by Annabel Barber, Editor of Blue Guides
Sir Richard Burton packed a lot into his relatively brief life. He died in 1890 at the age of 69 having been variously an explorer, soldier, diplomat and writer; a pilgrim (in Islamic disguise) to Mecca and Medina; the first European to see Lake Tanganyika; translator of the Arabian Nights; and above all a loose cannon “ill-fitted,” according to one source, “to run in official harness”. It is true that he never rose particularly high in the diplomatic service. And he was frowned on in certain circles for his interest in sex and sexual practices and for his penchant for noting down the vital statistics of the tribesmen he encountered on his travels. He was fiercely defended by his wife Isabel in a two-volume biography written shortly after his death. She dedicated it “To my earthly master, who is waiting for me on Heaven’s frontiers. Meet me soon—I wait the signal!” Isabel was herself a devout Catholic. Her earthly master was not. He dabbled in many religions, including Sufism, and is credited with the aphorism, “The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.”
His extraordinary mausoleum, designed as an Arab tent, can be seen at the Catholic church of St Mary Magdalen in Mortlake, West London. The butterscotch-coloured stone monument, with ruched exterior detail giving the impression of draped fabric, dominates the peaceful Victorian graveyard and is almost as high as the row of terraced cottages in the street behind. It is decorated with various Eastern and Christian motifs including a Star of Bethlehem, a Crucifix with Crown of Thorns at the base, and gilded Muslim crescents. Inside are the coffins of Burton himself and of his wife (hers is the more ornate; she died in 1896), together with various objects including an altar, Middle Eastern lamps, coloured glass vessels and camel bells, which were fixed to a battery in order that they would tinkle when the tomb door was opened. The interior may be viewed from a plate-glass window (originally stained glass) at the back via a fixed iron step ladder. The tomb was erected by Lady Burton and she visited it frequently while waiting for her signal, sometimes sitting inside amongst the tinkling bells.
On her husband’s death, Isabel burned many of his papers, including the manuscript of The Scented Garden, a translation of a work of Arabic erotica. She perhaps should not have done. Sir Richard had done well from his translation of the Arabian Nights, which contains a number of tales considered salacious by the society of the day. As he himself pithily remarked: “I have struggled for 47 years, distinguishing myself honourably in every way that I possibly could. I never had a compliment, nor a ‘thank you’, nor a single farthing. I translate a doubtful book in my old age, and I immediately make sixteen thousand guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.”
The mausoleum at Mortlake is just one of the sights covered in the new edition of Blue Guide London, published this month.
[Photos of the mausoleum are by Emily Barber, ©Blue Guides]