Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mourning Howard

Sophia Haine's Handiwork from 1797
Photo: Chronica Domus

A dozen or so years ago, during one of our journeys to London to visit my relatives, my husband and I did what we do on each of our visits there; we spent the day pleasantly trolling some of the city's antiques shops.  Walking along Church Street, close to where I formerly worked on Marylebone Road, we popped into a little antiques shop to take a look at what was on offer.

At the time, I recall the walls of our drawing room being quite bare, and we were both eager to remedy that situation.  Young & Sons, the shop into which we had wandered, had a vast selection of art pieces dating from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.  The proprietor was very knowledgeable and guided us to several pieces that might possibly fit our needs.  It was not until we went downstairs, into the basement level that resembled an Aladdin's cave, that we found it.  In the corner of the shop was a piece of art that we both silently knew was going home with us.  And, I'm happy to report, it did.

That was our initial introduction to the fascinating world of memorial art and all that is held within its symbolic meaning.  We have been on the prowl for more ever since.

Today's post will deconstruct some of the features that constitute a piece of artwork, such as the one we purchased, dedicated to the business of mourning in the late Neoclassical period.  This example is of English origin, but other countries once memorialized their dead in a similar fashion. 

Firstly, we do not know the relationship between the artist and Howard, the dearly departed gentleman who is the subject of this particular memorial.  Clearly the piece was created with great sentimentality as the artist, Sophia Haine, took the time to sign and title her work.  On the wooden backboard, she has inked an inscription that reads "Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard, Sophia Haine's work, finish'd Dec 15th, (1797)".

The artist's inscription
Photo: Chronica Domus

This tender dedication makes me long to know just as much about the artist as her deceased subject.  Miss Haine not only shows great skill through her use of  the needle and paintbrush (or would that be ink pen), but also her strong sense of caring and humanity is evident in the words she carefully chose to title her work .

Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Detail of Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Photo: Chronica Domus

The piece depicts the central character, a young female with flaxen hair and blue eyes, looking forlorn as she mourns alongside Howard's tomb.  Delicate silk and wool felt are the primary materials used to construct the scene, whose features are embroidered with a variety of stitches showcasing the talents of the artist.  The woman's face and hands, together with the letters on the plinth, are made of vellum that has been carefully cut to shape, and skillfully embellished with either watercolor paint or colored ink.  Miss Haine was surely an accomplished young lady to not only have mastered painting, but also embroidery to such good effect.  I assume the artist was indeed young as it was the norm to study the feminine arts as part of one's well-rounded education.  Strong sepia tones dominate the whole scene, with the occasional touch of deep blue to emphasize the eyes and the inky trunk of the willow tree.

There are many symbols of mourning present in this piece.  As was typical of the Neoclassical period of mourning art, a dominant weeping willow tree, symbolic of grief and sorrow, arches gracefully over the urn and plinth of Howard.  Another tree, possibly an oak, is shown with a broken branch to signify the loss of life.  Brown earth tones beneath the female mourner portray decay and mortality.

The urn, made of felt, is a strong Neoclassical motif related to death and still in use to this day.  It is a feature repeatedly seen in mourning pieces and is as central to the picture as the mourner.  The fact that this particular urn is draped could possibly tell us that an older person is being mourned, perhaps a father figure to the female character.  The urn sits atop a plinth, yet another mark of bereavement, and aids in elevating the urn skyward.

 Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Photo: Chronica Domus

This, our first piece of mourning art, has slowly evolved into a small collection that graces the walls of our home.  Those pieces, however, are composed of an entirely separate element of mourning, something that would perhaps be considered macabre by many in today's world; human hair.  I plan on featuring some of them in future posts.

I hope you'll agree with me that this "long dead" genre of mourning our deceased, by way of such personal expression of creativity, is a fascinating subject.  I feel honored to be the steward of Miss Haine's work; at least for this generation.


  1. Egads, were we separated at birth? I, too, adore mourning-themed pictures, jewelry, and more, from the late and early nineteenth centuries. I am mad about it, in fact! Just this afternoon I was kicking myself (again) for not buying a particularly marvelous mourning oil painting at the Winter Antiques Show three or four years ago...It truly was one of the ones that "got away". Reggie

  2. Yes, dear Reggie, kindred spirits indeed. Oh, how I would have loved to have seen the oil painting that got away from you. I had a similar experience with a mourning theorem at auction several years ago. I would love to own a mourning ring with the typical urn/plinth scene. Not only that, I would make a point of wearing it too. How fabulous would that be?

  3. It's a lovely piece combining both art and history. But human hair? I must have seen these items as I also like to trawl through auction houses and old shops by the M Road as I live not too far from there. I guess I didn't realize. I once did remove a clump of wall that had horse hair but I don't know why I was surprised as it is a sturdy material!

    1. Hello Naomi,

      I believe you may have intended this comment to have landed in the comments section of my other mourning art posting, found here:


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