Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter U

U is for urn (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

For this week’s letter I’ve turned my back on animals or flowers and found myself drawn to U for Urn which elegant classical form fits so satisfyingly within the swoop of the letter as to suggest they were made for each other. It then occurred to me that two memories come unbidden to mind whenever I think of the word urn, just like the word soporific instantly summons up a picture of Peter Rabbit (and lettuces) or the way my mental image of an MRI scanner is haloed about by ghostly letters spelling out a wobbly claustrophobia.  It’s the joy of writing a blog that these things come to mind at all and, to go one step further back, the embroidering of a different letter each week has been a wonderful catalyst to bringing to the surface things that swim around in your head but very rarely get presented for further consideration.

U is for urn (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The first time urn came to arouse my curiosity was when I was working on the desk in Monmouth Public Library. I always enjoyed it when someone asked for something on the county’s catalogue, though not in our library – usually it was to work through a popular author’s entire oeuvre or to ask for some classic no longer deemed popular enough to be on open shelves (rather too many glorious titles), but one day during, I think, one of our evening  openings an elderly man, grizzled haired but spry came in to ask for “Urn Burial” by Sir Thomas Browne. Never heard of it ?- no, me neither ! How morbid, I thought. Well, in between the book coming in and being collected I had a little look – it is only 50 or so pages, followed up with a bit of an internet search and was surprised to find how influential this small book has been and what joy its contemplation has aroused.

Sketches of U for Urn

Published in 1658, its full title is “Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk”. The English Civil War (1642-1651) was not long over and out of a population of  nearly 5 million, about 200,000 had lost their lives. The unearthing of some 50 Roman burial urns in almost perfect condition, along with reflections on those who had died during the war seems to have triggered Browne to write about that most unspoken state of the human condition – death and after  –  which ruminations he flavoured with a delicious but not overindulgent melancholy. Robert McCrum wonders,  “Is melancholy, following Freud, merely an unproductive form of mourning ? Or can it be an uplifting form of sadness that infuses consciousness with new possibilities?”  Oh let’s hope it ‘s the latter, we have a need to feel something positive will come out of our current crisis. Browne’s own melancholy over concerns of this world was held in check to some degree by the comfort he found in his Christian Faith, something many fewer feel they have to support them today. But, let’s leave Urn Burial with his cheering words on being human.  “Life is a pure flame; and we live by an invisible sun within us.”

Also, Browne was a great coiner of new words, about 800 are credited to him in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most surprising of which are probably computer and holocaust.

Urn Burial is No 93 on The Guardian’s 100 Best Non Fiction Books – do read Robert McCrum giving his support to the book here.

A page of urns from Dover’s Handbook of Ornaments by Franz Sales Meyer

The other urn story that comes to mind concerns a painting which I think I had described to me so vividly that I’ve convinced myself I’ve seen it but I’m not at all sure I can have done.

Years ago our family made friends with an American and his family when the father was doing a PhD in London. They, like me and my first husband, had a daughter called Allegra which excited my first husband to catch up with them one day after school and playfully remonstrate  that we hadn’t called our daughter Allegra in order to bump into another one. (I know there’s more around now). Of course, we have been firm friends ever since. Well, Patrick is a real polymath – linguist, including Latin and Greek, archaeologist, musician, etc. etc. and he has the sort of chutzpah we British can only gawp at in admiration without ever being able to emulate. One day he was sauntering down Bond Street, as you do, and came upon a painting in the window of The Fine Art Society. He stood in contemplation for a few minutes and then went into the gallery to ask whether they understood the iconography of the painting, which he proceeded to explain to them. Patrick reports polite, even enthusiastic listening and this he followed with a more full and finished version on paper which he then sent to them – as well as giving a copy to us, which I have somewhere but can’t yet find. The cynic in me wonders whether the gallery staff weren’t a bit miffed by this unexpected art appreciation lesson though the charm of the man may well have carried the day for him. Ah, yes the painting. It was a largish work showing Persephone (in gold – crocus yellow?) standing beside a red and black figured funerary urn and either holding poppies or surrounded by them. (Though I’m sure Patrick referred to them as Papaver somniferum which are a mauvey white to mauve not the red ones I ‘remember’  being in the painting.) I thought the painter was Theodore Roussel but internet searches reveal nothing even vaguely  similar – though there is no reason why it should if the picture’s in private hands. Did I make it up – no it’s far too vivid for my imagination? Did I go along to Bond Street to ogle at the said painting? I just can’t remember. Now I’ve written about it I realise I must sort this out, so I shall contact Patrick, who will undoubtedly pluck all the details out of his filing cabinet mind and I’ll report back here. Now I wish I’d scattered a few poppies around my own little embroidered urn – pity I’ve just washed and ironed it.

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  1. Posted May 30, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Is that the Thomas Browne of “Religio Medici”, that Peter Wimsey was so fond of? *runs off to research*

    • Mary Addison
      Posted May 30, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s the one – I should have said!.

      • Posted June 11, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Copy now bought!

        • Mary Addison
          Posted June 11, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Goodness Rachel, doughty woman – you must report back. It isn’t very long and so many people love it, it will be interesting to hear what you think.

  2. ceci
    Posted June 1, 2020 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I love the pictures with the letters, and the backstories are wonderful! I think I recall that you did an earlier U with a little face in it? I was thinking about that one just the other day (it was maybe in color? Now I will have to search) when I was sketching ideas for a birthday card, and now here is another to think about.


    • Mary Addison
      Posted June 1, 2020 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Sorry the search isn’t easy, Ceci and thank you for telling me you enjoy images and text. Much appreciated.
      One day I will index the blog. Perhaps the easiest way to find an image is to go into gallery of images (to the right of the blog) and scroll through the gallery pages (below all the photographs) – e.g. if you think it’s something from ages ago, click on Page 9 first, see what comes up and hope you get your bearings and then go through a few pages at a time.
      OR email me!
      This is what you want http://www.addisonembroideryatthevicarage.co.uk/2019/01/21/an-embroidered-alphabet-letter-u/

      • ceci
        Posted June 1, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Yes, that is it exactly – although I quite enjoyed a pre-bedtime wander back in your work last night I didn’t actually find it (and it is more fun than I remembered! That X on the chin and the quizzical upward glance! There may need to be a series of cards with little faces in letters. These are just one off water colors for friends not anything commercial I hasten to add).


        • Mary Addison
          Posted June 1, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          I think that sounds lovely – I’m all for making your own presents. We all, amateurs and professional,copy or borrow all sorts of images or bits of images and that’s just what Renaissance artists and Old Masters and were expected to do – Haute Couture in particular would be lost without such inspiration.
          Glad you enjoyed a meander through earlier posts – but do get in touch if something proves illusive.

  3. Nella
    Posted June 1, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I love the embroidered urn sitting so snugly in its letter U. Thank you so much Mary for the two stories; I always read your blog aloud to my husband as we both enjoy your writing so much. He is now searching the internet for information about Sir Thomas Browne and keeps interrupting me with yet more facts! I think that when Melvyn Bragg retires YOU should take over his radio 4 programme “In Our Time” as you seem to be able to interest and excite us in so many different subjects

    • Mary Addison
      Posted June 1, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Wow, fantastic praise. Thank you. It’s such a wonderful thought that you read my blog out to your husband and you both enjoy it together. I love ‘In Our Time’ too but sometimes I find it distracts from my needlework because I feel the need to make notes!

  4. Gillian Stickings
    Posted June 1, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I just had the most amazing heartstop reading this – my family were close friends with Patrick and family when they were renting in Marlow and I used to babysit Allegra and her sisters!!! What an amazing world of coincidence we live in. I started following you when we were living in Headington whilst my husband (we met at Magdalen) did his curacy and then a couple of years later we moved to his first incumbency in – where? – Kidmore End Sonning Common and Rotherfield Peppard. Our daughter attends the John Watson School in Wheatley and so until your move away every time we passed Ipsden on the school commute I thought of you….Incredible….

    • Mary Addison
      Posted June 1, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Goodness me, how nice to hear from you Gillian – all those near intersections!
      I had forgotten about Pam and Pat’s time in Marlow which was I think before they came to Chiswick where we met them.
      I hope Patrick will get in touch soon about my elusive memory and I shall tell them about you.
      Just say if you want their email and I’ll send it to you separately.

      • Gillian Stickings
        Posted June 1, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Oh yes please Mary! I immediately phoned my dad to read your post to him after I messaged you; they lost touch after Pam and Pat moved and their Christmas letters didn’t have addresses on, and then my parents moved – ah the pre-Internet age. My maiden name is Naden, my father Tony and mother Di would love to be able to be in touch with them again. I have such vivid memories of them from that year and my dad loved Patrick’s phenomenal Renaissance-Man mind and accomplishments – and extrovert chutzpah as you say!
        I think I first came across you via Karen Howlett’s Cornflower blog, if not that then it would have been Jane Brocket’s. I have loved reading yours and the overseas-work connections via extended family have fascinated as well: my father is a linguist-priest-missionary married to the daughter of a GI bride and I was born and brought up in Ghana (I still wear a lot of my Ghana-fabric shirts and clothes in the summer); my husband is also a many-country-backgrounded-person born in Canada, and we both are absolutely of a magpie-bent in terms of passionately hoovering up any interesting information from as wide a spread of sources as possible so you can see why I love your blog =)

        • Mary Addison
          Posted June 2, 2020 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

          That’s very interesting Gillian. Don’t feel forgotten if Pam doesn’t get in touch straightaway, she often doesn’t – I think it’s that thing of either you answer immediately or you think I’ll just wait a bit and chat to your husband about it … and then you forget!
          It’s always interesting to know how people come to the blog so thank you for working out probable pathways.
          I’m so glad you enjoy hoovering up my often random and rambling bits of this and that.

          • Gillian Stickings
            Posted June 8, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            Thanks again – my parents have had a lovely email from Pat and Pam and we are all caught up now =)

          • Mary Addison
            Posted June 9, 2020 at 6:43 pm | Permalink


  5. Amara Bray
    Posted June 7, 2020 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Like other commenters I sure have loved the wide swath of stories and information that have enjoyed through this blog. Thanks again.

    • Mary Addison
      Posted June 9, 2020 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Very kind, Amara, Thank you.

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