has become a matter of poetry, not fact.
The Quickes have farmed an estate in Newton St Cyres, Devon, since the 16th century. The current incumbent, Mary Quicke, still makes cheddar there today. John Quicke lies buried alongside many of his relatives in the local parish church. His plaque is simple and classical, topped with a relief of an obelisk and urn in the Adams’ manner. Its inscription is written in those balanced Ciceronian periods which seem to convey an ethical as well as an aesthetic ideal:
In his Character were united the politeness of a Gentleman and the Sincerity of a Christian.
Religion, in other words, is but one aspect of life, to be held in harmony with others. It is not all-embracing ideal which it had been in the 17th century.
Notice, too, that John Quicke’s “benevolence to mankind” is said to have been “universal”. “Universal benevolence” is a virtue that begins to crop up on tombstones at around this time. To date, I have collected six examples ranging from 1776 to 1825; run a search for details. Perhaps we can see in this fashion for universal benevolence a remote echo of the republican spirit abroad in America and France. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, condemned the “new-invented virtue” of “universal benevolence” for weakening all particular affections. But we may doubt that John Quicke’s benevolence had any such radical tendencies!