Commemorating the Seafarer: Monuments, Memorials and Memory
Death at sea, whether through accident, or war, is often premature and unexpected. Sometimes bodies are not recovered, and people simply disappear. Although not all maritime memorials commemorate those lost at sea, perhaps this helps explain the reason, as Tomlinson notes, that maritime memorials are spread across Great Britain. According to Tomlinson, these memorials act as repositories for memory and grief, providing places for people to mourn and communicate with the dead. She also suggests that they provide information of historical and cultural importance, noting that all levels of society produced memorials affected by, and thus reflecting, such cultural forces as politics and religious as well as artistic trends.
Tomlinson focuses on British maritime memorials from the sixteenth century through the modern era—from a time when only a small number of elite were honored in such a way to a broadening and democratization of commemoration to include the ordinary seaman. Ultimately, these memorials honored a wide range of people, including naval personnel, privateers, explorers, common seamen, and those lost in maritime disaster. Tomlinson states that her work concentrates on detailing artistically significant memorials, and the stories behind those monuments.
Much of her study concerns naval memorials. She describes the funeral of Robert Blake, given a grand service and burial in Henry VII’s chapel in 1657. Three years later, churchmen disinterred his body, throwing it into a common grave, only to have his memory be honored in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with stained glass windows at Westminster and a statue at his birth place in Somerset. In another, poignant example, she describes a wall monument in Westminster commemorating two junior officers. bodies lost at sea. Friends, both died in the Battle of Solebay in 1672. Tomlinson describes their epitaphs, on adjacent panels sharing a common cornice. The destruction of their ship, Royal James, is shown in relief. The vessel fought off two Dutch fireships, but was set aflame by a third. The father of one son paid for the memorial.
Tomlinson also details memorials to those lost in maritime accidents. One early memorial commemorates Hugh Everard, lost, along with the entire crew of Restoration, when the vessel wrecked in 1703. Everard was only fifteen when he died. His memorial shows a sinking vessel in relief and bears the inscription Spes nulla salutis (no hope of safety). Later, Tomlinson describes memorials commemorating those lost when the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in 1987. One, in the vessel’s homeport of Dover, includes a window showing Christ stilling the waters. A wall painting in the same city depicts the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The bows of the ship appear below the figure of St. John. To Tomlinson, this shows “both death and new life through water.” She notes that sculptures of sinking ships are no longer used in memorials—they too explicitly remind people of their mortality—yet sinking ships remain a reality.
Tomlinson’s work is a thorough and vibrant examination of British maritime memorials, providing both an enjoyable stroll through centuries of art and history, and a reminder of human mortality.
- Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2015
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiv + 259 pages
- Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $50.00
- ISBN: 97817843839705
Reviewed by Mark Keusenkothen, East Carolina University