Robert Lucas Pearsall – Tombstone

Robert Lucas Pearsall died on 5 August 1856 at his home, the Schloss Wartensee, in Switzerland. His son (also Robert) wrote shortly afterwards to the Rev. H T Ellacombe at Bitton:

“It becomes my melancholy duty to inform you of his decease, which took place at – 6 o’ clock p.m. on the 5th of this month…

At  half past five o’clock on the evening of his death he walked almost without support over the grounds, examined the grapes, the hothouse, and rested himself in all those parts of the garden which had been his favourite places: he then went up into his bedroom where he caused himself to be undressed and put to bed. After this he asked for a sandwich of which he ate a small morsel. Then he thanked my mother for her kind attendance on him during the last two years, saying: “I am very much obliged to you”, and laid himself down with his face against the wall, in which position he remained for some minutes, when suddenly he raised himself up in his bed, turned towards the door and gazed at it, with a smile on his face as tho’ he had seen something which gave him pleasure; but on my mother’s asking him what he saw, he uttered a kind of convulsive exclamation, fell backward, and literally died without one further struggle in the arms of myself, my sister and my mother; surrounded by all the servants of the household, his face without one feature drawn, retaining in death the same pleased and tranquil expression which it had worn at the last moment of his life.

On the eleventh of this month my father was in accordance with his own express desire buried in a vault which had been excavated out of the solid rock beneath the altar of our private chapel. The court of the castle was thronged with people and the interment was attended by the Bishop of St. Gall and the heads of his clergy one of whom pronounced from a pulpit, which had been temporarily erected in front of the chapel, a very able and fitting funeral oration in honour of the deceased. As I can not help thinking that from the friendship which must have existed between yourself and my lamented father, a small remembrance of him can hardly be otherwise than agreeable to you, I will take the earliest opportunity of forwarding to you a photographic portrait of him which depicts with great truth the quiet of mind in which he departed this life”

Pearsall, photographed in death; taken from the copy that was sent to Canon Ellacombe at Bitton

(Reproduced from Hunt’s biogrpahy)

The emplacement, removal, and transportation of the burial stone

After burial, Pearsall’s tomb was covered with a slab of Rorschach sandstone, on which the inscription (see inset, left) had been carved to the undoubted direction of  Philippa Pearsall, the composer’s youngest daughter. The inscription is not positioned centrally on the stone, but biased to the left-hand side, suggesting that the vault may have been on the right of the chapel, the slab partially embedded in the wall. Alas no documentation or illustration of the chapel has yet come to light to confirm this.

On 26 May 1858, the castle and its contents were sold at auction; sometime afterwards, Wartensee became home to an order of Fransiscan nuns, who used the chapel as their own place of worship. The sisterhood remained there until 1955 when the castle changed hands once again, this time into those of a Swiss evangelical organisation, who deconsecrated the chapel and used it as a refectory. At the deconsecration, Pearsall’s remains were exhumed and re-buried in the castle’s park, but were removed three years later, thanks to the efforts of a local Roman Catholic priest, to the burial ground of the Roman Catholic chapel at Willen-Wartegg, some 3 kilometres from Wartensee. The tombstone was removed from the castle and stored in a shed close by. There it lay for more than fifty years.

Following Pearsall’s death, his working library and personal manuscripts were given by Philippa to the Benedictine monastery at Einsiedeln, some 100km south of Wartensee. The archive is the largest collection of Pearsall’s works in manuscript, and also contains rare 18th-century publications. It has become an important resource for scholars, and is under the exceptional loving care of Pater Lukas Helg, OSB, the Kapellmeister and music librarian at the monastery.

Since the early 2000s, Peter Helg had been aware of the tombstone in the shed at Wartensee, but it was on a visit there in 2008, whilst accompanying a Pearsall scholar on a research trip, that the stone was offered to them by the community at the castle. Although it was not possible to take it at the time, it was felt that the stone was at least in caring hands, and it was left for a further three years. In 2011 Pater Lukas was contacted by the castle to say that the religious community was leaving, the castle was for sale, and that the tombstone’s future was uncertain.

Discovering that the tombstone of one of its founders was without a home, the Bristol Chamber Choir approached St Mary’s Church and asked them if the church would be able to house it. The Vicar and the Parochial Church Council readily consented, and with the understanding that the cost of bringing the stone to England could not be met from church funds, the project to raise funds to bring the stone to Bitton began. The Bristol Chamber Choir agreed to meet the cost, and the stone was transported from Switzerland to England by Wheelers, a haulage firm from Bridgwater in Somerset.

The stone arrived in Bitton on 22 May, coinciding by chance with the passage through the village of the torch for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Peter Lukas with the stone in the shed at Wartensee

22 May 2012 – The arrival of the tombstone in Bitton

Originally intended to be laid  in the churchyard, the stone’s design proved problematic to British weather and was later moved into the porch of the church where it is  displayed today, supported by a large metal cradle.

In 2013, the stone was moved again into the church porch.