In the small churchyard of St. Mary Magdalen in Mortlake, Richmond, stands the impressive mausoleum of renowned Victorian explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and his wife Lady Isabel (née Arundell).
After being expelled from Oxford, Sir Richard enlisted with the East India Trading Company where he was made a captain and is said to have learnt over 20 different languages. In 1853 he famously infiltrated Mecca, Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city, and in later years sought to find the source of the River Nile. He extensively criticised British Imperialism for which he was widely vilified. Further scrutiny came when he published translations of the works ‘The Karma Sutra’, ‘The Perfumed Garden’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, all of which were considered highly pornographic at the time.
A Grade II listed building, the mausoleum takes the form of an 18 foot high Bedouin tent made of sandstone, Carrara marble and Forest of Dean stone, sculpted to look as though it is made of fabric. Commissioned and designed by Lady Isabel, it was modelled on a tent Burton had made for their travels to Syria and reportedly cost £460 (about £40,000 today). It was manufactured by stonemasons in Highgate, London, and erected in 1891 ahead of Sir Richard’s funeral on the 15th June that same year (he died on the 20th October 1890). Before his death, Burton remarked to his wife that rather than being cremated he “would like to lie in an Arab tent”. As he had a hatred for the dark, Isabel included a stained glass window at the back which once depicted the Burton monogram and would allow light to enter. This is now long gone and has been replaced with clear glass in which you can climb a ladder to view the interior. There also appears to have been coloured electrical lights inside at some stage.
The walls inside the mausoleum are adorned with camel bells and Arabic lamps. A mirror has been placed on the wall so viewers through the window can see an altar, decorated with candelabras, water flasks and a statue of the Virgin Mary that is directly beneath them. The Christian designs are likely Lady Isabel’s inclusion as she was a devout Catholic whereas Sir Richard described himself as an atheist. The design of the mausoleum incorporates many different elements of religion and culture such as an Islamic star and crescent design in gold around the roof, a Christian crucifix just above the door, and a Star of Bethlehem on the roof as well as cherubim in the heavens painted as a frieze on the ceiling. They all seem rather appropriate given Sir Richard’s interactions, acceptance and love of different lifestyles and beliefs.
The door to the mausoleum, now blocked but at one time opened, has an inscription in the form of a commemorative poem by author turned politician Justin Huntly McCarthy, a friend of the Burton’s who had helped both Sir and Lady Burton prepare the work ‘Arabian Nights’ for “household viewing”.
After Burton’s death, Isabel held séances at the tomb and took residence at 2 Worple Road, Mortlake, within sight of the mausoleum. She later wrote a two-volume biography of her husband and had a stained glass window erected in the church in Sir Richard’s memory which depicts him as a Christian Knight at prayer.
Isabel died on the 22nd March 1896, aged 65 and was interred in the mausoleum next to her husband a few days after. In her will Lady Isabel requested that the area adjoining the tent was also purchased, for a vault that could contain four coffins but that two spaces should be reserved, “in order that if a revolution should occur in England that arrived at the desecration of the dead the coffins might be lowered into the vault”. This area seems to have since been used for other burials, mainly because Isabel’s fears of her and her husband’s bodies being disturbed have been unwarranted. Although the mausoleum has received renovation work in 1975 and again in 2012-13 they both still lay in the mausoleum, undisturbed, side by side, Isabel on the left and her beloved Sir Richard on the right.
Before you visit:
The nearest station to the mausoleum is Mortlake which is a 5 minute walk away. The entrance to the churchyard is somewhat hidden and can be accessed through the car park on the left hand side of the church.
The address for the church is 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake, London, SW14 8PR.
To find out more about the church of St Mary Magdalen and its history click here.