Opened in the early 1900s in a well-heeled area on the edge of Richmond Park, East Sheen Cemetery seems at first to be an entirely typical 20th Century burial ground, its paths lined by stone and marble monuments, sheltered by pine trees. Sadly, it’s suffered from vandalism over the years and a number of crosses and headstones have fallen or been pushed over.
However, there is a dramatic surprise waiting for visitors to this otherwise unassuming cemetery.
Described by English Heritage as being “one of the most significant examples of 20th Century funerary sculputre”, the stunning angel that marks the resting place of George and Louisa Lancaster dominates the burial ground. It is far and away the most ornate memorial in the cemetery and towers above the neat gravestones nearby. When I visited the cemetery, every single passer by I saw stopped to admire this incredible sculpture.
Cast in bronze, the sculpture of the grieving angel was created by Sydney March, who was also responsible for a number of war memorials around England in the years after the First World War. He also collaborated with his similarly artistic brothers and sister to create the National War Memorial of Canada. He and his siblings worked in the grounds of the family home in Kent, where they had a metal foundry as well as studios. As well as war memorials, March also sculpted royalty and military figures in bronze – the Lancaster tomb is one of his more unusual works, although he also created a bronze angel for his family’s own grave.
The people whose final resting place is marked by the spectacular tomb seem at first glance to have been simply a wealthy couple, with George Lancaster’s money having been made through mining interests in his native Lancashire. However, it was only after Louisa’s death that something of a scandal was revealed about her relationship with George. They had never been legally married, and after Louisa died George’s legal wife Emily took Louisa’s son Arthur to court, accusing him of falisfying his mother’s details when registering her death. Louisa had previously been married to a Mr Jones, but as a result of her relationship with George, Louisa’s husband divorced her in 1896 – something of a rare occurance at the time.
George Lancaster was also married when he began his relationship with Louisa – he had separated from his wife Emily, but they never divorced. George and Louisa set up home as man and wife and were even recorded as being married on the 1901 census. Louisa inherited the majority of George’s wealth upon his death, with only a much smaller amount going to the legal Mrs Lancaster. Perhaps it was this that compelled Emily Lancaster to take her husband’s stepson to court.
Gravestones featuring angels are a fairly common sight in Victorian cemeteries, but at the end of the 19th Century a famous sculpture began something of a fashion for more dramatically-depicted angels, such as our bronze angel at East Sheen. The Angel of Grief, marking the grave of sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. The angel was sculpted by Story himself and it has become one of the most well-known funerary monuments, being reproduced many times in graveyards around the world, particularly in America. It’s also been used as an image on album covers, most recently by the Finnish band Nightwish for their album Once. Like the Lancaster angel at East Sheen, Story’s Angel of Grief conveys a huge amount of emotion.
As a rule, 20th Century graves are usually less ostentatious than their Victorian forebears. Many Victorian symbols lingered into the new century, and at East Sheen one can find here and there a broken pillar, clasped hands or a stone angel, but the draped urns and Gothic ornamentation that were popular in the 19th Century are nowhere to be seen. Graves are plainer, but often feel more personal – one example is that it’s much more common to find pet names, such as the one on the grave pictured below.
Among the toppled graves and fallen pinecones of East Sheen Cemetery, the other gravestones may be less ornate, less dramatic than the angel marking the Lancaster grave, but nonetheless they also tell their tales of grief.
References and further reading
The Lancaster Monument, East Sheen Cemetery, British Listed Buildings http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-438030-the-lancaster-monument-east-sheen-cemete
Marriage is just a piece of paper – George William Lancaster and Louisa Mary Wilkinson (East Sheen Cemetery), The London Dead, 6th October 2014 http://thelondondead.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/marriage-is-just-piece-of-paper-george.html
Cemetery Statues of Grief, A Grave Interest, 31st January 2014 http://agraveinterest.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/cemetery-statues-of-grief.html