It’s wonderful to be here at Brompton Cemetery to celebrate this major conservation project that is restoring, enhancing and repurposing this unique Grade 1 listed landscape for longevity.
Set within 39 acres, Brompton Cemetery is a sweeping architectural statement - inspired by the world-famous St. Peter’s Square in Rome with 35,000 memorials and 205,000 burials, all surrounded by trees, flowers and wildlife. The V&A is also linked to this great Roman city. The bronze figure of St. Peter stands atop Trajan’s Column, the 1st century AD marble monument towering over the ruins of Rome’s Forum. The V&A’s own monumental plaster cast of Trajan’s Column is one of the most impressive copies in our collection. Shown in two halves, it dominates our Cast Courts, and has enabled successive students, scholars and visitors to study and admire this great relic of the classical world from afar.
It’s great to hear about the work already completed at Brompton Cemetery – the restoration of the Grade 2* listed domed chapel; the introduction of a café and meeting place; the repair of many notable monuments; and the new planting themed on Robert Fortune’s plant introductions. With an ambition to create London’s best run and most beautiful working cemetery, Brompton Cemetery’s mission is well on its way.
Now, the connections between Brompton Cemetery and the V&A are plentiful – not least in their proximity to one another. As one of London’s treasured Royal Parks, Brompton Cemetery is the only cemetery in the country owned by the Crown, managed on behalf of the nation. In fact, it was nationalised in 1852, the same year that the Museum of Manufactures – the V&A’s earliest iteration – first opened.
Amongst Brompton Cemetery’s historic grave stones, we can find many remarkable and eminent people: Emmeline Pankhurst, physician Dr John Snow, Fanny Brawne, Robert Fortune, boxer John Jackson, and author Bernard Levin. But of particular relevance for the V&A is the burial site of Sir Henry Cole - the V&A’s first director, and arguably, one of the most influential Victorians. In a bizarre parallel, Cole’s beloved dog Jim was buried in the V&A’s garden. Visitors can still see the plaque marking Jim’s grave today…
Through Cole’s pragmatic leadership, he made the irrefutable case for popular education: in his administration of the pioneering system of national design schools, and in a museum directorship defined by popular appeal, wide cultural reach and democratic openness.
Cole made the case for widespread accessibility at South Kensington. This was a public museum which didn’t shut out the poor, intimated or uncultured. Instead, with its world-first restaurant and gas-lighting, it was consciously focused on inviting the working classes in. Cole was deeply attentive to his visitors’ experience; he was adamant that people came because they were made welcome and were offered easy access.
In the galleries, ‘arranged so clearly that they may woo the ignorant to examine them,’ all exhibits were labelled, so there was no need to buy catalogues. Indeed, the whole museum was like a book, ‘with its pages always open, and not shut.’ Cole’s philosophy inspired replica museums the world over, and continues to shape our civic mission at the V&A today.
It was at Cole’s suggestion, that the Victorian district of Brompton – where we find both Brompton Cemetery and the V&A – was renamed to the more aristocratic-sounding, South Kensington. And it was also at Cole’s persuasion – so impressed had he been by visits to international displays such as Paris’s 1844 Exhibition of Industrial Art – that Prince Albert initiated the Great Exhibition of 1851 – that remarkable gathering of materialism, historicism and manufacturing bravado in Hyde Park. We’re beginning to get a vivid picture of this skilled administrator and pioneering educator, with friends in all the right places…
The V&A’s historic links to the Royal Parks may well have started with Hyde Park, but I’m proud to be reinforcing them today here at Brompton Cemetery. This magnificent Victorian cemetery is many things: a prominent resting place, a historic site, a sculpture garden, a tranquil nature reserve, a national monument and a vital public meeting place. With the Brompton Cemetery Conservation Project, this national heritage asset is taking on new life and gaining new meaning for many more visitors to enjoy. Let’s give this superb project the support and vision it needs.