This week we have a guest blog by Dr Lindsay Udall. Dr Udall explains why the Bristol General Cemetery Company chose Arnos Vale as the spot to build their cemetery. She explores the importance of the Picturesque landscape and its influence as Arnos Vale is regarded as one of the purest forms of Arcadia found in the UK today.
We find out how did it end up where it is. We learn the meaning of the ‘Picturesque’ and its relationship with a cemetery landscape in Bristol.
The Picturesque was a style of Romantic landscape painting developed in the eighteenth century depicting natural, pastoral, or ruinous views of landscapes. These paintings incorporating nature at its most dramatic with large and imposing views, and perspectives. Arcadia was a style of a particular type of picturesque painting that showed classical scenes from antiquity or classical ruins, both real and imagined. The imagery was also intended to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. The viewer should be overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and landscape. This art could even create a sense of melancholy for a lost past through the depiction of ancient ruins.
The picturesque, however, did not just stop at landscape painting. The style transcended into landscape gardening and design – enabling the viewer to ‘step inside a painting. In the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, landscape designer Humphry Repton (considered the successor to Capability Brown) was responsible for the design of many Picturesque country estate landscapes across England using this style. There are eight of his designs around the Bristol area. Some of the most well-known are Blaise Castle and Leigh Court. Repton had a keen interest and skill in theatre set design because this is a skill that lent itself well to designing picturesque landscapes. Although the cemetery was not designed by Repton, his influence is clear, and Arnos Vale Cemetery very much provides that sense of stepping into a living work of art. The strictly classical scene adopted by the company and architect would ultimately give it a unique presence within the Bristol landscape.
Arnos Vale is located on the Bath Road in Brislington, Bristol. In its heyday, it sat in beautiful countryside just beyond the city boundary with stunning views that looked out across the river Avon. To the east, views looked back to the past and the faded Georgian estates of the mercantile elite that had gone into decline. To the west, it looked towards the future, Bristol, and the progression of the rapidly changing port cityscape as industrialisation took hold.
There were practical and aesthetic reasons for the choice of location by the Bristol General Cemetery Company (established in 1836). The cemetery was located not far from the city’s original cholera burial ground next to the cattle market at Bristol Temple Meads. The Cholera Epidemics of 1832-3 and 1853-4 were a contributing factor nationwide to the establishment of Victorian Garden Cemeteries that followed. A return to more ancient practices of burying the dead away from the city was being employed. Arnos Vale would be joined by the Catholic cemetery of Holy Souls in 1858. Later the cemetery of St Mary Redcliffe Church (1864) was added. These three separate cemeteries creating a substantial site of burial for the city.
The construction of the cemetery was aided on a practical level by the ease of transportation of materials to construct their desired landscape along the Avon. Barges would have transported Bath Stone from the quarries to both the site and to the various stone masons at St Augustine’s Dock. This also meant that stone working could be carried out at the workshops and brought back to the site by a barge on completion. By 1836, the Bath Road had been newly laid and resurfaced, creating a smoother entrance in and out of the city, ideal for carriages and in particular, funeral processions.
Located close to the south entrance to the city the cemetery is designed to be seen from the road when entering or leaving Bristol. This southern entrance was historically used by visiting politically-minded dignitaries. The cemetery company, therefore, required an equally impressive landscape with which to promote the civic pride of their city. This was not a new idea but an ancient one. The Herculanean gate at Pompeii was lined with the tombs of important citizens which could not be missed by visitors entering the city at this entrance and this is a not dissimilar idea.
Arnos Vale in the eighteenth century was surrounded by a much-admired naturally defined landscape. Brislington was then considered one of the most beautiful villages in the area. Its natural setting along and around Brislington Brook and the banks of the river Avon attracted newly wealthy merchants from the city who built lavish homes looking out over these picturesque views and vistas. The cemetery is located within the grounds of one of these eighteenth-century estates. William Reeve, a controversial figure, who although a Quaker was also involved in slave trading and trading slave-produced products. He also owned a local copper smelting works and some of the black stone found in buildings near Arnos Vale was the waste from this. In 1838, Cemetery Company director Charles Bowles Fripp declared that the company had chosen the ‘most Romantic of settings’ for the cemetery. Humphry Repton himself in the preceding century had liked this natural setting very much. in fact he lamented while working on another project in Sussex that it did not have the beautiful views, vistas, and natural boundaries of Arnos Vale.
Construction began in the spring of 1838. Charles Underwood a accomplished local architect was employed by the company. Underwood specialised in the Greek Revival style. Underwood’s pursuit and talent for historical accuracy are clear in the Doric-style Gate lodges.
The Corinthian capitals (column tops) on the Italianate Anglican chapel showcased fine carving by the Tyley stonemasons of Bristol. There is also fine fluting of the Ionic columns of the Nonconformist chapel. Through this use of the Classical Orders, the company and the architect sought to educate the eye of the viewer. This triangulation of classical-style buildings and its circular pathway located within the front part of the cemetery known as Ceremonial Way was all that the company could initially afford at the beginning of this first phase with 17 vaults also built ready for sale.
Planting out was therefore not done until 1845, creating, in essence, an arboretum. This arboretum concept for cemeteries was an idea pursued elsewhere by others including the renowned and influential cemetery designer John Claudius Loudon. Some planting was intended for the creation of shields and screens that over time, as they became more mature and established, evoked a layering like that of theatre scenery. The planting was also designed to draw us through the cemetery, as we look at it from the gates and travelling upwards through it, winding our way around upwards along the pathways. Many Cypresses were also ordered to go along Ceremonial Way for more regimented planting. This created a hybrid with Loudon’s Gardenesque style, The Gardenesque style was Loundon’s response to Repton’s Picturesque style. The original planting scheme also included Redwood trees, Yew, Cedar, Laurels and Monkey Puzzle.
The pathways and an all-important carriage were not completed until 1855 . The delay is because the cemetery company very much operating on a shoestring budget until profits began to exceed costs. However, this also may have been due to a design technique that had previously been used by Humphry Repton. In his designs pathways and carriage drives were not laid out until after planting and early establishment. This was a method that aided his ‘set design approach’ to seeing how those ‘frames’ of vegetation would develop. this was a technique that despite the primary issue with finance, was in keeping with the landscaping skills used in the traditional picturesque manner.
The amphitheatrical terracing is not natural but intended to look natural. The terracing was engineered by Underwood, shaped, and moulded by manpower with vast movements of soil and rubble to create it. This landscape would include a large ‘artificial valley’ that stretched out behind the nonconformist chapel to create a style like the famous Parisian cemetery of Père Lachaise Cemetery. This area would later be filled in to allow for more burials and a stable for the cemetery horse. It is now the site of a sheltered woodland area where the cemetery holds outdoor classes, hosts volunteering sessions and holds wedding ceremonies.
Another key component in the picturesque landscape style was the element of surprise and delight at turning along a serpentine path, and being met with a beautiful view, vista, monument, or folly. The cemetery landscape would lend itself well to this, owing to its ideal setting and through monument placement.
In its now matured state, it is perhaps the vision that the cemetery company and its appointed architect Charles Underwood most hoped that is would ultimately become. Charles Underwood most hoped that it would ultimately become. Melancholic with overgrown vegetation, a beautiful canopy under which the dead lie buried, just like the drama of a picturesque painting with nature taking over. Amphitheatrical in appearance, owing to its steep terracing and abundant foliage from clever planting. This provides a ‘scenery’ backdrop of trees and shrubs, its construction was an impressive feat of design and engineering – and all done by horses, carts, barges, and manpower.
The next time you visit, have a look at what you can see from certain gravestones and monuments – or higher up into the cemetery across the wider landscapes. Find your perfectly framed view or vista through the trees or take a beautiful photograph and reflect on the careful design that created this masterpiece of landscape.
Phibbs, J (2008) ‘The View Point’ in Garden History, Vol 36, No.2.
Daniels, S (1999) Humphry Repton:Landscape Gardening and the Geography of Georgian England, Yale University Press
Dixon-Hunt, J (1994), Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the Landscape Architecture, London, MIT Press
Gomme, Jenner & Little (1979) Bristol: An Architectural History, Lund Humphries
Loudon J C, (1840), Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture: Being his Entire Works on these Subjects/ Humphry Repton, New Edition Black
Harrison, M (2002) Crowds and History: Mass Phenomena in English Towns, 1790 – 1835 Cambridge University Press
Udall, L (2019) Arnos Vale Cemetery, South Bristol: The Life of a Cemetery, Doctoral Thesis University of Bristol
The Records and Archives of the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust, Bristol Records Office