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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

God I love the Victorians: Object in focus at the Royal College ofSurgeons

Everyone knows that all museums have their star objects. The British Museum has the Rosetta Stone, the V&A has the Great Bed of Ware, the Natural History Museum has…dinosaurs. But what only insiders know are all their wacky and wonderful objects stories that don’t get featured in their institution’s displays. We think that’s the best part about museums, and I would say most people agree. They even made a show about it, it’s called Museum Secrets, and it’s awesome. In the past we’ve brought you John Dee’s angel and demon stones from the stores of the Science Museum, but today it’s all about those wacky death-obsessed Victorians at the Royal College of Surgeons.

As you may or may not know, the Royal College of Surgeons of England in Holborn houses the Hunterian Museum. If you do not know this, shame on you and get your ass over there ASAP to see it. Moving on. This is an object secret hiding in plain sight- it’s not kept in the museum but actually in the entrance hall of the building. As you enter into the grand foyer of the College, heading towards the sweeping staircase leading to Museum (because obviously that is why you are there) just take a quick look to your left and you will see…

Copyright the Royal College of Surgeons
THIS! Enormous bronze and green marble monstrosity. That’s not that weird, you might say. Everyone knows the Victorians loved funerary statuary, and this is obviously just some kind of memorial commissioned by someone close to the College. In green marble because you know, why not? You can clearly see a couple, lovingly leaning on each other in grief, looking at an urn containing the ashes of their child.

Well what if I were to tell you the ashes in that boxes aren’t their child, it’s those people themselves! Lovingly gazing at their…dead selves? What? This enormous piece of funerary statuary was commissioned by one Eliza Millard McLoghlin (1863-1928) in 1909 for her husband Dr Edward Percy Plantagenet Macloghlin (what a name). Edward was a GP and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. After she died she requested that her ashes be moved in with his. The only slightly odd this was that Eliza had a love affair with the artist Alfred Gilbert while he was making the sculpture. Gilbert is probably best known as the sculptor of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. Poor Alfred, in the throws of the kind of dramatic love only a Victorian can experience, built in an a hinge on the top of Eliza’s head for his own ashes to be stored.

Yes, we are seeing a creepy Victorian love-triangle forever enshrined in statuary. As it turned out, the Alfred-Eliza affair turned sour towards the end and he was buried elsewhere (ie not in Eliza’s head for the rest of time).

But aside from the completely ridiculous back story, the sculpture titled Mors Janua Vitae (Death is the gate of life) is an actual work of art. The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool even has the model for making this monstrosity.

So over-the-top expensive decorations, a creepy love storyand a couple of deaths to boot, what’s more Victorian than that?

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