In a while, crocodile

December 11 2015

John Tradescant is being packed up for Christmas: the builders have constructed a protective wooden box around the family’s chest tomb in the churchyard. It will not be opened until Trevor Proudfoot – the remarkable conservator who has just finished restoring the 18th-century grotto at Painshill – begins work, funded by a grant from The Pilgrim Trust.

Rosemary Nicholson, our founder, came looking for this tomb; this tomb is why the Museum was set up. Its carvings and the poem lettered on its lid tell a coded story of the Tradescants’ lives as collectors of plants and natural history. And – Tradescants aside - it is of national importance to the development of churchyard monuments. Until 1662 when Hester, widow of the younger Tradescant, paid £50 for it to be set up, tombs as proud and ornamental as this were inside the church. Outside was a slippery mud-bath for the poor, of grass humps and a few flat stone slabs; few of Tradescant’s neighbours would have had coffins even as good as the pinewood box being assembled today.

Its apparition in the open air – and beside the road to the river – made contemporaries blink. It is the only churchyard monument in the ‘paper museum’ of Samuel Pepys, a visual record he assembled of 'curiosities' of the city, from city gates to the monuments inside St Paul’s. He bought prints if prints existed, and if not dispatched an artist to sketch what particularly caught his eye. At his death in 1703 these views were bound up in volumes by his clerks and shelved beside the diaries in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

This is how John Aubrey, the antiquary, described Pepys’s project: ‘all that could be collected relating to this Metropolis; and besides engravings, he was at the expense of many Draughts [drawings], never executed on copper [that is, not existing as prints], to illustrate this City, of which he was a Native’. It was a ‘paper museum’ when there were no museums as we know them today.

I go to Cambridge to look at the drawing because the tomb as we see it was re-carved in the 1850s. ‘Restoration’, say the printed accounts of the time, but we don’t trust that word ‘restoration’ in a mid-Victorian typeface. There are two drawings in pen and wash on a single sheet, titled ‘John Tresdescant’s Mon’t in Lamb’th Churchyard’. On one side are classical ruins, freshly toppled; whoever designed the tomb – and that is a mystery – had studied reconstructions by artists, such as Nicolas Poussin, who worked in Rome. The opposite side shows a ruined medieval Abbey – in the Gothic style of northern Europe - and in a rolling landscape the shells and snails in Tradescant’s collection of natural history. And the stuffed crocodile once in The Ark.

Twenty years ago I helped research for an exhibition about neo-classical monuments and mausolea. The expert was, and is, Dr Roger Bowdler, who I first met in a churchyard. He stood at a chest-high chest tomb in a black jacket and with long, black curls. We were at the age when if you liked someone you said ‘Let’s go to the pub’; somehow, there was always time before whatever you had to do next. He explained that the body is not in the chest. It is in a brick vault underground. The chest is a symbolic echo of the Roman sarcophagus. “‘Sarcophagus” translates, literally, as flesh-eater”’ he said, with relish, and drank his pint, a gold lining to his black jacket.

He posted an article about 17th-century tombs which I liked so much I quoted it word for word in a book, and which I type out again because it explains the scenes of ruins:

‘The 17th-century was a solemn and serious age; from whatever religious standpoint, its outlook was dour and anxious’. Wars, and a philosophy which emphasized man’s weakness, not his potential. ‘As a result ruins had a positive meaning for the earth-bound mortal, and structural collapse provided a strong metaphor for death… All flesh is grass: man must wither and die before the soul can escape and return to God… The Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell likened dying in a devotional work The Triumph over Death of 1596 to demolishing your old, rotten house in order to build a new and more handsome edifice: ‘withdraw your eies from the ruine of this cottage, and caste them upon the majestie of the second building’.

This is the imagery transcribed into stone on Tradescant’s tomb. When man’s cities will fall, the two royal gardeners will rise to heaven.

Thank you, Roger, and thank you Samuel Pepys, whose diary I’ve never read. It’s one of those things – like sailing, or Provence, or collecting prints – that you know you will enjoy too much. Thank you, curious Mr Pepys, for being so intrigued by Tradescant’s tomb that an artist was paid to go to Lambeth and record its carvings for his ‘paper Museum’.

Paper can outlast stone (like in the game). The Victorian restorer did, inevitably, fiddle. The trees – as re-carved – are what look like plane trees to me, and olives to others; in the original they are smoother-trunked. Oaks, or elms? A flood pours through Rome. The crocodile’s jaw shortened to a more accurate length.

The Victorians had seen crocodiles in the zoo, I guess, and the Stuarts had not. But I prefer the goofy old croc. It is the last sculpture visible when the last plank is banged in. In a while, crocodile.

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