A Pre-Raphaelite Tomb Chest in Brompton
At first I couldn’t work out why Valentine Prinsep’s grave was located in such close proximity to Frederick Leyland’s Brompton memorial. What on earth could a bohemian painter nicknamed ‘Buzz’ have in common with a Liverpool shipping magnate?
Then I realised that the memorably named Valentine Cameron Prinsep was Leyland’s son-in-law. Marriage to Frances Leyland was a shrewd move on Prinsep’s part; an artist could do worse than marry a girl with an annual income of £10,000 and a father obsessed with filling big rooms with big paintings. Prinsep was no stranger to wealthy patrons and giant artworks; Lord Lytton had commissioned him to paint the 27 foot long Imperial Assemblage at Delhi (1877), the painting which led to his election as an associate member of the Royal Academy.
The son of a successful civil servant formerly in the employ of the East India Company, Prinsep was no mean businessman himself, and this must have impressed his father-in-law. After his marriage, he joined the boards of shipping and investment companies, extended his London house and bought an apartment on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Prinsep’s financial savvy was offset by his bohemian side and romantic background. Born on Valentine’s day 1838 in Calcutta, he was raised in London after his father retired from the Indian civil service in 1843. His parents lived in Little Holland House in Kensington, and their home became a watering hole for famous nineteenth century artists and writers. Close family friends and frequent guests included: Tennyson, the Rossetti brothers, George Frederic Watts, Thackeray, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, and his mother’s sister, ground-breaking photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Prinsep studied painting under the tutelage of Watts, and later in Paris with Swiss artist Charles Gleyre, who also counted Monet, Renoir and Whistler among his pupils.
Prinsep had very close Pre-Raphaelite connections. In 1857 Rossetti invited him to collaborate on the Arthurian murals for the Union debating hall at Oxford, and he exhibited his first picture at the Hogarth Club. Later he travelled to Italy with Burne-Jones. Frederic Leighton was a close friend; the two artists joined the Artists’ Rifle volunteer corps and built homes adjacent to one another in Holland Park Road. Philip Webb, the designer of Morris’s Red House, was Prinsep’s chosen architect. Like many Pre-Raphaelites, he did not restrict himself to painting. He wrote two novels: Virginie: a Tale of One Hundred Years Ago (1890) and The Story of Abibal the Tsourian
(1893). Two of his plays, Cousin Dick and Monsieur le Duc were produced in London by his friend, the actor John Hare, who also took starring roles.
In 1884 Prinsep married Leyland’s daughter Florence, a woman known for her beauty. They had three sons: Thoby, Anthony and Nicholas. In 1901 he became Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. He was hotly tipped as the next RA President, but Sir Edward Poynter beat him to it in 1896. He died in 1904.
A Royal Parks illustrated guide to Brompton Cemetery notes that Prinsep purchased what he thought was a 13th century Sienese saint’s memorial for his grave. But it has weathered so badly that the guide concludes it is ‘obviously a fake’. Nevertheless, this unusual tomb chest is a Grade II listed monument. It is authentically worth a visit.