A Grief Observed

The Hubbersty Family and Kendal Parish Church

Relief sculpture in Kendal Parish Church.

 In a world where there is little that is truly taboo the matter of grief remains an aspect of human experience upon which public and private discourse is strikingly reticent. The title of this blog would be enough to make many of us roll our eyes in dismay and scroll on. Indeed, few people have written convincingly about the numbing desolation caused by grief. Theologians tend to lose themselves in abstract speculations whilst sympathy cards deliver saccharine platitudes that induce nausea rather than provide comfort. In reality, grief is visceral. There is a paralysing physicality to grief that captures the senses. Loss is not something that we should expect to ‘get over’. There is no end to love. However, we do have to learn to live alongside that which seems unthinkable. Our children are not immune to loss and perhaps they are especially vulnerable to its depredations. Within our own community, there are many who have experienced unfathomable tragedy. If loss (of one description or another) constitutes the greatest challenge that we face in our lifetimes then why does our education system give so little attention to such matters? 

   There are those who write well on grief. The Revd Richard Coles’ personal memoir, ‘The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss’ is a compelling read. He tries everything from yoga to skydiving in an attempt to cope with the loss of his husband. Many years ago I read C.S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’ which is described by Hilary Mantel as ‘an intimate journal chronicling the Narnia author’s experience of grief after his wife’s death’. It has served to console readers for half a century with its sensitive and eloquent prose. Poetry provides comfort to many. I remember as a teenager being moved by Ben Jonson’s poem ‘On my First Son’. 

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

    Some find solace in the poetry of Philip Larkin or W.B.Yeats whilst others are sustained by the strength of their faith. Coming to terms with our finite nature constitutes a major preoccupation for most if not all monotheistic religions. Faith in an eternal life is the best antidote to fear in the transitory nature of things. We have a natural desire to imbue our lives with meaning. Death forces us to confront the very purpose of life itself. It is the case that music or art often provides comfort when words fail to comfort or assuage. 

I have a fascination with churches that is not always shared by my family. I find it very difficult to walk past a church without desiring to step inside. This is potentially one of the more tedious aspects of life with me. However, our churches are treasure troves of art, culture, history, religion and music. They connect us with the past, present and future and provide  physical and spiritual  anchorage. Churches are places of empathetic understanding where we may seek comfort by discerning the eternal commonality of our most painful and joyful experiences. With five aisles, Kendal Parish Church is one of the widest churches in England – almost as wide as York Minster. There has been a church on this site since 850 AD and the Parr Chapel is of particular interest to those interested in Tudor history. 

   Walking around the Church last Thursday afternoon, I was drawn to one monument on account of its exquisite carving. It is a memorial to Zacchary Hubbersty. The inscription reads as follows:

Sacred to the memory of Zachary Hubbersty of Great Winchester Street London, esquire, who died on the 23rd September 1797 in the 41st year of his age leaving a disconsolate widow and six children. 

Few equalled and none excelled him in professional knowledge and strict integrity. And of whom the learned and virtuous Lord Eldon in a letter of condolence to the deceased’s brother observed “his loss is not more to be lamented by his family than by the profession, of which he was an ornament and an honour’.

Also of Phillis Sarah Hubbersty, his second daughter who in the following year lost her life by falling into the sea from the pier in Whitby Harbour.

This monument is erected by John Lodge Hubbersty esqr, senior fellow of Queen’s College, Deputy High Steward of the University of Cambridge and Recorder of Lancaster, who has never ceased to lament the loss of the best of brothers and friends’. 

The sculpture is by John Flaxman (1755-1826) who worked as a modeller for Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery early on in his career. He then went on to earn a living sculpting grave monuments. His work was admired for its simplicity and pathos. The sculpture in memory of Zacchary Hubhbersty is a strikingly tender representation of grief. The figures are bound together in grief. The mother lies prostrate with an infant on her lap, whilst the other children bow their heads. It is also a monument to the cruel and capricious nature of fate. The inscription tells us that death came suddenly and unexpectedly on one of the figures just one year later. 

There is compositional unity and a rhythmic dynamism to much of Flaxman’s work;  especially to his relief carvings. He understood the form exceptionally well. This portrayal of grief manages to be both classically stylised and emotionally raw.  Its power to move has endured through the centuries. Sculptures adorn this beautiful church. Another favourite of mine is by Josefina de Vasconcellos. Josefina was born in 1904 and died in 2005. Indeed, she worked until well into her nineties. Married to the artist and clergyman Delmar Banner, Josefina was the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat. She was an accomplished musician, composer, poet, dancer and inventor. Her sculptures had a strong spiritual dimension and are to be found in Coventry Cathedral, Hiroshima Peace Park and Liverpool Cathedral.  In contrast to Henry Moore and Barbara Heptworth, her style was naturalistic and flowing. Her greatest figurative  work was often rendered in fibreglass.

Josefina de Vasconcellos – The Family of ManRelief sculpture in Kendal Parish Church.

The setting for her sculpture ‘The Family of Man’ is a refugee camp in the Middle East. Huddled around Mary and the baby Jesus are three children who represent Africa, Asia and Europe. It explores themes such as reconciliation and  international understanding but above all else it is a glorious expression of hope. Despite the intrinsic religiosity of the sculpture, I do think one does not need to have a strong faith to be moved by Vasconcellos’ work,  for there is a universality to its message that transcends the personal. 

Grief is both a personal experience and a universal experience. British reserve and a fear of causing additional hurt by means of unintentional insensitivity stifles the very conversations that we desperately need to have with our children and one another. Flaxman’s unflinching portrayal of the grief experienced by the Hubbersty family moves us because it is relatable,  honest and real. Sure, it is a beautiful work of art but it is so much more than an exercise in technical and creative brilliance. If we want to have more honest conversations about death then, from a cultural perspective, we could do worse than look to the past.

Nathaniel Dance-Holland’s portrait of John Lodge Hubbersty who commissioned Flaxton’s memorial in Kendal Parish Church

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School