Just before the virus struck I was at the Garden Museum in Lambeth helping out on a course. We were in the new Clore Learning Centre which overlooks the courtyard garden designed by Dan Pearson, [featured in March edition of Gardens Illustrated]. I sat at the back listening to the speakers but also watching the rain lash down outside on the two large chest tombs standing amongst the greenery. One is that of Admiral Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and the other that of the family of the 17thc plant hunters John Tradescant senior and his son John junior. [If you’re not sure who they were check last weeks post which was an introduction to today’s]
Luckily the rain stopped during the lunch break, so I went to take a closer look. Whilst Bligh’s monument is imposing but relatively austere that of the Tradescants is anything but plain.
In fact, as you can probably tell from even from the photo above, their tomb is a work of art, or rather a series of works of art, and the more I looked at it and researched it afterwards the more intriguing and unusual it became.
All the photos are my own unless otherwise stated. Images of churchyards and even churches from the 17thc are extremely scarce so sometimes I’ve had to use later ones.
Let’s start with some background to why the tomb is so extraordinary. Firstly because churchyard memorials of this kind – known as a chest or altar tomb- are very rare this early.
We are used to seeing churchyards and cemeteries full of gravestones but that’s quite a modern phenomenon. In the 17thc -indeed up until the mid-19thc – there was a social hierarchy in death as much as life, the better-off were buried inside, and a few even had monuments erected.
Churchyards were more commonly the burial space of the poor, the vast majority in unmarked graves while outdoor monuments were largely unknown until the later 17thc. This changed as inside burial space became restricted, or a family wanted a large vault, and meant that the churchyard became equally socially divided.
This is reflected in lists of burial fees and charges. Inside and, usually, the more prominent parts of the outside space cost a lot more than being buried tucked away in a dark corner out of sight. Now the wealthy wanted monuments and memorials if they were buried outside. This required permission from the parish authorities, with surviving records showing that requests to put up monuments were uncommon enough to be commented upon right up until the end of the 17thc.
We know, that there weren’t many chest tombs in other London churchyards this early. St Bride’s churchyard, for example, had a few by 1657, and St Bartholomew the Great’s by 1662, whilst St Andrew Holborn, a large suburban parish, was giving permission for monuments in its churchyards from the 1670s. This means that Hester, the widow of the younger John Tradescant, was well ahead of her times in commissioning such a grand and elaborate monument for her husband and his family.
The next reason the Tradescant tomb is extraordinary is because it was clearly far more costly than most other contemporary monuments. Getting permission to install a monument was generally expensive, and became a profitable business for the parish authorities known as the vestry. In the days before local authorities and the welfare state each parish was responsible for raising a local tax [self-determined] to provide a very basic welfare network. This was obviously only paid by the wealthier inhabitants of the parish, so they were usually keen to keep the tax level low. Selling space or allowing monuments in the church or churchyard was a simple wheeze for saving their own pockets. It worked two ways of course because if they commissioned a large tomb for their own families not only did they create a suitable memorial but they could claim the moral high ground by supporting ‘good works’ and helped to keep the poor rate down at the same time!
At St Bartholomew’s the vestry ordered ‘yt A Stone being set up Against The Church yard Wall by Any Person shall pay ye sume of 20s & for every stone set up in any part of the Church ye Person yt puts it upp shall pay ye sume of fifty shillings’. By 1696 an altar tomb in the churchyard of St Andrew was charged at eight pounds and a large stone four pounds. The following year it was decided that ‘no stone in future to be laid for under £10’. Some parishes, like St Magnus the Martyr even had a ‘monument yard’ after its post-Fire rebuilding.
The Tradescant tomb is in a different league altogether. When in November 1662 the vestry of St Mary-at-Lambeth gave their “free consent yt installation Mrs Tredeskin Wid. Of Mr John Tredeskin late of Lambeth deceased shall erect a Tombstone … over ye place where her husband lyeth interred,” they asked Hester to give “security to pay the Church Wardens of Lambeth £50 to be kept as a Stocke for the use of the poor of ye Parish.” Fifty pounds was the equivalent of six months salary of John senior as royal gardener, and although wages are difficult to compare probably the equivalent of two and a half years of a journeyman gardener.
That of course was just the price of the permission, and says nothing about the cost of the stone, its carving, or its installation. This tomb was a piece of conspicuous consumption in the best 17thc tradition and that it was for a mere gardener says a lot about the Tradescants standing, aspirations and wealth.
Back to the tomb itself.
It holds – or rather commemorates – five members of the Tradescant family. John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638), his son John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662) his two daughters-in-law, Jane Hurte (d.1634) and Hester Pookes (d.1678), and his grandson, also called John, who died aged 18 or 19 in 1652.
The next reason the tomb is extraordinary is because it does not really bear much comparison with the decoration and style of similar chest tombs seen inside churches at the time.
This is partly because of its highly unusual and ornate decoration [which we’ll look at shortly] , but more significantly because of its complete lack of religious symbolism. There are no angels, mourning figures or depictions of the deceased as cadavers or skeletons. Instead the carvings are secular in the extreme. The only conventional religious reference is at the end of the epitaph carved on the slab: “when angels shall with their trumpets waken men, and fire shall purge the world, these three shall rise and the change this garden then for Paradise.” Yet this is the 17th century when religious sentiments and beliefs underlay every aspect of daily life and helped cause disputes and even civil war.
Let’s start with the one “typical” panel. This depicts the family’s coat of arms or rather the Tradescant’s arms impaled with those of Hester herself. Theirs was the 3 fleur-de-lys on a diagonal bar, and hers the lion with its foot raised. The helmet with the closed visor is a sign of gentility and it’s topped with a crest of another fleur-de-lys with two wings which themselves sit on a cap of maintenance [don’t ask – heraldry is fascinating but sometimes a bit obscure].
Now the problem is that, as far as I am aware, the Tradescants did not have any official grant from the College of Arms, so although the right to arms was in theory strictly regulated, it is much more likely that as a “rising” family they just assumed them. But if they did that’s the case they were far from alone, because “Gentleman” was fast becoming a self-defined description. If that’s the case then it’s more likely that it was the younger John who adopted them. He certainly used the arms as his seal, while his father had used a “classical” head as his, probably taken from an object in his collection.
That the arms were assumed is more likely because when their kinsman Robert Tradescant applied to register his coat of arms in 1664 he was refused by the College of Heralds in no uncertain terms as he was “no gent.” Nevertheless whether the family were strictly entitled is neither here not there – this is the standard kind of thing you’d expect to see on such a funeral monument.
The other 3 sides could not, however, be called standard by any stretch of the imagination.
The panel at the opposite end of the tomb is dominated by what John Aubrey called a large “Heiroglyphical Dragon”. This is a seven-headed creature perhaps akin to the Hydra in Greek mythology. It has bird-like heads, ribbed wings, and a long forked tail and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, female breasts – not a common feature on most dragons that I’ve seen [in books I hasten to add!]
Why? A near contemporary text by Edward Topsell called The History of Four Footed Beasts, Serpents and Insects published in 1658 includes a section on dragons saying that they are “the watchful keepers of Treasures.” Was this included as a reference to Hester herself? She had been entrusted with the care of the huge collection of natural history treasures collected by her husband and his father, which formed the Museum Tradescantianum. Unfortunately the fate of the collection became a long and convoluted story, ending up in court, before eventually passing to their neighbour Elias Ashmole who used it to found the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He incidentally is also buried at St Mary’s but inside the church.
Unfortunately what we see today is not what was originally carved. That’s because while it would have survived in next-to-perfect condition had it been inside St Mary’s, it was outside. Lambeth may have been semi-rural in the 17thc but even so London’s air was heavily polluted and the fine detail of the carving was soon lost.
By 1773 the tomb was so badly decayed that a public subscription was raised for its restoration. The ledger recording donations survives in Lambeth Archives. The work was carried out by stonemason Henry Barrell who re-carved the reliefs.
Just 70 years later, in 1853, the tomb was once again in need of restoration and once again this was paid for by public subscription.
That there should have been two restorations is in itself fascinating since it suggests that the name and reputation of Tradescants had lived on despite the family dying out with Hester in 1675. Certainly in their own day the two John were were renowned and the their tomb – and the court case about the fate of the museum collection -must have attracted much attention in the years following John’s death.
Luckily some of that interest came from Samuel Pepys and he had some drawings made of the tomb which were engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar, a family friend of the Tradescants.
It was these drawings that were used in 1853 to guide the re-carving of the reliefs on the tomb. The work was carried out by G.P.White of nearby Vauxhall Bridge Road, but unfortunately he did not follow them that closely. Just as medieval churches up and down the country were heavily restored and re-gothicized by well-intentioned Victorian architects and years antiquaries so the tomb itself was “thoroughly” restored at a cost of £110. Look, for instance, at the hydra heads – originally almost duck or swan-like – which became much more reptilian and unpleasant. There were plenty of other alterations in tone too. The ledger – or inscribed lid of the tomb – was also replaced, with the 1773 one now on in display in the Garden Museum.
Also prominent on the panel is a skull, or rather most of a skull. It lacks the lower jaw and is presumably the same one that appears in the younger John’s portrait where it is covered with skull moss, much sought after as a powerful medicine.
[For more on this, perhaps than you might like to know, see Dr Richard Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians 2011 or take a look at this on-line article by him].
Is the skull another reference to the Hydra which presided over the entrance to the underworld. Is it just another vanitas image: a reminder of mortality and the transience of material goods? Or is there something else which resonated in the 17thc mind which no longer does with ours in the 21st?
The hydra is turned towards the side I could see from the Clore Room. Normally on chest tombs the side panels are blank, or simply inscribed with the names of family members. Not so in this case. Hester seems to have commissioned a depiction of some of the contents of the family museum.
Most prominent is the Crocodile of Egypt sadly long disappeared. Neither father or son went to Egypt and it’s unlikely that on his expedition to Algiers, the nearest he got, that John senior encountered a crocodile. So the specimen was probably either given to him or bought in the thriving market in natural history curiosities in London.
Plenty of other things from Egypt were known about or available, such as mummy parts which were ground up for medicine. A crocodile also featured prominently in the best image we have of a collectors cabinet of natural history specimens, that of Ferrante Imperator of Naples in 1599.
This side panel also includes lots of shells. The museum catalogue lists sorts and they too appear in John’s portrait. What is unclear is if the first stone mason carved them from the originals in the collection as one might like to think, or from his own imagination. By the time they were re-carved in the 19thc all potential knowledge of similarities were lost.
A series of prints were published after the 1853 restoration and from them we get a clear idea of the reliefs when they were new.
Behind the crocodile and shells is a landscape of ruined buildings, and trees. Roger Bowdler of Historic England suggests this might be intended to be St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury where the elder John worked for Lord Wotton. Unfortunately I can’t find enough images of the abbey to check that theory, but that does seem plausible.
On the fourth side we have a completely different scene, a landscape dotted with classical ruins, but also including a pyramid. Again it’s pretty clear that neither Tradescant went to Italy or Greece so what was Hester trying to imply in her choice of subject?
Classical symbolism is usually used to show learning and a deep-rooted love of knowledge. Gentlemen had a classical education, and could read Latin, if not Greek, which would fit quite nicely with the status being claimed by the coat of arms, with its helmet and crest. Furthermore the younger John had been sent by father to King’s School in Canterbury where that’s exactly the sort of education he would have received.
Here again though there are differences between the 1662 Pepys drawing and the 1853 re-carving. In the drawing the pyramid isn’t Egyptian in style but more like a Romanised version, and the obelisks too are different.
To link all four sides together the mason carved a set of large trees in deep relief, and they hold up the ledger on which is the epitaph:
Know, stranger, ere thou pass, beneath this stone
Lie John Tradescant, grandsire, father, son
The last dy’d in his spring, the other two,
Liv’d till they had travelled Art and Nature through,
As by their choice Collections may appear,
Of what is rare in land, in sea, in air,
Whilst they (as Homer’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut,
These famous Antiquarians that had been
Both Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen,*
Transplanted now themselves, sleep here & when
Angels shall with their trumpets waken men,
And fire shall purge the world, these three shall rise
And change this Garden then for Paradise.
But I want to leave you with a further thought, or perhaps a potential mystery…
I made the point earlier that chest tombs were unusual until the later 17thc and so this was an early example. It is always said that Hester was responsible for the tomb and as evidence I quoted the vestry minutes for November 1662 when she applied for permission to put the tomb up in the churchyard. So what are we to make of this detail of the exterior of St Mary’s taken from one of Hollar’s panoramic views of London, drawn from Lambeth published in 1647.
Hollar knew Lambeth well. There are several other detailed views from the riverside there, or of the Palace but crucially he also knew the Tradescants. He was even a witness in the court proceedings between Hester and Elias Ashmole. So this is a view of a place he would have known well. And what can you see in place where the Tradescant tomb stands? I’d say it’s something that looks suspiciously like a chest tomb. As far as I can see there are no other chest tombs in this part of the churchyard in later images of St Mary’s.
Did Hollar make a mistake? Maybe use a bit of artistic licence? I can’t think of any reason why he would. He has a reputation as an extremely accurate topographical artist. There some examples of where he shifted things around a bit to create a better image BUT as far as I’m aware there are very few complaints that he got details wrong or invented them. In any case if this was just an imaginative addition how likely is it that he’d have drawn something that was extremely rare in the 1640s in the right spot for something that was only supposed to be built in 1662.
Unfortunately the vestry minutes for the 1640s have been lost, although the churchwardens accounts survive, so I’ll be rushing off to check them as soon as I can, but I’m wondering if there isn’t a different story to be told here.
Keith Thomas in The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England  highlights research that suggest around a third of monuments in the early modern period were erected in their subject’s lifetime, while others were commissioned in advance, as one said, “to put me in mind of my mortality.” These presumably were attempts to shape their posthumous image in the memory of others. He also suggests that there is evidence it was “the newly arrived and socially less secure who were most anxious to erect tombs which would establish their family’s reputation”. That would fit the Tradescants very well.
It’s also the case that the paintings of the deceased were “a kind of preservative against death and mortality: by a perpetual preserving of their shapes, whose substance physic could not prolong.” Many likenesses including at least one of John senior were painted during their last days or immediately after death.
Since the carvings on the tomb seem to relate to the collection started by John senior, and if that ruined building is St Augustine’s abbey then to his life more generally, is it too far-fetched to suggest that perhaps John senior commissioned or at least had a hand in the design of his own tomb? The Hollar print suggests that it might even have been installed. But if it was there why did Hester pay £50 to have it erected in 1662. Or did Hollar know what was planned and included the tomb as a signal honour to his friends, even though it wasn’t actually there when he prepared the plate? Perhaps it been dismantled during the Civil War or Commonwealth? Had it been in a City churchyard that would not necessarily have been considered unusual. Overcrowded churchyards were often cleared and the grave space reused. As John Aubrey commented in Monumenta Britannica “our bones in consecrated ground never lay quiet and once in London once in ten years or thereabouts the earth is carried to the dung-wharf” for disposal. Perhaps the tomb was started but unfinished or perhaps uncarved when John senior died, and left in that state for financial reasons, or reasons of taste, or because of the Civil War? Was it the younger John’s death that inspired Hester to get it finished at last?
Will we ever know? Comments welcome!
I’m very grateful to both Jennifer Potter, author of Strange Blooms, the biography of the Tradescants (2006 )and to Jill Francis, author of Gardens and Gardening in Early Modern England and Wales (2018) for their comments on this post. I was going to leave publishing it until I could check the archives properly but I’m afraid I’m too impatient!