Soon after D. H.Lawrence’s burial in Vence Cemetery on March 4th, 1930, his widow Frieda commissioned a simple headstone to place on his grave. No words were engraved on the plaster-covered stone slab, not even Lawrence’s name – instead, it displayed an impressive mosaic of a phoenix rising from its ashes, the writer’s iconic emblem. Made up of different coloured pebbles from one of the beaches at Bandol, the mosaic was designed by Dominique Matteucci, an Italian artisan who lived in a cottage in the garden of the Villa Robermond where Lawrence had died.
Following Lawrence’s exhumation in March 1935, the headstone was retrieved by an English resident of Vence called Martha Gordon Crotch who ran The Peasant Shop, a pottery-cum-antiques store on the Place du Peyra in the town centre. Mrs Gordon Crotch had come to live in Vence in 1926 and was a well-known figure among the town’s expatriate community and literary and artistic circles. Fondly known as “Auntie”, she was befriended by Frieda shortly after Lawrence’s death when it became widely known that she had miraculously survived a major operation some years before with a pair of surgical forceps stitched up inside her abdomen – inexplicably left there by the surgeon who had performed the operation. The discovery was only made in 1928 when, feeling severe abdominal pains and convinced she had cancer, she was X-rayed by a local physician, Dr. Maestracci, and the presence of the forgotten forceps was finally revealed: five inches of nickel-plated steel tucked away among her intestines. Following an unsuccessful legal attempt to obtain damages in 1930, she exhibited the instrument – furred and rusty but with the maker’s stamp still visible – at Le Pigeonnier, her tea room adjoining the pottery shop.
Also on display there between April 1931 and September 1932 were the 13 Lawrence paintings which had been seized and temporarily confiscated for alleged obscenity during a police raid on the Warren Gallery in London in July 1929. Frieda had managed to save them from destruction by the authorities on condition that they were never again exhibited in Britain, and had asked Auntie to keep them for her. They were subsequently transported to Vence and displayed on the walls of Le Pigeonnier in an exhibition which attracted a large number of visitors curious to see what all the fuss over a few pubic hairs was about.
Shortly after the exhumation – at which she was present at Frieda’s request with the latter’s Italian lover, Angelo Ravagli – Auntie installed Lawrence’s headstone in the entrance of her tea room. Perhaps she considered she had a more legitimate claim to it than anyone else now that Frieda was living in New Mexico, and took it to prevent it from being lost or destroyed. When it was later reported to her that Auntie had appropriated it, Frieda didn’t seem particularly bothered, blithely commenting, “It isn’t anything much and she can have it.”
With the coming of war in 1939, Auntie decided it would be safer to return to England. Still in possession of the headstone and perhaps sensing an opportunity to make some money by selling it as a “literary souvenir” in Lawrence’s home country, she resolved to transport it with her. Out of a sense of loyalty to Frieda and respect for Lawrence, she may also have been motivated by a genuine wish to see it displayed in the writer’s home town of Eastwood in Nottinghamshire. Whatever the reason, the headstone now embarked on a 1,000-mile odyssey which would take it from the town in the South of France where Lawrence had died to his birthplace in the industrial Midlands of England.
Nothing much is known about how Auntie spent the war years in England, but what has emerged from different sources is that shortly afterwards she wrote to Vivian de Sola Pinto, an eminent Lawrence scholar and Professor of English at Nottingham University, to try and sell him the headstone for the then princely sum of £200. While Professor Pinto agreed that its rightful place was in Eastwood, he refused to buy it – probably on ethical grounds – but was later contacted by the hotel outside London where Auntie had abandoned the precious item prior to returning to Vence, and it was subsequently placed in his care and taken to Eastwood.
In 2009, after being housed in three different locations since Professor Pinto passed it on to Eastwood Council in 1957 (including a period of several years on display in Eastwood Library), the headstone finally found a permanent home in the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum, located in the small terraced house in Victoria Street where Lawrence was born on September 11th, 1885. Although Martha Gordon Crotch’s motives for bringing it to England may be questioned, her action in retrieving the headstone not only ensured it was saved from destruction but ultimately also enabled countless numbers of visitors to Eastwood to see and admire this unique vestige of its famous son’s last resting place.
D.H. Lawrence’s final journey, from the sun to the stars
The fate of D.H. Lawrence’s ashes after his burial in Vence
Tracing the 1,000-mile odyssey of D.H. Lawrence’s phoenix headstone
- Robert Bullock