With ‘restarts’ in mind, this article brings together research projects undertaken by four MA History of Design students on the subjects of death, mourning and material culture. In each project, death can be seen to be productive of material culture: with the death of a subject comes the birth of an object. With design-historical research, we investigate the design, production and consumption of artefacts as sources for writing social, cultural and economic histories. What kinds of materials bore the weight of responsibility for properly memorialising the life and death of a loved one? Why ceramic, card, hair or gold?
Death and mourning practices can stimulate industry and economies. Livelihoods are made from death. As we examine relics of death and mourning, we tease out tensions between standardisation and personalisation in historical design practices. Printers and jewellers might offer standard templates for mourning cards or pendants, which give us clues as to the availability and cost of materials at a given time, and to the contemporary iconography of death and mourning. But these standard items are open to customisation by those mourning the death of a loved one. And indeed could be easily adapted to the fast-paced changes in fashion and etiquette surrounding death and mourning.
While certain objects belong to the rituals of death and mourning, others tell us of the beliefs and hopes of what comes after. They are objects made for the dead, to accompany them and offer comfort in an unknown, new journey. And all these objects, with custom additions, subtractions and modifications, register the fragile intentions of individuals to carve out a special place for their loved ones in the material world. To prove, that though gone, they have not been forgotten.
The Materiality of Murder: Study of a Nineteenth-Century Memorial Card by Charlotte Slark
The following extract is taken from an unpublished essay written in 2016.
On 16 May 1862 three children were murdered by their parents in Strangeways, Manchester. It was a crime which not only shook the local community but, thanks to improved travel and publishing networks, was reported across the country and led to nationwide public outpourings of shock and grief. While it was undoubtedly a tragedy, it was one of many that occur every year, and could have been easily lost in the annals of history were it not for a small piece of card (Museum Number E1509-1987) in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Memorial cards, also known as mourning or funeral cards are usually small cards, printed with a message dedicated to the memory of dead person. While a lot has been written about Victorian mourning in general, there is very little existing literature about memorial cards themselves. They were nevertheless a part of the rituals surrounding the death of a loved one in Victorian Britain.Unlike many rituals surrounding mourning in the nineteenth century, memorial cards were not an evolution of an older mourning tradition. Their use did not come into fashion until the 1840s, and acted as a replacement for the elaborately printed funeral invitations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike the funeral invitations which they replaced, mourning cards were usually sent out after the funeral and often contained the location of the deceased’s grave instead of the time and place of the ceremony.
The framing of memorial cards seems to have been a popular way to both store and display these mementoes of departed friends. Displayed either on the wall or on a surface of a notoriously cluttered Victorian room, it could act as a constant reminder of the loved one who was no longer there. Memorial cards were not just kept in frames, many were placed between the pages of the family bible, perhaps linking back to a time when it was important to remember to pray for the souls of the dead.
While it is incredibly difficult to find evidence of the exact etiquette surrounding the distribution of mourning cards, it seems that in most cases the cards would have been commissioned and distributed by the family of the deceased. For many reasons, this would not have been possible for the example in the V&A. Printers are known to have advertised the sale of individual mourning cards dedicated to recently deceased public figures in local papers, and Memorial cards were also printed and sold in the street when major tragedies took place, as is likely the case here.
While many of the specific details surrounding the creation, distribution, and etiquette of mourning cards remain unclear, this specific card is proof that they do fulfil their intended purpose. This small piece of card has created a renewed interest in the story of the three children and has ensured that over a century and a half later, their lives have not been forgotten.
Phenomenal tech: A Georgian pendant enclosing velvet and unworked hair by Ralph Day
The following extract is taken from an unpublished essay, ‘Phenomenal tech: a Georgian pendant enclosing velvet and unworked hair’ (V&A/RCA MA History of Design, 2016). It examines the material and figurative qualities of a tress of hair enclosed in a gold pendant in the V&A Jewellery and Metalwork collection (Figure 1). The pendant is inscribed with the date of the death of a subject named Frances Fisher, 4 November 1802. It is referred to here as the ‘Fisher Pendant’:
Human hair is naturally elastic, and it conducts static energy. In jewels manufactured contemporaneously with the Fisher Pendant, which enclose woven or plaited hair, strands of hair have popped out of position over the centuries due to elastic deformation or indeed due to the deterioration in strength of the gum used originally to secure them in place. So even though hair is (apart from the root) dead matter, there is certainly something lively, springy and rebellious about it.
Given the eighteenth-century vogue for toupées, it is likely that Frances Fisher wore various forms of false hair for much of her life. And so this fragment of her hair, enclosed in the Fisher Pendant, suggests privacy, intimacy, and a bold (unfashionable) organicity.
The latter half of the eighteenth century saw a fashion for mountainous, powdered wigs, which could reach spectacular heights of artifice and ornamentation. Alexander Rowland notes the case of a lady visiting the Palace at Versailles, who included in her headdress miniature bottles of water ‘for the purpose of preserving the freshness of the natural flowers worn in the hair.’ And even the simpler, neoclassical styles à la Grècque and à la Titus, which succeeded the trend for high, powdered hair, included false hair pieces (Figure 2).
As an assemblage of organic materials – human hair, seed pearls and velvet – the Fisher Pendant can be read as a kind of ecosystem. And so it shares qualities with the hairstyles in vogue during the life of Frances Fisher. Even for those less ostentatious than the visitor to Versailles noted above, flowers and feathers were standard accessories: the London Fashions commentary in the July 1801 edition of The Lady’s Magazine affirms that they are ‘universally worn as ornaments’.
While these hairstyles incorporated the fruits of nature, they were of course “man-made,” and required careful preparation at the hands of a skilled designer: a hair-dresser. An essay published in The Lady’s Magazine in September 1801, titled ‘Eulogium upon the Art of a Lady’s Hair-Dresser,’ offers a captivating insight into contemporary meanings of hair and hair work. As the lexica of death, nature and hand-craft intertwine, we can see why contemporary subjects might have felt that a tress of unworked hair encased in a pendant would have the power to capture and condense the fleeting nature of life and lively beauty.
Like a jeweller, metalworker or textile worker, the writer credits the hair-dresser with the ability to ‘modify into pleasing forms these long and slender filaments (…); to give them a consistency of which no one would suppose such materials were susceptible.’ A technician apparently capable of taming unruly nature (in the form of unruly strands of hair), the hair-dresser also accumulates familiarity with death. His materials (hair, flowers, feathers), and his temporary sculptures, are the very stuff of fugacity and mortality:
‘The fruits of his art are more fleeting than those of the spring. Like the bouquets whose brilliancy they possess, they disappear with the day which has seen their growth, and find their tomb in the sleep, from whence the beauties they adorned derive new freshness. (…) his art resembles that which we admire most in nature. It is the fate of every thing beautiful to fade away and vanish at the moment when arrived at the highest degree of perfection.’
Aestheticised hair – the vertiginous, bounteous coiffure, or indeed the fragile, naturally tensile tress of hair – straddles the border between life and death: a ‘crystallization of evanescence,’ in the words of cultural historian Deborah Lutz. Indeed, this is where it reaches its ‘highest degree of perfection.’ And in this light, it seems a poignant and meaningful relic with which to memorialise the life and death of a loved one.
A Home Away From Home: Funerary Architectural Vessels by Sophie Chatellier
When visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer, I came across a display of ancient mesoamerican architectural models from various parts of the world. I do not pretend to know much about the subject, but what I found interesting is that many of these architectural sculptures were also vessels. According to Joanne Pillsbury, from the department of African, Oceanian and Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, these vessels could have contained liquids or other material relevant to the funerary ritual, but they also play on the embodied role of architecture as a vessel for human bodies and activity.
One of the displayed architectural vessels which struck me for its detail and intriguing shape was a Moche ritual vessel from 400-600 A.D. (see picture). The vessel is a bottle in a spiralling, pyramidal shape, on top of which sits a figure under a roof, withheld by four pillars. The figure wears a little conical hat, earrings and a big necklace while holding something that looks like a weapon. The expression on its face is unhappy, or fierce, and reflects the figurative style of contemporary Moche representation. The spiralling platform is ornamented with high relief sculpted snails and felines painted in red slip, who seem to be ascending toward the figure.
The practice of placing miniature buildings in tombs is certainly not unique to the Moche culture, nor even to Southern America. We find it with the greeks, the ancient Egyptians and in Han China. (see links British museum) Uses and meanings differed. As Pillsbury writes, these architectural models were ‘distillations of ideas about the symbolic significance of architecture’ – they embody political or religious power. For the ancient Egyptians, the structures were called ‘soul houses’, because they were meant to contain liquid offerings for deities. The soul itself seems to have been thought of as something liquid, which was contained in a vessel – a body, yes, or – after that stops working, in a ceramic pot. A pot that is a vessel for both sustenance and souls. In a sense, perhaps our actual houses can be read in the same way – vessels that contain us and our souls. Essentially then, the house becomes an extension of our terrestrial bodies, it is another form of container, just as a jug would contain water, and a barrel, grain.
Not much is known about Moche burial rites, and I do not pretend to have done enough research to be able to say what exactly those populations were thinking, or hoping, when burying their dead with small scale houses. They might all have had very different reasons – but the fact that it is a recurring occurrence worldwide, in different epochs of human history, points to a deeply human need for dwelling. To me, this is about safety, about having a place that is known and welcoming when faced with the uncertainties of their new life.
Hair-Working In Late Georgian Memorial Jewellery: A Sentimental Industry? By Lauren Bennet
This is an eighteenth-century mourning jewel, made after the death of four (probably) family members, engraved with their names and enclosed with locks of hair. Today it is a relatively ‘invaluable’ object due to the standard of its artistry, and quality of materials. Perhaps this is why the pendant is currently hidden away in the Metalwork archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The fashion of hair-working in jewellery is unheard of nowadays; to us the idea of adorning the body with another person seems rather grotesque! Yet, hair as a material in mourning jewellery used to be so popular that in the nineteenth century hair-working became a common craft at home. The physical activity involved in manipulating the hair of a loved one aided the grieving process by stimulating emotional or even erotic attachment to the deceased. What is to us a morbid fascination is common in contemporary hair-working manuals of the time. Alexanna Speight’s 1871 manual The Lock of Hair gives an insight into and even step-by-step illustrated instruction to the art of ornamental hair-work.
The physical act of working with the hair, and memorialising it inside the jewellery, acted as a sensory connection between the maker and the deceased. Historian Marcia Pointon suggested that hair-working was producing ‘an artefact that is at one and the same time the substance of the deceased and not that substance’. Hair is organic corporeal matter, yet through its transformation into an artefact, it gains immortality. This paradoxical situation is at the heart of why it was deemed to have supernatural qualities, and why it was a popular theme in contemporary art and literature of the period.
One literary example of this is the seventeenth century poem The Relic by John Donne:
‘And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’,
Will he not let’us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave…’
In this stanza he is drawing comfort from the fact that when he dies, because he is being buried with a bracelet of his lovers hair, he knows that they will meet again in the afterlife. Because hair survives when the rest of the body decays, it seems to possess otherworldly power and provides reassurance in the wake of grief.
Therefore, it is interesting to consider how the original highly personal sentiment captured when the brooch was made could have changed as it was passed down the generations. The fashion for mourning wear grew during the reign of Queen Victoria, so what was constructed as an intimate private object may have gained considerably different meaning when it was worn in public much later, when mourning itself was a fashion statement.
The notion of physical versus emotional worth, in an object actually made from a deceased loved one, raises fascinating questions. That an inanimate object could be considered to be alive makes the study of sentimentality in mourning jewellery particularly unique.
Our design-historical research has sought to shed light on the lives of these objects. For anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who has written on object biographies and the ‘social life of things,’ the death of a person is the beginning of his/her material possession’s new life. As an object is passed down through generations, it gathers different meanings as it is transferred to each new person. It is interesting, then, to consider how the sentiments originally communicated through the construction of objects for death and mourning can diminish over time, with implications for the object’s ‘value.’
In design history, the scholar’s interest is constantly renewed by objects that come under their scrutiny. They pick specific objects in order to get a sense of a wider truth. By reading and researching other sources, they subvert their content and give objects a new meaning. Thus, in a sense, an object is reborn every time it is considered and understood by a new person, be it a design historian, a collector or a walker-by. And through such objects, the person who is memorialised, or the story of that person, is reborn too.