Burton: Exploring Without Boundaries
Sir Richard Burton, the famous Victorian explorer buried in Mortlake, was an extraordinary man whose achievements included leading an expedition to find the source of the River Nile and mastering over twenty languages, from Marathi to Arabic. To celebrate the bicentenary of his birth in March 2021 we are hosting a programme of events and are encouraging everyone to become an explorer and discover hidden historic sites and green spaces in south and west London.
To celebrate the bicentenary of Sir Richard Burton, the famous Victorian explorer buried in Mortlake, in March 2021 we are hosting a programme of events and encouraging everyone to become an explorer and discover hidden historic sites and green spaces in South West London.
Sir Richard Burton KCMG FRGS (1821 – 1890) was an extraordinary man, whose achievements included leading an expedition to find the source of the River Nile, and mastering over twenty languages, from Marathi to Arabic. According to Mary Lovell, author of the biography of Burton called A Rage to Live, ‘Burton was almost a real life Victorian prototype for the fictional Indiana Jones: scholar, adventurer, soldier, explorer, geographer, linguist, orientalist, ethnologist, diplomat and writer – to name only some of his abilities.’
This fascinating man deserves to be remembered, if only to illustrate how rich and full a life can be when lived without boundaries.”
It is important to say, however, that, as a Victorian explorer in the age of Empire, he also held some views that most of us today would find unethical.
Sir Richard Burton died of a heart attack in Trieste, where he’d been Consul for almost twenty years, on 20th October 1890. His body was transported back to Britain, and at the insistence of his wife Isabel, who was a devout Catholic, was buried in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen’s Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake. Yet, the mausoleum skillfully represents Burton’s lifelong love affair with the Middle East and Eastern philosophy.
Shaped like a tent the couple had designed for expeditions into the Syrian desert, the cloth has been beautifully carved from sandstone to look like it ripples in the breeze. A scalloped pelmet that runs around the building is decorated with the Islamic star-and-crescent motif embossed with gold. At the very top of the tent is a gold leaf coated Star of Bethlehem. Inside, are a collection of lanterns from Syria. Camel bells have been strung from the ceiling that are purported to come from Burton’s travels across the Middle East and would have jingled when the door opened.
References to Isabel’s Catholic faith include a band of gold text on a red background from Luke that runs around the interior. It reads: stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over. Several framed paintings depict the story of Christ and on the ceiling cherubs look down to the coffins. On the rear wall is a marble altar supported by two slender pillars, atop of which is a crucifix and a framed miniature portrait of Burton.
Burton is recorded as having said to Isabel, ‘I should like us both to be in a tent, side by side’ and so it is fitting that the mausoleum holds them both – the ornately carved and gilded coffin belongs to Sir Richard Burton, and the plainer mahogany one belongs to Isabel.
It is possible to visit the mausoleum. The cemetery is open daily 9am -3pm but please do check with the church ahead of your visit. Please note that the door into the cemetery is narrow and the ground is uneven. There is a small window at the rear of the mausoleum, which you can access by climbing a small sturdy ladder.
Help to conserve Burton’s Mausoleum
We have cared for the spectacular mausoleum since 2010. To mark Burton’s bicentenary we wish to open up the interior, which has been sealed from the public for almost fifty years, and ensure that the building can inspire a future generations of explorers. Donate today
Exploring without boundaries
Focusing on Burton’s linguist skills, we are working with Richmond EAL and Learn English at Home delivering classroom sessions and leading guided walks in the local area so that all members of the community are able to enjoy and benefit from the area’s many historic sites and green spaces.
We’re also working with local and international primary schools, providing lessons on the life Sir Richard Burton that cover the Geography, History and RE curriculum as well as engaging them with local history.
As Lockdown measures eased back in June 2020, the explorer, author and photographer joined us outside the Burton Mausoleum in Mortlake. We discussed Levison’s adventures as well as the influence Sir Richard Burton has had on his expeditions.
You can watch the video here:
Partners and supporters of the project include the contemporary local explorer, Levison Wood, the biographer of Sir Richard and Isabel Burton, Mary Lovell, the author Diana Darke, the Mausolea and Monuments Trust and the Royal Geographical Society.
Read our article in April 2020 edition of Geographical Magazine here
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