I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently to see the small section of funerary monuments and an exhibition on the works of the Georgian architect, William Kent. Before viewing, Steve and I wanted a spot of lunch so went out into the beautifully landscaped central square for a coffee and some pastries. It was here that I spotted two very strange memorials at about knee-height, on one of the buttresses of the Romanesque building.
What a bizarre place to have two memorials, let alone their dedication to what were once clearly beloved pets. It’s the second plaque that grabbed my attention, as the gentlemen in question was one of the people I’d talked about the first Cemetery Club tour that happened the other week!
Sir Henry Cole was a giant in Victorian society. Born in Bath, aged fifteen he started working for the Public Records Office where he helped overhaul and maintain the British Archive. Alongside Sir Rowland Hill, he helped implement the postage system which we still bemoan today, and is credited with designing the first ever stamp – the Penny Black. He wrote Children’s books under the name ‘Felix Summerly’ and invented a type of teapot. Not content with that, he’s also the bloke who invented the Christmas Card in 1843, commissioning John Calcott Horsley to provide the then controversial artwork of a family boozing away merrily in a festive scene. A shrewd manoeuvre which clearly sought to exploit the postage system he’d help organise three years earlier. Cole’s influence extended into education when he was asked by the government to reorganize the Schools of Design. Retirement didn’t stifle his efforts and he went on to set up a Cookery School.
His best known achievement is his association with the development of most of South Kensington, which including it rechristening it from its former name of Brompton. This was as a consequence of his involvement in setting up the Great Exhibition: it was he who decided what was to happen to the £186,000 surplus that the spectacle generated. His enthusiasm and dedication to projects was recognised by Prince Albert, who when needing momentum for an idea, was heard to say ‘when we want steam, we must get Cole’.
Cole was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (originally called the South Kensington Museum) and it’ s under his tenure that many innovations were invested to ensure its credibility and attractiveness as an attraction were upheld. The Museum was the first to be lit by gaslight to extend opening hours, as well as attempting to lure people away from the Gin Palace. It was also the first Museum to have an public restaurant.
Tycho and particularly Jim were his faithful canine companions, who apparently rarely left their masters side. According to Sir Christopher Brayling, ‘The Builder’ magazine reported that these two well-known figures would ‘be seen clambering over bricks, mortar and girders up ladders and about scaffolding’ during the construction of the museum. Cole wrote in his diary that Jim apparently disliked the pomp and Ceremony that he was rather fond of, to the point where one morning as he prepared to join a Royal Procession in his court suit, the sight of him stopped Jim running down the stairs to greet him as he usually did. ‘He was pole-axed’, commented Cole.
Yet in many ways, the memorials his dogs received are in a better state than Cole’s own. As I researched the tour of Brompton, remarkably, his grave is not in a prominent position nor is it particularly majestic. It was lost in three foot high grass and off the beaten track. It’s weathered, dirty and in my own opinion, hardly a reflection of the work this notoriously hard-working and sensitive man accomplished in life. Albert’s terrier, Cole, like his dogs true memorial is the place he lived and worked for so many decades, a museum that showcases the best in decorative arts and design in a place that still contributes massively to London life.