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.

Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living

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

Today is Workers Memorial Day, marking the sacrifice of those who have died as a result of their job, and reminding all employers and employees of the importance of looking after their colleagues. In front of Leeds Central Library, a new plaque was unveiled bearing the inscription: Dedicated to workers throughout the world who have suffered illness, injury or death as a consequence of their work. Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living.

Workers Memorial, 2017

Inside the library, a new display tells the stories of some of the tragedies that have taken lives at workplaces around Leeds, from incidents in local mills in the less safety-conscious 19th century, to more recent accidents like the Lofthouse Colliery disaster of 1973. One such tragedy, the effects of which have continued to be felt throughout the city for many decades, is the many lives lost as a result of asbestos contamination in Armley during the first half of the last century. The story is told below and, if you follow the links to the Leodis photographic website in the picture captions, you’ll be able to read comments from those whose lives have been affected first-hand by the events described.

25th October 1943. Asbestos factory of J. W. Roberts on Canal Road, Armley. Visit Leodis to find out more.

Founded in Armley in 1874, J. W. Roberts Limited was a textile producer based at the Midland Works on Canal Road. In 1906, the factory had begun manufacturing asbestos insulation and, in 1920, merged to form Turner & Newall Limited, whose asbestos-based products were exported worldwide, generating large scale profits for the company.

The manufacturing process resulted in the exposure to blue asbestos of all workers based in the factory, while the ventilation system discharged asbestos dust out into the surrounding area. Streets, homes and a local school were described as being coated in a blue-white dust, as though they were covered by a fall of snow.

The factory closed in 1959 and, in 1978, Turner & Newall Limited paid £15,000 to Leeds City Council to assist with the decontamination of the factory site. However, no reference was made to homes in the surrounding area. In the late 1970s, investigations led to the discovery of asbestos in homes adjacent to the factory, while a Yorkshire Evening Post inquiry brought to the attention of the public the dramatically high number of mesothelioma-related deaths suffered by former workers and residents who lived close to the factory. This series of articles related to what became known as the ‘Armley Asbestos Tragedy’.

The case was further championed by local MP John Battle, with a case finally heard in court in 1995, in which Mr Justice Holland found the following: “There was knowledge, sufficient to found reasonable foresight on the part of the Defendants, that children were particularly vulnerable to personal injury arising from the inhalation of asbestos dust… Reasonably practicable steps were not taken to reduce or prevent inhalation of emitted asbestos dust.”

Many of those affected by the asbestos died long before the companies responsible could be compelled to make recompense.

25th October 1943. J. W. Roberts, asbestos factory, on Canal Road. More information can be found on the Leodis website. 

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.

Sweeping Through Time

  • Two weeks ago, we let you in on some of the secrets of the Henry Collection in Oliver Twist with a Twist. This week it’s over to our two experts on the subject, Jonathan and Natascha, to share a few of their favourite finds.

Did you know that Leeds Central Library holds extensive collections on the English Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and the lives of chimney sweeps? Among its treasure trove of old maps, newspapers and microfilms are several boxes containing material collected in the early 20th century by Dr Sydney Henry: part of his renowned ‘sweepiana’ collection concerning all things chimney-sweep-related. At this cold time of year, when the hearth becomes once again a central feature in our home life, we want to bring this collection further into the public light…

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Our names are Jonathan Wright and Natascha Allen-Smith; we are both history students at the University of Leeds. At the beginning of this academic year we were tasked with collating and analysing the Henry Collection in the Leeds Central Library. With the ambition of constructing an exhibition, we compared and contrasted the lives of chimney sweeps and their representations in literature. The 1,500-item collection is spread across Leeds Central Library and the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, as well as the Leeds Art Gallery. The biggest work of the future is to digitise all of the collection to make it more accessible.

Over the next few weeks, Natascha and I want to take you through our favourite discoveries so far. First up is a famous author with a lesser-known work: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. It is a charming and romantic story about two dolls wanting to explore the wider world. Situated in books after The Ugly Duckling, the tale tells how the two lovers climb the chimney and witness a spectacular view of the world. However, this is all too much for the Shepherdess who has to return with the Chimney Sweep to their home. The significance of the work is that it shows how the idea of chimney sweeps could be bright. Also, the positive portrayal of the Chimney Sweep came at a time of generally negative portrayals in the Victorian era. 1845 was also 19 years before proper regulations for the use of chimney boys became law and it can be seen that progressive depictions such as this were helpful in changing the public and political mind-set.

One of the oldest items in the collection is a 17th century comedic play entitled The London Cuckolds. In this pre-industrial era, chimney sweeps were not yet the miserable, overworked, black-suited Victorian figures we most commonly associate with the title. This can be seen in the play’s depiction of them as rude, comical thieves and pranksters, making crude observations like “Oh I am damnably full of wind”.

In one scene, two sweeps trick a foolish gentleman into losing his wig and hat, blacking his face with soot in the process. Here, the play shares a theme with almost all the works in the collection, whether their portrayals of sweeps are positive or negative: ordinary people avoid going near them due to their filthy state, and when accidental contact is made, clean skin and clothing is instantly dirtied. Climbing boys were allowed to wash once a week at most, and consequently faced great alienation from their peers, particularly from richer children who could afford to attend school.

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A feature that runs through the entire collection is the handwritten notes, letters and bookmarks left by Dr Henry himself, which are scattered within the volumes. Henry scribbled page references in red ink on nearly all the books in the collection (for which we are extremely grateful, as most contain only one or two fleeting references to chimney sweeps). But working through the boxes in more detail means that you also stumble across folded-up sheets cut from 1950s newspapers, old pieces of paper on which Henry jotted down research notes, and even a typewritten card addressed to him by another well-known sweep enthusiast, Dr George Phillips.

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There are also occasional letters or inscriptions written by entirely different people, each giving another clue about how the book in question entered Henry’s possession and who may have owned it first.

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In our next piece, we’ll be taking a look at an item from the collection by a very famous writer, featuring some beautiful artwork that contrasts sharply with the often dark subject-matter described…

A Hidden Victorian Treasure in Headingley

  • by Nick Tasker, PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Leeds

During pleasant afternoons in Leeds Central Library I have been discovering a story of upward social mobility in Victorian Leeds. It’s also the story of my front room.

I recently moved into a new place in Headingley. It’s in a large Victorian house carved up into flats which are let annually to students. Our front door leads off from the central hallway and opens onto a plain corridor with white painted walls, cheap carpets and fire doors behind which a kitchen and bathroom have been awkwardly squeezed in – all perfectly ordinary for a student flat, except for one thing. At one end of the corridor is the entrance to a spacious, splendid and overwhelmingly ornate Victorian living room.

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It takes a bit of a push to get the door open. It is, after all, nearly ten centimetres thick, sitting on huge brass hinges. On its interior side, the door is covered in wooden carvings. When you push it closed it completes a series of decorative panels which extend all the way around three sides of the room, with the fourth side being made up mostly of windows. The wall on the left is dominated by an ornamental fireplace and there are hundreds of individually carved figures and motifs on the walls: Greek gods, Roman soldiers, medieval and Renaissance types, green men, mythological beasts and cornucopia overflowing with fruits and hops.

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Who lived here? When was this eccentric decoration installed? Where did it come from? After a few afternoons in Leeds Central Library I am able to give fairly confident answers to the first two of these questions. The third remains open for the time being. A final question may be the most pressing of all: who is looking after this Victorian treasure?

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The first clue was to be found over the fireplace, in the form of the initials, ‘JCH’. I soon found out that JCH was not one person but two, a husband and wife named Joseph and Charlotte Hudson.

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Charlotte Bowron was born in 1836 in Wortley, Leeds. Her baptism record lists her father’s occupation as ‘servant’, and at age fourteen Charlotte was in service along with her parents and a brother to the Nunneley family in Park Place. Joseph Hudson was born in Rawdon in 1834. His father was a woolsorter. In 1841 and 1851 the Hudson family were living in Chapeltown.

The pair got married in 1857 according to Methodist tradition in the Oxford Place Chapel. Their marriage certificate records that he was living at the time in St Mark’s St., Woodhouse, and she in Alma Cottages (opposite what is now Sainsbury’s in Headingley high street).

By 1861 Joseph and Charlotte had moved to one of the cottages in Prince’s Grove off Shaw Lane, Headingley, behind what is now the Bowery Café, and had two young daughters. These cottages are modest, but the fact that they were here shows that Charlotte and Joseph were already on an upward trajectory: the occupants of the other houses in their terrace are listed in the census as ‘independent’, ‘landed proprietor’, ‘lead dealer’ and ‘civil engineer’.

Throughout his life Joseph is variously listed as a ‘traveller’, ‘drysalter traveller’ or ‘drysalter and oil merchant’. Perhaps his early days were spent traveling the streets, a kind of pedlar, selling salt, glue, olive oil and other goods. He must have been hardworking, ambitious and with a good head for figures because by 1866 he had become a partner in E.G. Jepson and Co., a well-established firm of drysalters and oil merchants. A year later the company purchased William Baxter & Co. of London and Leeds, and other buy-ups would follow in later years. Was this business strategy a reflection of Joseph’s personal ambition?

In any case, Joseph’s situation served the family well. By 1871 Joseph, Charlotte and their growing family were living in a large house on Cardigan Road, one of the new villas constructed after the demise of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. No more terraced houses for this family: their new abode had fourteen rooms. The house became known as ‘Rawdon Lodge’, after Joseph’s birthplace.

In 1901 Rawdon Lodge is entirely missing from the census. This is because Joseph and Charlotte were on holiday in Cornwall with their daughter Mary Selina. I know this because the enumerator found them that year in the Falmouth Hotel. Joseph died later that year at Rawdon Lodge from ‘pernicious anaemia and cardiac failure’.

In 1911 Charlotte was still there, living in splendour with some of her grown up but unmarried children. She may well have remained there until her death in 1919. At that time she had one servant (in 1891 they had two) and enjoyed ‘private means’: she had come a long way in sixty years since she and her family were themselves in service. The family are buried in Lawnswood Cemetery.

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What of the eccentric wooden panelling in my front room? It was installed at some point between 1889 and 1906. I can say this because installing it required extending the room by a metre or so at the front. The extension is not visible in ordnance survey maps from 1889 but it is clearly present on those from 1906.

Was it made specifically for Rawdon Lodge? I think not: some of the panelled units don’t quite fit the space, and have had to be modified, and there are carved panels around the side of the fireplace which are hidden from view by other units. All of this suggests that the panelling may have come from some other house which was being demolished. The panel which features Joseph’s and Charlotte’s initials may have been added later.

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For now the carved panels remain something of a mystery. I’m hoping that this blog may pique the interest of someone who has the expertise to tell us more about their provenance.

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I’d also be extremely interested in seeing photos of the house or any maps of the area made between 1889 and 1906 as this would enable the possible time period during which the panelling was installed to be narrowed down further.

Finally, I worry about the future of this place. I heard vague rumours when I moved in about it being listed, but friends of mine who tried to find a record of this listing have failed. In less than a year I will have moved on, and other students will take my place. Who is ensuring that this antique living room is being cared for and preserved?

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