Stone angels and butterfly wings (Thursday 22 June 2017)
At the Margravine Road entrance to the cemetery a pair of gothic arches and gateposts stand like helmeted sentinels, staring across the road at the austere 1970s blocks of Charing Cross Hospital (relocated here from central London over forty years ago, standing on the original site of the Fulham Union Workhouse).
It’s another warm day, but less severe than the searing summer heat of the past week. The central axial drive advances away in perspective straightness. A busy progress of people cutting through, perhaps students and staff from the hospital escaping after the end of shifts, or about to start. Workers on lunchbreak, making for their favourite spot in the sun or shade. I meander the grassy paths either side of the central avenue. Wild flowers and sun bleached grasses surround subsiding memorials and praying angels at precarious angles, preparing to take flight on their stone wings.
Apart from the chapel and cemetery lodges, the ground enclosed within these cemetery walls have never been built on. Originally part of Fulham Fields, which for centuries had been a patchwork of market gardens and orchards, laid out across this fertile flood plain loam, providing fruit and vegetables for the ever growing city to the east.
Following the 1850s Burial Acts, which prohibited further interments in the overcrowded city churchyards, the Hammersmith Burial Grounds Committee spent fifteen years searching for suitable local sites. In 1866, a local outbreak of cholera injected an urgency into the search. Ten acres were purchased for £600 from the estate of Sir William Palliser (politician and armaments inventor). Tenant farmers with plots here were ordered to leave after the following year’s harvest. Margravine Cemetery opened for business 3 years later with space for 12,000 occupants. (The name derives from playwright, Margravine of Brandenburg-Anspach, formerly Lady Craven, who lived in the nearby riverside Brandenburg House at the end of the 18th century). Lodges and chapels were designed by local architect, George Saunders, including a unique octagonal mortuary, where bodies of paupers in coffins were stored until their families could afford to pay for a funeral (see photo below).
At the top of the central drive, a circular box hedged bed, colourful with a mix of herbaceous and wild flowers. Lavender, pelargonium, hemp agrimony. An axle for paths leading into the eastern section.
Suddenly a distant amplified voice booms out from the right and then is borne away on the breeze. I walk in that direction and then, there’s the voice again. But the words are muffled. All I can make out is an eager enthusiasm. Then I realise they are announcements from over the wall, where the AEGON tennis championships are taking place at The Queen’s Club, (Established in 1886, The Queen’s Club was the first multipurpose sports complex ever to be built, anywhere in the world. Named after Queen Victoria, its first patron).
Walking south towards the Field Road entrance, I find myself in front of the old nonconformist’s chapel, now a gardener’s store (there was another chapel for the Anglicans, but this was demolished in the 1930s after falling into disrepair). The rounded wings of a child’s chalked butterfly are barely visible on the tarmac forecourt (see photo below).
The sun scorches through the clouds and I seek out the parasol cool of a nearby maple’s spread to open my sketchbook and make a start (see drawing at top). My eye is caught by a shock of lady’s bedstraw, a yellow gold glow beyond the shade of a horse chestnut tree. And further: hosts of trees, windswept swathes of grasses, beech hedges. Gravestones stand dark like punctuation marks. Or like fleeting figures. A gentle warm breeze shooshes the foliage above me. The scrit scrit of a grasshopper just to my left. Commentaries blare again from behind. A peck of pigeons rise en masse, disturbed by the arrival of a gardeners cart in front of the chapel. The sound of their massed wings merges with another swell of tennis applause. Animated groups of tennis spectators stride the shortcut from Queens Club to Barons Court tube station.
By the 1920’s, the cemetery was seven times oversubscribed and bursting at the seams, prompting complaints from local residents. This definitely wasn’t the place for a fresh air meander or picnic; every available piece of ground, including some of the paths, had been dug up for burials. It had taken on a further 6 acres at the turn of the century but, now hemmed in by terraced housing, railway tracks, roads and sports club, there was no room to expand further. So a new piece of land was acquired 3 miles away in Kew, opening in 1926. After then, the only burials here were in private spaces, reserved for eminent members of Hammersmith society. By the Second World War, Margravine had fallen into sad disrepair. Wartime bombing left it gruesomely cratered and dilapidated.
Between the 50s and 60s, Hammersmith Council resuscitated the space, removing or burying damaged memorials and tombstones. Areas were cleared and laid to grass. Trees, shrubs and hedges planted. Only privately owned graves, war graves and significant memorials were left remaining, such as the ornately gothic Young Mausoleum, near the south entrance, now in a fairly rickety state. And a sober stone memorial was erected close to the entrance, listing all the Commonwealth War graves in this cemetery.
I walk the eastern track. There are fewer stones here. It has the forsaken feel of a wild and overgrown walled garden. Buddleia and clumps of willowherb, alive with flickers of butterflies. Dead trees are left limbless for nature’s undertakers to deal with and insect boxes have been fixed to tree trunks by the Friends of Margravine Cemetery to encourage invertebrates (see photo below).
At the north corner a patch of oxeye daisies shine out, bright stars in the wilderness. I set up for my second drawing (see below) near the base of the high cemetery wall. On the other side are the backs of Palliser road businesses and houses. Clattering of crockery and busy chattering from the building behind is presumably a cafe. From over the ivy clad wall to my right, snippets of conversation and laughter from people walking to Barons Court station. The screech and rattle of rolling stock over points. A sky streaked with cloud wisps behind 60s high rises and roofs of Victorian back terraces.
It’s almost hot now. There’s a hint of perfume, a waft of honey. The whole time I’m drawing only 2 people pass. Dog walkers. A place for seclusion like the quiet corner of a country meadow.
A pair of chittering squirrels chase each other along the wall top, crash down through a rowan tree then continue the pursuit, arched jumps through the long grass.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. www.nickandrew.co.uk
Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court, London W6 8HA
Opening times: Various throughout the year, but you can guarantee it will be open between 10am – 4pm
Google earth view here