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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Empty Chair - the Story of a Lost Soprano by Rowan Lennon

One of the most photographed memorials in Highgate Cemetery West is the Empty Chair, a charming tribute to a young bride married only a year.  The monument, a Gothic tower covering a seat draped with a cloth, echoes the Roman practice of draped cremation urns so often depicted on Victorian graves, with the cloth representing the escape of the soul.  While its inscription has long since been lost, the chair is reminiscent of a stage set, an appropriate homage to a young soprano whose promising career was cut short by her death aged just 19.

Photo by Rowan Lennon
Mary Emden was the wife of Walter Emden, a young architect with a distinguished career designing many English theatres including the Duke of York, The Garrick and The Royal Court in London.  Interred under her married name she was eclipsed by her more famous husband, with even the Sheffield Daily Telegraph omitting her from Walter’s 1913 obituary, instead reporting his second wife, Annie Beardshaw, as his first.  Born in Dublin in 1853, Marie Augusta Antoinette Basquerville was the daughter of James Baskerville, an engineer employed by Courtney Stephens Ironworks who invented a slide valve pump for the railways in 1864 which was exhibited at the Dublin Exhibition.

Marie likely began as a chorister and is mentioned as one of the singers celebrating St Clare’s Feast day in Dublin on 15 August 1868 singing Saverio Mercadante’s Mass.  Nineteenth century Dublin was a sophisticated Georgian city complete with a military base and inhabited by many wealthy Anglo Irish who enjoyed a vibrant cultural scene equivalent to London’s.  The city played host to musicians and actors from all over Europe and that December, aged 15, Marie debuted as a performer at the Theatre Royal Dublin in Little Red Riding Hood and Little Boy Blue.  A review in the Dublin Evening Mail reported that ‘Miss Basquerville, a pupil of Mr Granby’s, made her debut as Little Red Riding Hood, and considering the novelty of the position of so young a lady, she acquitted herself with ease and skill.  No doubt in this instance practice will be followed by perfection’. Charles Granby was a distinguished actor long associated with the Theatre Royal and it was customary for budding performers to learn their craft from their more experienced peers.  Granby was described at his 1864 Benefit as ‘one of the few that remain of the old school of conscientious actors, the school that looks to the stage as a profession and trained themselves laboriously for that profession’. He was also a stage manager, an extremely demanding job.  The lives of Victorian performers were arduous: they endured long hours, low pay and incurred fines for breaking the rules, so actors’ benefits were an important source of income where the benefited actor would receive the box office takings.

Image used with the kind permission of Matthew Lloyd (

The next couple of years saw Marie develop a reputation in Ireland as a skilled vocalist, appearing at the Assembly Rooms at Benner's Hotel, Tralee: ‘Miss Marie Basquerville, the celebrated soprano vocalist from the Theatre Royal Dublin will make her first appearance on Wednesday 22 June 1869’.  She made several appearances with the youthful Brothers Clifford (Francis and Timothy, aged just nine) in Sketches by the Wayside, performing songs such as I Dote Upon the Military from Offenbach’s 1867 operetta La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. We have an idea of Marie’s skill in a duet with Francis Clifford, in which her singing was described as bravura and staccato, suggesting she was a skilled coloratura soprano who specialised in leaps, trills and elaborate runs on the melody in songs like In the Moonlight’s Silvery Beam and Will You Buy My Wants.  She also appeared at the Theatre Royal Limerick but reached the peak of her career arriving at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to appear in The Dragon of Wantley in December 1870, which was the theatre’s prestigious Christmas pantomime written by the celebrated E.L Blanchard. These annual spectacles involved gorgeous scenery, a ballet, clowns and musical interludes and Marie appeared alongside the Vokes sisters (Rosina, Jessie and Victoria).

Until her death in December 1872 she lived in London and was recorded on the 1871 census as lodging in Hampstead with William Ross, a civil engineer aged 32 and his 24-year old wife Eleanor, an actress.  She may have known William through her father’s connections as an engineer, or perhaps she was acquainted with Eleanor via the theatre. On 30 October that year she married Walter Emden at Christ Church, Albany Street, St Pancras, aged 18 (she and 24-year old Walter were married by special license with permission from her father James because she was underage).  On the marriage certificate Walter confers respectability on his father William by describing him as a gentleman, implying he had no need to work. While acting was regarded as an immoral profession by some, William was a well-respected and successful theatre manager who worked in some of London’s most successful venues, including the Olympic under Madame Vestris.

Christ Church, Albany Street (image courtesy of

At the time of his marriage Walter lived in the family home in Hampstead with his parents and siblings.  He had trained as a civil engineer but became a hardworking and successful architect who joined Kelly & Lawes in 1870 and undertook the rebuilding of the Globe Theatre the same year.  In 1871 he oversaw alterations to the St James Theatre and was later appointed Mayor of Westminster and Dover, as well as a member of the London County Council. In January 1872 his father William passed away and was interred in Highgate Cemetery West, after which Walter travelled to Dublin to design parts of the city’s Exhibition of Arts, Industries & Manufactures.  While he was away Marie, whose flourishing career seemingly ended following marriage, contracted tuberculosis and passed away at home on 12 December 1872 from pneumonia and hemoptysis (the coughing of blood). She died with Walter’s mother Amelia by her side and was buried opposite her father-in-law William.

Photo by Rowan Lennon
In life Walter referred to his young wife as Mary, effectively anonymising Marie Basquerville, talented vocalist. In death her name inscribed on the poignant monument of the empty chair has eroded to invisibility, a sad testament to a gifted young woman whose early promise was tragically cut short by marriage and illness.

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