In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

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Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

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[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)