Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) was a renowned Victorian explorer and prolific author. He and his wife Isabel (neé Arundell) are buried in a large stone mausoleum designed by Isabel to resemble the tent that Burton had made for their travels in Syria. It is situated in St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, 61 Worple Way, Mortlake, SW14 8PR. Isabel also paid for a stained glass memorial window to Burton, depicting him as a knight. It is in the church, by the lady chapel.

Burton was a remarkable traveller and explorer, linguist, poet, soldier, diplomat, prolific author and translator of major works of Arab literature including The Kama Sutra, The Arabian Nights and The Perfumed Garden.  After an early career serving in the Army in India (1842-1853) and later fighting in the Crimean War (1855-1856), he travelled to Mecca as well as to Africa and the Americas under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society.  Between 1856-1860, he journeyed to the great lakes of central Africa in search of the source of the river Nile.  Co-founder of the Anthropological Society of London in 1863 and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he was appointed a KCMG (Knights Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George) in 1886. 

The Tomb

Since Burton’s consular salary and pension ceased after his death, Isabel was left in very straitened circumstances. Funds for the construction of the mausoleum were raised from a public subscription (which explains the reference to its having been “erected to his memory by his loving countrymen” in the ribbon plaque on the door). £665 was collected, equivalent to about £85,000 by 2019 levels; the mausoleum itself apparently cost £460 (about £59,000 by 2019 levels), but Isabel also had to pay for the English funeral.

The tent is created from thick slabs of York Stone from the Forest of Dean, with surfaces finished to simulate the irregularities of the canvas of a tent, originally lime-washed to achieve an even closer match. The cross on the front is clearly meant to suggest Christianity; the frieze of crescents with stars suggests Islam. The eight-pointed star on top of the tent is called a “star of Bethlehem” in a contemporary newspaper description of the mausoleum.The stone door could originally be opened, but has now been sealed shut. However, the interior can be viewed through a window at the rear. The window was originally of stained glass and had been installed to allow light into the mausoleum, as Burton disliked being in darkness.

Within the tent the floor is paved in Carrara marble (Tuscany, Italy) with black marble inserts and the underside of the roof is painted to represent the heavens.  At one end there is a marble altar and tabernacle with candles along with a number of the explorer’s possessions including dried flowers, lamps and four strings of camel bells hanging from the ceiling. These were connected to a battery-powered device on the wall above the space that is now filled with Isabel’s coffin. When she came to visit her deceased husband, a switch placed on top of the door to the mausoleum would activate the circuit, making the bells ring.

Here are extracts from a contemporary report from the Thames Valley Times, published on 17 July, 18, two days after the funeral:

It is a reproduction in stone of the semblance of an Arab tent…It stands on a bed of concrete, and above that a square of rough-hewn York-stone some 12ft. by 11ft. The “tent” itself, sloping inwards a few degrees on all sides, is composed of Forest of Dean stone... The design would not allow tent-pegs being introduced, but otherwise the appearance of a tent is well maintained. The door, also a solid slab of stone, is carved to represent a drop-curtain, and moves on flanges of gun-metal. From the top of the elevation other slabs of stone form a roof which meets at an apex above which is a gilt ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Below, but at the top of the front elevation, is a well-executed crucifix, in white marble with ‘I.N.R.I.’ at the head, and the crown of thorns at the foot. From the foot of the cross extend on each of the sides  a row of gilt crescents. As originally designed the crescents would have been above cross and below the star, but the Catholic hierarchy placed a veto upon a Christian emblem occupying a sub-ordinate relation to the most important of the Moslem insignia. It must be added also that from the standpoint of artistic effort the crescents look striking here as they could be made to do elsewhere. On the upper part of the stone door is a carved marble ‘Book of Life’ giving Burton’s details. The mausoleum is lighted from the back by a small, wire-protected, stained glass window, with the single figure of a dove descending with outspread wings. Within, the Oriental style of the fabric is maintained by a number of beautiful lamps, brought over by Lady Burton from Trieste, suspended from the ceiling... Two Eastern lamps were also on the marble altar at the end, opposite the entrance door, the pillars being finely-moulded bronze serpents... Huge candles of graduated heights, in massive silver sticks, were also here for the occasion. On a three-cornered marble shelf at the right-had side was a curiously wrought vessel, with iron frame, to contain the holy water. The floor is of white Carrara marble, beautifully veined, and on each side are marble ‘bearers’ about 6 inches high, for the coffins of  Sir Richard and eventually of Lady Burton.

Conservation

The mausoleum, built in 1890, is a Grade II* listed building and it is of great importance both for its association with Burton and for its fusion of Christian and Muslim symbols, funerary art and artefacts.  Despite its significance, by 2007 the mausoleum was in very poor condition and was listed on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register. 

The Environment Trust in collaboration with Friends of Burton raised funds to restore both the interior and exterior of this magnificent building.  Grants were provided by English Heritage, the Heritage of London Trust, and private donors to undertake restoration work which was completed in 2010.   The Environment Trust has a 10 year responsibility to ensure that the tomb is well maintained.

Orleans House Collection

Following the £3.8 million development project Transforming Orleans House, there is now a new Study Gallery at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham showcasing nearly 100 works from the Richmond Borough Art Collection. This includes the Burton collection of paintings, photographs and objects donated to the nation by his widow Isabel, as well as some later acquisitions donated by author Mary Lovell. These are displayed in specially designed pull-out drawers and cupboards and are on permanent public display. Orleans House Gallery is open Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm and admission is free. The collection is now online and can be viewed.