As BWS members will know, Wittgenstein’s grave, in Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge, is marked by a plain and simple ledger stone with only his name and dates. It is a beautiful tranquil spot though not too easy to find. A video showing the way to the location is available here.
Even so, according to the parish, the grave receives more than hundred visitors a year. The burial ground contains the graves of many other famous figures from Cambridge (see the listing) some of whom have connections of various kinds with Wittgenstein including, Sir James Frazer, G.E.Moore, John Wisdom and of course Elisabeth Anscombe. Wittgenstein’s grave remains the most frequently asked for and visited site.
The Society was aware that the ledger stone was beginning to look stained, the stone tarnished and the lettering beginning to wear with a danger of becoming illegible. Several reports from BWS members in the summer of 2014 confirmed our determination to take action.
BWS secretary, Dr. Ian Ground, was asked to investigate and identity options for conservation. After initial inquiries with the Parish an initial report was commissioned from the Parish Stonemason.
The stonemason at the burial ground - Mr Eric Marland studied art restoration at the City and Guilds of London Art School before training with David Kindersley, who was a pupil of Eric Gill. Over the years he has guided many hundreds of visitors to Wittgenstein’s ledgerstone and has assiduously collected and stored the varied tokens often left there by visitors. One visitor from Vienna left him a rather special gift – a floor tile from the Wittgenstein Family house on Vienna's Alleegasse rescued as the building was demolished.
After close examination, Mr Marland concluded that the ledger stone, being made of sandstone, rather than limestone, is relatively impervious to erosion by acidic rain. However the shaded location of the grave means that is it vulnerable to staining by berry-eating birds and lichen too tends to get a hold which can endanger the lettering. It was recommended that specialist cleaning of the ledger stone be carried out to remove the bird and lichen stains and to return the appearance of the sandstone.
Cleaning the Ledger stone
The Society then contacted Wittgenstein’s next of kin, the Stonborough family to advise them of the options and to seek their views on the way forward. Mr William Stonborough was the point of contact for the family and was kept fully informed of all developments by Dr. Ground.
A first and sensitively conducted professional cleaning took place and the result was much closer to the stone as it was originally intended.
The initial cleaning revealed traces showing that the lettering on the ledger stone was originally picked out in black.
The nearby and recently restored lettering on the stone to Elizabeth Anscombe, to which has been added the name of her husband Peter Geach gives a good impression of how Wittgenstein’s ledger stone would originally have appeared.
Repainting the Lettering
The next step was to determine whether, in order to preserve the lettering and to return to the ledge stone to its intended appearance, it was necessary to repaint the letters in the original black. The stonemason’s report concluded that the work was necessary and the family gave their permission and support for the work to be carried out.
The repainting in a matt enamel black was carried out on 17th and 18th June, 2015. The process took nearly 8 hours in total.
One thing that became more evident in the repainting was the imprecision of some of the original lettering by Barry Pink (Oxford art student, lodger with Anscombe and a friend of Wittgenstein’s - see Monk, R., 1991. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, pp. 567-8)
Though the repainting might have been used to ameliorate some of the imprecision, it was decided that such a course would not be consistent with the requirements of conservation.
Recording and Interpreting the event
As well as BWS Secretary, Dr. Ground is currently Teaching Fellow at the Fine Art Department Newcastle University. His view was that “Given his central philosophical concerns, the repainting of the letters in Wittgenstein name seem an appropriate occasion for both historical recording and creative interpretation"
With the aid of a generous grant from the Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice, Dr. Ground took 5 artists from Newcastle University’s Fine Art Department to Cambridge for the restoration. One student, Tom Hume, whose creative work has drawn on Wittgensteins texts, created a digital film record of Mr Marland’s painstaking work.
At the commencement of the work, the four piece Anima Collective (Ditte Goard, Charlote Charlotte Valetta, Jayne Dent, Sarah Grundy) performed a vocal piece based on Wittgensteinian themes of speech and silence. The resultant videos and images will be made available via the BWS website. While Tom Hume will be basing a new artwork on the digital video record, Dr. Ground’s intention is to make the raw footage available for creative interpretation by other artists. Expect more news on this soon.
On behalf of Wittgenstein’s family, William Stonborough told the Society:
"I would like to extend my thanks and those of my family to Dr. Ground, the BWS and their members for their initiative and generosity in making the restoration and continuing upkeep of the grave possible. The images show a great improvement to when I last visited Ascension Parish prior to the restoration, and I look forward to visiting again when I return to the UK to see the result myself”
We are delighted to report that, with the full support and thanks of the family and the generous support of some BWS donors, a fund is now in place to carry out maintenance and careful cleaning of the ledger stone on an annual basis for the foreseeable future. This will maintain the stone in better condition and forestall any further deterioration. In addition, simple signs indicating the way to Wittgenstein ledgerstone have been commissioned.
Restoring the appearance of any grave stone is a sensitive matter - that of a figure such as Ludwig Wittgenstein especially so - but we hope that BWS members will be pleased that with the full support of the family, informed by professional advice, the surface of Wittgenstein’s ledger stone has been saved from further deterioration, the lettering made legible, and its maintenance placed on a sustainable basis.
The Society believes that this work will mean that in this quiet corner of Cambridge, Wittgenstein’s grave will continue to provide a place of reflection for very many students, scholars and visitors in future.
The Society would like to extend its thanks to everyone who assisted with this project to restore the ledger stone: Dr. Ground, the Rev Dr Janet Bunker, Eric Marland, William Stonborough, Ray Monk and BWS donors, Peter Hacker and Dennis Patterson.