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Transcript of Mors Janua Vitae podcast
Paul O'Keeffe: It's called 'Mors Janua Vitae'. I don't know any Latin but I've been told that that's the way to pronounce it. For the J, the current fashion in Latin scholarship is Yanua and the Vitae is Wittae with a W.
'Mors Janua Vitae' means 'Death the gateway, or the door, to Life'. It offers, this object of the month, a very good object lesson in the perils of sculpture. The perils of sculpture, of being a sculptor, in the nineteenth century (or the early twentieth century). The perils also of commissioning a sculpture.
The sculptor, as opposed to the painter, has a lot of expense. You've got high raw material costs. A nineteenth century sculptor would have created this in plaster. Then he's got to get it made into a mould and cast. There's a lot of expense in raw materials. Whereas a painter can just buy paints and slosh away.
The essential thing is the sculptor needs commissions. Needs a patron. Alfred Gilbert's most famous piece of work, you all know it, is the 'Statue of Eros' in Piccadilly. It's a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury. The 'Statue of Eros' was the very first public statue made out of aluminium. Not many people know that but it is. I learnt on University Challenge the other night that aluminium is the commonest mineral found in the earth. Very cheap as well if you know how to cast it properly.
Alfred Gilbert had the statue of Eros cast in aluminium. It was the fountain underneath that caused him his biggest problem however because the fountain underneath is bronze. When he was commissioned in 1886 to create this memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, the government promised him old cannon for the fountain. They promised him captured enemy cannon that could be melted down and cast into the fountain.
Eventually they reneged on their promise and Gilbert was in the position where he had to get it cast fast. He had to pay himself for copper at a very, very inflated price. The result was that whereas he had originally taken on the commission and costed it at Â£3000, its finished cost was Â£7000 and Gilbert was made responsible for the shortfall of Â£4000. That public commission for Gilbert was a disaster. Very near the beginning of his career he was nearly ruined by it and he spent the rest of his career in debt as a result. That is one of the perils of being a sculptor.
This is a model of a sarcophagus. It's a sarcophagus to the memory of Elizabeth Eliza MacLoghlin's late husband. And the most remarkable thing about Eliza MacLoghlin's late husband was his name - Dr Edward Percy Plantaganet MacLoghlin. Fantastic name, absolute nonentity. He was apparently born in Chester, a Doctor in Wigan. Died at the age of 47. When he died, although a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Lancet and the British Medical Journal did not carry an obituary, which they would have done if he'd been in any way eminent.
When Eliza MacLoghlin, his widow, wrote to the Secretary of the Royal College of Surgeons offering this to be placed in the hall of the Royal College of Surgeons and also offering to fund a scholarship in her husband's memory she said 'He was so very clever and he loved his work and he never made any mistakes'. Which I think is a very good thing for a doctor. But it's a rather bathetic epitaph for a doctor.
Dr MacLoghlin was an atheist, as was his widow. In 1904 when she commissioned Alfred Gilbert to create this monument, it is in fact a sarcophagus. A sarcophagus comes from the greek 'Sarco phagus' meaning flesh-eating. And a sarcophagus was a greek coffin, a limestone coffin, into which the body of the deceased was placed. So they called it a flesheater as it were.
There is distinction between a sarcophagus and a cenotaph, which also is Greek, but that means empty tomb and it means a monument, a grave, a tomb which is empty in the memory of somebody who is buried elsewhere. This model was in fact for a sarcophagus and this casket here was intended to hold the Doctor's ashes. He was to be cremated and his ashes were to be placed in this casket here. Technically speaking it's called a cinerarium - a container for ashes.
Eliza MacLoghlin left instructions in her will for the disposal of her own remains. When she died, she was to be veiled in white silk, like a bride. Then she was to be cremated. 'Like my husband, I desire that my body shall be cremated and without any religious cemetery my ashes shall be kept in the casket which I keep by me for the purpose' - kept his casket by her all the time, while she was alive - 'for the purpose, and shall then be conveyed to the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where they are to be allowed to mingle with those of my late husband contained in the bronze casket of 'Mors Janua Vitae', the work of Alfred Gilbert MVO [Member of the Victorian Order] RA [Royal Academician], erected there for this purpose'.
In the early twentieth century, if you were cremated you were making a very, very strong statement of atheism in effect. It was still viewed with great suspicion by the established Church. They saw the cremation of bodies as harking back to Paganism. Up until 1902 it was still technically illegal to be cremated. In 1904 this was a new thing and not many people were actually cremated and by having her husband and herself cremated she was making a statement that they were Pagan, they were not Christian, they were Atheists.
The widow also stipulated that when Alfred Gilbert was to start on his monument it should contain no Christian imagery of any sort. It consists of these two half-length busts, head, shoulders, chest of the Doctor and his wife gazing down at this casket that is to enclose their ashes. That was to be in bronze, then the lower part here was to be in red marble. The middle bit was red marble on a green marble pedestal and a green marble cornice. That's the top bit, the green marble cornice and green marble pedestal. Then there were these three vertical bronze panels set in and a horizontal bronze frieze.
The three panels are about love. Gilbert, faced with the problem of creating a monument to a man who didn't believe in God or any organised religion, couldn't use religious imagery, so he decided to use the imagery of love. In fact, Eliza MacLoghlin did love her husband. This was the main thing. She said, 'I loved the Doctor so very, very dearly. Loved and honoured him with my whole being. And he loved and honoured me as truly and we had only each other'.
It was a very close, probably quite stifling, relationship. So, Gilbert created this not just as a memorial to the dead Doctor but as a memorial to the dead Doctor's love of his wife.
You've got on either side of this central panel, two figures. One nude retreating and rising, stepping up a stairway. The other, advancing towards us and stepping down. Gilbert himself in conversation in 1925, said that he felt that throughout his entire life, his entire life had been a struggle between Eros, passionate destructive love, and the rival of Eros, Anteros, pure ennobling love. So, you have here Eros coming towards us, this nude descending. This is Anteros, ascending, going away.
In effect, if Gilbert's life is a struggle between Eros and Anteros, in this tomb there is a balance, an equilibrium. Whereas Anteros is retreating, Eros is advancing. But at the same time Eros is descending and Anteros is in the ascendant. There's a balance, an equilibrium there.
The central panel has a naked child with a sort of halo around its head and it has bound feet as well. Apparently the child is supposed to be being initiated into the mysteries of life by these two winged creatures whispering in its ears. The frieze is assorted frolicking cherubs.
Essentially its a symbolist work. Gilbert was a great symbolist sculptor. Symbolism as a movement was late nineteenth century. Pan-European, it was all over the place, in reaction to the materialism of Impresssionism. Whereas Impressionism was a scientific portrayal of reality, the Symbolists believed that they could portray the unportrayable. They could give form to the idea so symbolism is all about the soul and about immaterial things. So this is really all about love. The whole idea of this title 'Mors Janua Vitae', 'Death the gateway to Life', don't really know what it means in this context. In the context of the Christian religion it means Death the gateway to eternal life. A life after death in heaven. But in the Pagan sense, God knows what it means.
By about 1906 Gilbert had been working on this and he lost his struggle between Eros and Anteros, between sexual love and selfless love and he'd embarked on an affair with Eliza MacLoghlin, his patron. She was free, she was a widow, she was a handsome woman and she was also going slowly mad. They embarked on this passionate affair and by 1908 the nature of this sarcophagus had changed as a result of the love affair. Eliza MacLoghlin wrote later, 'My own head in our work' - she called this 'our work' which is another symbolist concept of a pair of lovers, an artist and his muse, joining together in a transcendent love which produces their work, their child, their work of art. You find it a lot in the late plays of Ibsen where you have two people and their child, our work, becomes very important so that the work of art equals the love affair. And also the love affair becomes a work of art, its Symbolism, everything standing for everything else.
So, 'My own head, in our work for the Royal College of Surgeons was to have been the casket in which the body of Gilbert cremated would sleep one day and so he shall yet if I live longest'. If in fact, if you went to the Royal College of Surgeons to see this you'd have to climb a ladder to look down on the head of Eliza MacLoghlin and you would see there a lid, hinged lid like an inkwell. And you could lift that up and the head was the container for the ashes of the sculptor. That was the idea and Gilbert obviously agreed to it because he installed the lid.
By 1908 this whole thing had changed. It had become in effect a sort of post-mortem menage-a-trois. There was to be not only the Doctor, Edward Percy Plantaganet MacLoghlin, not only his widow, but also the sculptor all mingled together in eternal life. Next time you're in London, go along to the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn, I'm sure it could be on the tourist trail some day. But by 1908 the relationship had come to an end. Eliza MacLoghlin was going quietly mad.
It's slightly complicated by the fact that in 1901, before the commission, Gilbert had declared himself bankrupt. He'd never really recovered from Eros in Piccadilly and he'd settled in Bruges, leaving behind a lot of very important commissions. The most important commission being a royal commission, the tomb of the nine year old Duke of Clarence in Windsor Castle. It was commissioned by the Prince of Wales, shortly to become Edward VII. The nine year old Duke of Clarence was the heir to the throne and he died at the age of nine.
Gilbert's tomb was to be an amazing affair. There's a description of it here - 'a recumbent effigy of the deceased heir to the throne wearing the uniform of the Tenth Hussars, carried out in marble, bronze, brass and aluminium. A bronze grille surrounding the tomb and punctuated by eighteen uprights, twelve containing ivory and bronze saints. Above the whole lot, a huge aluminium angel bowed in sorrow held an oversized crown above the Prince's head'. Big thing.
When Gilbert left for Bruges, the monument still lacked five of the twelve saints. Edward VII was extremely annoyed about this. He had paid for twelve saints and there were five missing. Then in 1903 Gilbert wrote from Bruges to his majesty, asking permission to publish a series of photographs of the tomb for an article in a magazine and his majesty refused. He said, 'Why publish a discredit, which the unfinished memorial certainly is?'.
Gilbert went ahead and published the photographs anyway. Not a good thing to do when your patron is Edward VII. Adding insult to injury, the photographs accompanying the article showed ivory and bronze figures that Gilbert had taken from the tomb and sold to a private dealer. He'd replaced them with bronze figures and the bronze figures are stil there to this day.
Edward VII really did feel that he'd been swindled. He had paid for bronze and ivory and he accused Gilbert of dishonesty. Meanwhile in Bruges Gilbert was refusing to fulfill his commission for Mors Janua Vitae and he was refusing to give the model to Mrs MacLoghlin to be cast and erected in the Royal College of Surgeons. She pestered him for weeks and eventually got him to surrender the model by the simple expedient of throwing bricks through his studio window.
This then is the model. It was cast and put into permanent material in 1909 and the monument itself in the Royal College of Surgeons is inscribed on the side in Mrs MacLoghlin's instruction, the words 'Unfinished for a symbol'. Meaning I presume that Gilbert surrendered the model when it was still in a more or less unfinished state. She regarded this as deeply symbolic, perhaps symbolic of the unfinished nature of their relationship.
Eliza MacLoghlin then made matters worse for Gilbert with his royal patron. She wrote to Edward VII a mad, rather insulting letter begging him to forgive Gilbert. Apparently her handwriting was very similar to Gilbert's and it was felt by many in the Court that Gilbert had written the letter begging for forgiveness. It was all rather messy and as if all this wasn't enough for poor old Gilbert, in 1906 there was another client, a Mrs Julia Frankow, who had also commissioned a monument to her husband which had not materialised, denounced him in the press. There was a gossip column in the newspaper Truth and Gilbert was called a liar and a rogue and 'his actions indistinguishable from theft'.
Again, Eliza MacLoghlin leapt to this defence. She wrote a rather deranged poem which I'll treat you to here. I don't know whether this was actually published but we have a typescript of it in the records. It's addressed to Alfred Gilbert MVO RA:
Dead tired his best well done his worst
He could not help his worst who had not meant it
Frankow, alas, love shall to the rescue
Forsaken of Truth, Hope, Christ, never
Has the Jewess consience, heart to urge malice
Help her revenge Truth will repent it
Slumbers the sculptor God, the genius
Innocent and callous as ever was
Master, what of the cross and shame?
Thus needs on the downgrade
Needs must the sunrise. Smiles now
Bravo, desire awake and lo
Mors Janua Vitae, a fairytale
Spirit from ashes dark silence
Moral till pressmen know quite sure
Is Unwise. Gilbert RA, soul in the sticks and clay
Saint, Satan, Creator, Triumphant. Hail!
Signed Eliza MacLoghlin.
The actual story, two years later, it does have a happy ending. Two years later, the President of the Royal Academy, hearing of further allegations of fraud by Gilbert and examples of money that he'd taken possession of for memorials that he'd failed to produce, demanded his resignation from the Royal Academy for 'conduct dishonourable and unworthy of a member of the Royal Academy'. He also had to resign from the Victorian Order. He had started an art school in Bruges - that failed.
When his son visited him - did I mention he was married? He was married to his cousin. A long married life, several children, until just before he was commissioned by Eliza MacLoghlin and he was separated. His son visited him in 1908 in Bruges and he was starving and without warm clothes. He stayed in Bruges throughout the First World War, married his Flemish housekeeper. Imagine staying in Bruges throughout the First World War, very noisy probably. But the career has a happy ending. In 1926 he was summoned home by the new King George V. The son of Edward VII and the brother of the nine year old Duke of Clarence.
One does get the impression that George V felt that there was unfinished business. Gilbert was now 72. He was given a studio by the King. The first studio he was given was in St James' Palace, the second in Kensington Palace, where he at last supplied the five missing figures for the tomb of the Duke of Clarence. It's almost as if the new King summons him back to finish that job. Interestingly though the five remaining figures that were added were in bronze, not in ivory and bronze as George V's father had paid for.
His last major work, unveiled in 1932 was another big royal tomb, that of Queen Alexandra. In 1932 the Symbolist movement in scultpure as in painting had really come to an end at the end of the nineteenth century and in 1932 he created this last work - a great tomb to the Queen which was a late flowering of the Symbolist movement. Three crowned female figures representing Faith, Hope and Charity leading a nearly nude adolescent girl across a fountain of falling water. Symbolic of the stream of life.
All was forgiven. He was reinstated as a Royal Academician and he was knighted. And he died, 1934. Mrs MacLoghlin meanwhile died 1928, insane.