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Mors Janua Vitae, by Alfred Gilbert


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About the artwork

Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) is best remembered for his statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

November’s Sculpture of the Month is a full sized plaster model for a funerary monument. The deceased, Dr Edward Percy Plantagenet Macloghlin, had been an obscure Wigan GP whose career was so undistinguished that, when he died at the age of 47, neither the Lancet nor the British Medical Journal carried an obituary. His widow, writing to the secretary of the Royal College of Surgeons offering to endow a scholarship in his name, supplied an epitaph of unwitting bathos : ‘He was so very clever; and he loved his work - and he never made any mistakes.’

When she approached Alfred Gilbert, in 1904, to design the memorial, also destined for the Royal College of Surgeons, Mrs Macloghlin told him that her husband had been an atheist, as was she, and that it was as an atheist that she wished him immortalised. Christian imagery being out of the question, some other theme had to be found for the decoration. Gilbert decided to commemorate, not just the husband, but the devotion of husband and wife. ‘I loved the doctor so very, very dearly’, she wrote, ‘loved and honoured him with my whole being; and he loved and honoured me as truly - and we had only each other.’ The Latin phrase Gilbert adopted for the title - Mors Janua Vitae or Death, the Door to Life - is usually taken to imply an eternal life after death. In this case it is the transcendent power of love that lives on.

The finished memorial was surmounted by a bronze bust of husband and wife, cheek to cheek, gazing down in rapture at the casket, or cinerarium, intended to hold the doctor’s ashes and, when the time came, those of his widow. The lower section, consisting of red and green marble, was inset with three bronze reliefs: the central one featured a naked child with bound feet supported by winged figures in profile. To either side were a descending nude inscribed EROS, and an ascending nude inscribed ANTEROS, intended to represent, respectively, sensual and spiritual love. It should be remembered that in the early twentieth century, cremation was unusual. It was frowned upon by the Christian church and, indeed, until 1902 the practise was technically illegal. Mrs Macloghlin’s choice of funeral arrangement was, therefore, in a very real sense, pagan. Gibson’s decorative scheme or EROS and ANTEROS was intended to reflect that paganism. 

The commission was somewhat compromised by a love affair between the sculptor and his increasingly deranged patron. Mrs Macloghlin saw the memorial as a collaboration between herself and Gilbert. She always referred to it as ‘Our Work.’ And it was to have been a collaboration in more than one sense. ‘My own head in “our work”’, she wrote, ‘was to have been the casket in which the body of Gilbert would sleep one day.’ At her instigation a hinged lid was fitted into the top of the female bust, covering a cavity intended to contain her lover’s ashes. If she had had her way Mors Janua Vitae would have contained the remains of three people. It would have been, in the words of one commentator, ‘a kind of eternal ménage a trois.’ 

Gilbert exhibited the plaster model at the Royal Academy in 1907. By 1908, his affair with Mr Macloghlin at an end, he refused to deliver the model to his patron for casting. She eventually persuaded him to surrender it only by the expedient of throwing stones at his studio windows.