Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.

What the Moon Saw

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

We’ve been thinking a fair bit about chimney sweeps recently at Central Library… Not because the chimneys here need attention (it’s a long time since any of our various original fireplaces held an open fire) but because our student-curated Sweepiana exhibition is currently occupying Room 700 until 5 May 2017. Objects on display range from a real – and tiny – top hat worn by an unfortunate young sweep, to a life-size mock-up of a chimney for you to stick your head inside and shudder at the thought of having to climb. We also have, as you’d expect, a fine selection of books, mostly from the city’s Henry Collection, which focuses specifically on the subject of sweeps.

One of the most exciting things about this collection is the sheer variety it encompasses, whether it’s rare and beautifully illustrated editions of William Blake poetry (“A little black thing among the snow / Crying “’weep! ’weep!” in notes of woe!”) or medical studies of chimney sweep health in the Victorian era. For me, one surprise was the sixteen different books of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, an author I previously associated only with what I assumed to be children’s fairy tales involving little mermaids and ugly ducklings. A less familiar but fairly characteristic story of his, entitled The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper, explains why he’s so well represented in the Henry Collection, but there’s also another story included in some of the volumes that mentions a sweep – one that’s not as well-known, and which I think remains one of Andersen’s most unusual tales.

Fairy tale compendiums from 1905 and 1887, included in the Henry Collection

What the Moon Saw was published in 1839, making it the 21st fable from Andersen’s pen (a number that would eventually total 168). Uniquely, it is split into 33 short parts, each describing unrelated scenes witnessed by the Moon as it travels around the world, looking down at its inhabitants over the course of some fifty or so nights. Fittingly for a tale told entirely after sunset, the tone is dark, even occasionally bleak – something I didn’t immediately associate with this author, despite being mildly traumatized as a child by a story of his called The Daisy (no one, be they flora or fauna, survives that grim little piece).

In What the Moon Saw, we’re first introduced to a young artist who has moved to a garret in the city, only to find his creative passion outweighed by loneliness: “Instead of green woods and hills, I had only chimney pots on my horizon. I had not a single friend, and there was not even the face of an acquaintance to greet me.”


Illustration by Rex Whistler, from Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen, published by Cobden-Sanderson Ltd (1935) and part of the Henry Collection

But one familiar face does eventually appear in the sky outside his window – that of the Moon, who decides to check in on the artist each night, describing a scene for him to paint and enabling the creation of ‘a very fine picture book’. (In fact, the story was originally published under the name A Picture Book without Pictures.) The rest of the tale is not really a tale at all, but a collection of abstract impressions, some dreamlike and haunting, some almost unbearably tragic, and many concerned with death. We don’t encounter the artist again until the ‘Eighth Evening’, when the Moon can’t appear due to some unfortunate cloud issues; and – after that – never again, as the vignettes take over from the original narrative completely and What the Moon Saw drifts into what it really wanted to be all along: a multifaceted and powerful prose poem about introspection, finding one’s place in the world, and recognizing that none of this ultimately amounts to very much after your star has twinkled out.

The moon itself, of course, has long been regarded as symbolic of inner emotions. The light it shines in this pictureless picture book is full of compassion – and yet a very real sense of distance, as it can only ‘kiss’ with its rays those who evoke its sympathy. Across the many scenes the Moon recounts, we hear about a suicidal actor, a little girl whose favourite doll is stuck in a tree, the deserted cityscapes of Pompeii and Venice, the birth of new life, and many bereaved and dying characters of all kinds. Here’s one of the lighter moments – the ‘Twenty-Sixth Evening’, and another reason why the works of Andersen sit alongside the others of the Henry Collection:

“It was yesterday, in the morning twilight … in the great city no chimney was yet smoking—and it was just at the chimneys that I was looking. Suddenly a little head emerged from one of them, and then half a body, the arms resting on the rim of the chimney-pot. ‘Hurrah!’ cried a voice. It was the little chimney-sweeper, who had for the first time in his life crept through a chimney, and stuck out his head at the top. ‘Hurrah!’ this was a very different thing to creeping about in the dark narrow chimneys! the air blew so fresh, and he could look over the whole city towards the green wood. The sun was just rising. It shone round and great, just in his face, that beamed with triumph, though it was very prettily blacked with soot. ‘The whole town can see me now,’ he exclaimed, ‘and the moon can see me now, and the sun too. Hurrah!’ And he flourished his broom in triumph.”


Illustration by Thomas, Charles and William Robinson, from Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, published by Dent & Co. (1905) and included in the Henry Collection

To find out more about the Sweepiana exhibition and the books included, come to our free Meet the Curators event on Monday 24 April at Leeds Central Library. Book your place via Ticketsource.

A Giant, Grade II* Listed Work of Art

  • By Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, and Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

For this year’s Library Fest, we decided to create a tour of the beautiful Leeds Central Library that reimagined the building as a huge work of art. Looking to its many and varied architectural features for inspiration, we drew on the works of artists such as MC Escher and Bridget Riley to reinterpret the familiar stairways, ceilings and tilework that visitors to the library pass by every day. The result was The Library Illusion, a new walking trail that guides explorers through three floors of stunning architecture and six centuries of art history, with an emphasis on visual tricks and deception.

As well as the tour (which took place last Sunday) and trail guide (available while stocks last!) we also challenged three artists to create new pieces in response to different aspects of the building’s design. These have been on display in Central Library throughout Library Fest.

The ground floor is home to Pilot by Jill McKnight, which is inspired by the stone dogs that guard our staircases. As well as being a fabric sculpture in velour, Pilot is an anamorphic perspective illusion, meaning that it requires the viewer to stand in a particular spot to fully appreciate its true form. The effect is reminiscent of the way a mysterious skull appears in Hans Holbein’s famous portrait The Ambassadors (1533) if you approach it from a diagonal angle, such as descending a nearby staircase. We’ll give you extra credit if you recognise the appropriate literary reference in our piece’s title… (Clue: it’s named after the hound belonging to a certain Mr Rochester!)

Pilot (top) and one of the library's heraldic beasts (bottom)

Pilot (top) and one of the library’s heraldic beasts

On the first floor, outside the Art Library, visitors are treated to a particularly spectacular view of the building’s staircases and archways, where the eye is bamboozled by a panorama of dizzying depths and perspectives. It’s here that we located our second artwork, an untitled photo-montage by Will Poulter, inspired by the Dutch artist MC Escher, who was famous for his designs of intricate – and impossible – architecture. Compare Will’s piece, below, with Escher’s celebrated Relativity (1953) and we’re sure you’ll agree that walking between floors in Leeds Central Library can be like stepping into a giant optical illusion.

We think this piece could have been titled Librarynth or Willusion!

We think this piece could have been titled Librarynth or Willusion

Finally, on the second floor, a piece of interactive art called Kaleidodrum encouraged visitors to create moving mosaics using the library’s colourful floor tiles. Inspired by the deceptive ceiling mirrors in Local and Family History (which give the impression of rooms beyond rooms bracketing the space) Lee Noon built a freestanding, free-sliding kaleidoscope that users can peer into and push around. It’s pretty ingenious and produces some striking and sometimes Kandinsky-like effects.

Local and Family History mirrors (top) and abstract art from the Kaleidodrum

Local and Family History mirrors (top) and abstract art from the Kaleidodrum

The art of The Library Illusion will remain in situ until the end of Library Fest, this Sunday 19 February, and we hope to write a version of the trail guide that visitors can continue to follow once the associated displays and artworks have been removed. Elsewhere on the Secret Library, you can read all about our stone staircase creatures and the staircases themselves.

In Memory of David Strachan, a Yorkshire Scot

  • Guest blogger Val Hewson, from the Reading Sheffield project, tells the story of David Strachan, a Leeds librarian who died in the First World War. Val came across him by chance, in a 1923 article in the Library Association Record about plans for a memorial to librarians lost in the war.

One hundred years ago today, on 29 December 1916, Captain David Livingstone Strachan of the West Yorkshire Regiment died, a casualty of the First World War. He was one of around 670,000 British army personnel, and one of 10,000 people from Leeds, to die on war service.  He is unique in being the only Leeds librarian to lose his life.  He was 27 years old.


In 1914 David Strachan was an assistant librarian in the Central Library in Calverley Street. He worked in the Reference Library, then located in the 2nd floor room now occupied by Local History.  The tables there today are apparently the original furniture, and Strachan presumably worked at them.  Much of the research for this post was done at those tables.

An image of the room where David Strachan worked, as it is now and how it would have looked when he was here

An image of the room where David Strachan worked, a merged view of how it is now and how it would have looked when he was here

Strachan was born on 24 March 1889 in Sheepscar, the second youngest of eight children. His parents, John and Annie, were Scottish and had settled in a part of Leeds where many Scots lived.  On official forms John described himself as a bookseller or bookseller’s assistant.  It’s tempting to think that books were valued in his family and led to his son’s profession.

David Strachan became one of the earliest Scouts in Leeds. In 1908 Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys, advocating woodcraft and the like to train boys for adulthood, and patrols started up everywhere.  Strachan established the 4th North East Leeds Caledonians[1] in Harehills.  The name reflects his and the community’s part-Scottish identity, as does wearing the kilt for uniform.  ‘Scoutmaster Strachan’ was sometimes quoted in the Leeds Mercury, for example for instituting a domestic cookery test for his troop.


When Baden-Powell visited Leeds in June 1914 for a rally of 3,000 Scouts before the Town Hall, David Strachan and his troop were surely on parade. In his speech, the Chief Scout described the movement as ‘insurance for the country’, a way to ‘prevent human and inhuman waste’ and, he hoped, a ‘stepping-stone towards universal peace’.[2]


Programme for the visit of the Chief Scout to Leeds in 1914. From the Local and Family History collection

But war came just months later, and Strachan joined the West Yorkshire Regiment (1/6th  battalion) – an act recorded in Leeds Libraries’ 1914 report. [IMAGE OF 1914 REPORT] He was commissioned in June 1915 and promoted to captain in July 1916.  The battalion travelled to France that year, to the Battle of the Somme, which left over a million dead and wounded on all sides.  We have no record of Strachan’s role, but his battalion took its turn in the front line:

… On the left the 146th Brigade…did not do so well: most of the 1/6th West Yorkshire, being enfiladed by machine-gun fire … failed to force an entry into the German front trench… (Official History, 3 September 1916)

… casualties for the day were: officers wounded – 3, officers missing – 3, other ranks killed – 30, other ranks wounded – 172, other ranks missing – 33.   (1/6th battalion war diary, 3 September 1916)

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post,[3] Strachan was invalided home in late 1916 ‘as a result of his strenuous efforts at the front’.  He came to the 2nd Northern General Hospital at Beckett Park, Leeds, where ‘his illness unfortunately developed’ and he died just after Christmas 1916.  He was one of 226 reported deaths out of 57,000 patients.  What killed him was meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord.  Meningitis can be fatal today, and was more likely to be so in 1916 when treatment was difficult.  The Official History of the Great War[4] records 393 cases, with a death rate of 35% for 1916.   Meningitis could mean: delirium, photophobia, muscular rigidity, incontinence, sepsis, hydrocephalus and gangrene.  The Official History clinically notes ‘agonising pain’.  It was a miserable death.


On 2 January 1917, there was a military funeral at Lawnswood. Mourners included the Strachan family, brother officers, Leeds Chief Librarian T W Hand and, said the Leeds Mercury, ‘a large number of Boy Scouts [including] the 4th North Leeds Caledonians’.  The grave, with its Celtic cross marker, is next to the War Graves enclosure where Strachan’s name is carved on the memorial.



David Strachan’s death was noted in the Leeds Libraries’ report for 1916. He is formally  remembered by Clan Strachan and on the Leeds and Scouts Rolls of Honour, the Scottish National War Memorial and the Library Association memorial at the British Library in London.



But more touching are the annual memorials his family put in the Leeds Mercury and his Scouts’ decision to change their name to Strachan’s Caledonians.

cutting-in-memoriam-mercury-291220 cutting-strachans-caledonians-mercury-270317

If any member of the Strachan family reads this, please get in touch.

Thanks to Antony Ramm of the Leeds Local History Library and Richard Wilcocks, who wrote Stories from the War Hospital about Beckett Park, for their help; and to the staff of the British Library for letting Val see the Library Association memorial.

Leeds Local History Library has a wealth of material about the city’s First World War experience including newspapers, photographs, official records, books and maps. A research guide listing highlights from the collection is available on this site. 

[1] Sometimes called the 4th North Leeds Caledonians.

[2] Yorkshire Post, 8 June 1914.

[3] Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 December 1916.

[4] History of the Great War Based on Official Documents, Medical History of the War: Diseases of the War, Vol I.

Chicks, cigars and wine-drinking toddlers: A Victorian Christmas

  • by Vickie Bennett, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

In the Art Library we currently have one of our favourite handmade items on display to coincide with our charity Christmas card shop – the ‘Victorian Scrapbook’ of scraps and greetings cards. A donation to the library in the 1990’s, and a visual feast for any fan of illustration and typography, not a lot is actually known about the scrapbook’s origins, but messages in the cards are addressed to an Ethel Mills, her husband Edwin and son John.

Seasonal and sentimental imagery decorate each page, alongside cards from friends and relatives, and it’s obvious that a lot of time and energy has been poured into its meticulous curation, which dates back to the late 19th century. Scrapbooking was a common pastime for Victorian women and girls, and was a way of collating sentimental bits and pieces into one place. The books from this era include titbits of personal value, including invitations to social gatherings and events, or school merit slips and similar accolades. They were shown to friends and family as a measure of achievement and reminiscence.

The commercial potential of scrapbooking was capitalised on as colour printing methods advanced in the late 19th Century, and illustrative scraps and die-cuts then began to be produced and sold solely for scrapbooking purposes. The art of scrapbooking was able to become more sophisticated, as pages that would have consisted of a few pieces could now be curated from a mixture of treasured items and bought images, creating books filled to the brim with colourful ornamentation. The books allowed their makers to show self-expression and ownership in how they themed and curated the layout and imagery inside, picking which parts of their life they wanted to remember and others to see – much in the same way we curate our output on social media today. Ethel must have been a fan of animals, as her pages are filled with them.


The Christmas cards inside Ethel’s scrapbook are lovely, but strangely unseasonable. The book exists in a time where the commerciality of Christmas had begun, but the snow and Santa that we associate with the holidays had not yet been fully established. Victorian Santa bears as much likeness to the Green Man as he does with today’s red-suited gift giver – appearing in a green or red cloth cap with a wreath of ivy or bunch of holly at each ear.


The card designs range from ‘traditional’ scenes of snow and robins, to motifs we’d now consider too spring-like for Christmas, such as baby chicks and cherry blossom. Cigars, hay bales, and swan-riding angels also feature – all printed on small, delicate slips of paper with hand-penned best wishes.

The tradition of sending Christmas cards began a few decades earlier, with the first commercial card commissioned by civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole apparently came up with the idea as a way of saving time – a quick posted greeting as opposed to writing letters to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It was perhaps a shrewd invention, as he had helped to introduce the Penny Post a few years prior, which created affordable postage for the working classes. Nonetheless, by the time Ethel’s scrapbook was being collated, the sending of cards had become so popular that over 12 million were being produced in Britain each year.


Print showing the original colouring of Cole’s card. From ‘Fifty Years Of Public Work’ vol.2 by Cole. Available from the Information & Research library.

Cole’s first Christmas card was limited to a run of just 1000, each lithograph printed and then hand coloured. Illustrated by artist John Horsley, the design features a family eating together, with panels at the side promoting charitable acts, such as feeding the poor. There was controversy surrounding the card when it was released, as it shows a child being given a cup of wine! The cards are extremely hard to come by today, with the last one at auction fetching £22,500, and supposedly only a dozen still existing. There is one currently on display at the V&A, as part of a Victorian Christmas Card exhibition until 5th January 2017.

The pages of Ethel’s book have turned acidic and brittle, and the edges are crumbling away. Thumbing carefully through the pages, it’s hard not to get bowled over by the sentimentality of the cheerful imagery and delicate Christmas greetings. The good news is that the Scrapbook will be digitised next year, so we can continue to appreciate it as a source of social and design history, and charming beauty.