Among the toppled gravestones, choking weeds and knotted tree roots, forgotten lairs and once cherished monuments to loved ones, Bob Reinhardt saw something that most who pass Edinburgh’s burial sites might easily overlook.
Surrounded by all this death, his artistic eye took in a wealth of life – nature going about its business turning once crisp, white stone to mottled green and brown, shining bronze plaques dulled by the elements, a sprinkling of snow creating a feathery frame around a tombstone, untamed shrubs and, most poignant of all, the relentless tide of decay.
Raised in an area of New York with no fewer than seven cemeteries on its boundaries, he was used to perfectly manicured lairs, line upon line of well-tended tombstones. Now this overgrown vision that sprawled in front of him was a cemetery that seemed strangely alive, largely neglected but ever-changing and rich in artistic gems, most gradually being consumed by the forces of nature.
Warriston Cemetery, he was told, was possibly not the best place for a tourist to be wandering with his camera equipment. “But I was fascinated,” he recalls. “There were beautiful Victorian sculptures, Mother Nature running wild, strangling these age-old angels, broken stones lying on top of each other, and all these important people of their time lying at rest.
“I took some shots, went home to the States and put them away.”
That was ten years ago. Since then he has captured around 28,000 images of mostly Edinburgh graveyards, a unique and fascinating collection which now provides a vital record of the city’s old burial sites.
Fascinating as his photographs are, however, they are not simply an artistic pastime. His images are also helping show how the elements and, sadly, vandals are taking their toll – some of the striking monuments that first caught his eye in 2002 have already been lost, angels decapitated, sculptures with missing hands or noses, stones flattened in the mud.
Now some of Bob’s work – among it shots of some eerie, almost ghostly tombstone sculptures of those lying below ground – will go on public show at Edinburgh Central Library later this month. Accompanying the exhibition will be a series of talks and debates which will look at everything from how to conserve cemeteries – and even harness their tourism potential – to aiding family historians research their roots.
“It’s interesting that this has developed into something completely different,” says Bob, 58, who teaches art in Philadelphia. “What started as some artistic photographs has taken on a totally different meaning.”
Indeed, as his collection of graveyard photographs expanded, Bob showed them to one enthralled curator at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments Scotland, who recognised their potential. The organisation commissioned more photographs, Bob gave it enough to create eight books of work.
“So if someone wants to do research on, say, Dean Cemetery, the images are there in a book and are ready to go online. I’m delighted that the images have a home.”
Perhaps strange that it has taken an American to visualise the potential in Edinburgh’s cemeteries, but according to Bob it’s easy to overlook the possibilities that lie within the graveyards’ gates. “Yet they are incredible repositories for history, culture, politics, religion and art. There are amazing people buried in some of Edinburgh’s cemeteries. And some of them are beautiful places – Grange and Dean are manicured and lovely places to visit.
“In terms of family history, you can find whole generations in the one place.
“My favourite is in the Grange cemetery. Dr John Burns was very successful when he passed away and the people got together and put up this monument to him. It’s a beautiful bronze portrait of him which has weathered down the years to create a patina that is a beautiful artistic image.
“At Warriston there’s a relief on a family tomb, just one word: ‘Sleep’. I thought how perfect that was,” he adds. Another at the Grange cemetery also struck a nerve: “It says ‘Silence’ and there’s this wonderful image for a cemetery as a quiet, reflective place.”
Indeed, Victorians created cemeteries with a view to the living – carefully managing their construction and landscaping them with shrubs and plants to rival those found at the Botanics. Competition was rife among rich families to create the most lavish and evocative monuments to loved ones – many of the biggest and most impressive to people whose names barely register a mention in the history books.
Cemeteries were places to gather, to meet family and friends and, of course, to pay tribute to the dead.
Now Bob hopes that revived interest in the city’s graveyards might spark a movement to help halt the decay so future generations can appreciate their unique qualities.
“I like that the people in these cemeteries are being remembered long after they have gone. The people who built the monuments to them would never have thought they would be of interest to us now. In some ways, we are bringing their memory back to life.”
• Sleep, Historic Cemeteries of Scotland by Bob Reinhardt runs from July 30 to September 1 at Edinburgh Central Library. For more images, go to http://restinpixels.us
THE GREAT AND THE GOOD AT REST IN THE CAPITAL
SOME were rich, famous – celebrities of their times – others people with amazing life stories. All were made equal in death, and all to be found in their resting place of an Edinburgh graveyard. But where are they?
Economist Adam Smith, pictured, may be rolling in his grave at Canongate Kirkyard considering the state of the nation, while Robert Burns’ love Agnes McLehose rests below a plaque inscribed “Clarinda”. The Bard’s inspiration, poet Robert Fergusson, is also buried there, along with Mary, Queen of Scots’ secretary, David Rizzio.
Rev Thomas Guthrie founded ragged schools and was buried at Grange Cemetery, where geologist, writer and folklorist Hugh Millar also lies. Perhaps better known is Sir George McCrae, who as a volunteer in the First World War raised the 16th Battalion the Royal Scots – with the entire Hearts first team among his first recruits. He died in 1928.
Former Livingston Labour MP Robin Cook, who resigned as foreign secretary in 2003 over the Iraq war, is also buried there.
Grange is where eccentric Hugh Miller lies. He feared burglars would steal his precious geological collection, so armed himself with a revolver, dagger and claymore. He also believed his brain was disintegrating and shot himself. Famous occupants of St Cuthbert’s, on the corner of Lothian Road and Princes Street, include Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, artist Alexander Naysmyth, and George Meikle Kemp, designer of the Scott Monument.
Old Calton is where philosopher David Hume, publisher William Blackwood and architect Thomas Hamilton all lie.
Sculptor John Steell, whose Charlotte Square statue of Prince Albert pleased Queen Victoria so much she knighted him, also lies in Old Calton and an unmarked grave next to Hume’s monument is the lair of John Playfair, mathematician, astrologer and philosopher is nearby.
Buccleuch Parish Church in Charles Street is where Deacon William Brodie lies.
Dean Cemetery is where the mortal remains of photography pioneer David Octavius Hill rest, and those of Elsie Inglis, founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Service and the Scottish Women’s Suffragette Federation. Henry Cockburn who gave his name to preservation organisation the Cockburn Association, and architect William Playfair – designer of the National Gallery and the RSA at The Mound – are there, too.
Greyfriars Kirk boasts Duncan Forbes, known as one of the nation’s greatest boozers. Still, he became an MP and Lord President of the Court of Session.
Sir George “Bluidy” Mackenzie lies there, too. “The hanging judge” once threatened to pull out a Convenanter’s tongue with scissors. Those characters are kept company by Lord James Monboddo, whose progressive ideas about heathy living involved regular cold baths.
Piershill cemetery is the resting place of the Great Lafayette, Sigmund Neuburger, who was in the middle of one of his illusions at the Empire Theatre in Nicolson Street when fire wrecked the building. Eight bodies were found, and what was thought to be Lafayette’s was taken to Glasgow and cremated. It was only later that another body was identified as the real Lafayette – his double had been cremated instead.