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At Gaetano Meo’s Grave

December 12, 2018
by the gentle author

Helen Craig with Tessa Hunkin

Mosaic Artist Tessa Hunkin invited me to meet her at the grave of Gaetano Giuseppe Faostino Meo (1849-1925) in Hampstead Cemetery one bright morning recently to learn the extraordinary story of its forgotten occupant – an artist who was a favourite model of the pre-Raphaelite painters. Even if you have never heard his name, anyone who knows these paintings will be familiar with his handsome features.

The cemetery offered a suitably atmospheric environment. Graves interspersed with growths of briar and gothic architecture conjured the requisite tone of dignified melancholy beloved of the pre-Raphaelites. It was an ambience not unlike that of Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of Love Among the Ruins for which Gaetano Meo served as one of the models, stretched out in languorous abandon, his pallid flesh swathed in a silken robe.

In 1864, at fourteen years old, Gaetano Meo walked to England from his home in the south of Italy to seek his fortune, carrying only his harp as a means to earn board and lodgings. Surviving attacks by brigands, at Calais he smuggled aboard a ship bound for Dover. Yet his intended destination was California where he hoped to strike it rich in the Gold Rush. In fact, he only made it as far as Clerkenwell which was known as ‘Little Italy’ in those days. The story goes that a tip from a barber led to an introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was seeking a model, while artist Simeon Solomon claimed to have discovered Gaetano Meo playing the harp on a London street.

What is clear is that Gaetano Meo’s swarthy mediterranean features and sensuous demeanour suited the imaginative fantasies of these artists in the creation of the literary and allegoric scenes which were the fashion of the nineteenth century. He became one among an elite of Italian artists’ models, working for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Lord Leighton, Ford Madox Brown, William Blake Richmond, Henry Holiday and Simeon Solomon among other luminaries.

In time, Gaetano Meo became assistant to William Blake Richmond, learning to paint and work in mosaic. He exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy and worked alongside Blake Richmond in the creation of the mosaics in St Paul’s Cathedral. Settling in Hampstead, he married Agnes Morton and they had a boy – Little Bertie – who died young, and three daughters – Elena Fortuna, Margarita Maria Agnes and Taormina Bertha. Elena was a violinist and married her next door neighbour Edward Gordon Craig, the theatre designer and son of actress Ellen Terry and architect Edward Godwin.

At the graveside, Tessa Hunkin introduced me to Gaetano Meo’s great granddaughter Helen Craig who is an illustrator celebrated for the creation of Angelina Ballerina, the tutu-wearing mouse. Helen learnt the stories of her Italian great-grandfather from her father who had been told them by Gaetano Meo himself in his final years.

Tessa and Helen have collaborated to do restoration work on the gravestone as it approaches its centenary. While Tessa restored the mosaic, re-gilding and replacing fallen tesserae, Helen repainted lost detail on the glass panels known as ‘opus sectile.’ The Madonna & Child was originally designed by Gaetano Meo as a tribute to his wife Agnes Morton when she was died in 1921, but it now serves as a memorial to their family since he and Little Bertie were also interred here.

Although Hampstead Cemetery is less renowned than Highgate, I recommend a visit to this attractively unexpected enclave of peace in North London. While you are admiring Gaeatano Meo’s gravestone mosaic and contemplating the strangeness of the pre-Raphaelites you are likely to encounter a robin that presides in this vicinity – just as I did when I made my pilgrimage.

Gaetano Meo featured as a model in Edward Burne-Jones’ Love Among the Ruins, 1870-3 (reproduced courtesy of Tate Gallery)

Gaetano Meo featured as the model for Dante in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Dante’s Dream, 1869-71 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano featured as the model for Dante in Henry Holiday’s Dante & Beatrice, 1882-4 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo featured as the model for Anchises in Venus & Anchises by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1890 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo is believed to the model on the right in Simeon Solomon’s The Sleepers and the One who Watcheth, 1870 (reproduced courtesy of Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo’s The Madonna & Child mosaic created as tribute to his wife Agnes on her death in 1921

Gaetano Meo in Venice in his later years

Gaetano Meo’s robin at Hampstead Cemetery

Edward Burne Jones’ exhibition including Love Among The Ruins runs at Tate Britain until 24th February 2019

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Snowfall at Bow Cemetery

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny Newall permalink
    December 12, 2018

    Dear gentle author,
    I would like to be in touch with Helen Craig as I have a painting by Gaetano Mayo

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 12, 2018

    Lovely stuff! And interesting to learn about one of the Pre-Raphaelite male models for a change.

  3. Ros permalink
    December 12, 2018

    what an interesting piece. Lovely work by Tessa and Helen – now it just needs someone to work on the lettering. Beautiful shot of the presiding robin. And isn’t there a strong resemblance between great-grandfather and great-granddaughter? I love the Angelina Ballerina illustrations!

  4. December 12, 2018

    Thank you for this insight into Gaetano’s life.

  5. Robert permalink
    December 12, 2018

    What a charming back story to a figure that seems largely forgotten albeit unfairly. I shall have to visit the cemetery as I love old cemeteries with character.

  6. December 12, 2018

    Lovely to learn about an overlooked artistic family. You may catch some of Gaetano Meo’s mosaic work in old film shots from inside the Debenham Peacock House, but I knew little more about him until now. Thank you.

  7. Rebecca Meo permalink
    January 13, 2019

    Lovely piece
    And very well done for restoring the grave
    Rebecca (great great grand daughter )
    Ps. I’d like be in touch with anyone who has paintings

  8. Jorn Cooper permalink
    May 10, 2019

    In a Hampstead Directory 1885/6 Gaetano was living in no 6 Sunnyside Villas, Childs Hill, the 3 pairs of semis are still there, but the one which Gaetano lived in is the only one where the current owners have painted over the brickwork (sacrilege) . He also lived at Back Hill Holborn, a street just behind the Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road. There is also a carte de visite with him in traditional Italian folk costume standing by a cello/viola available on the net.

  9. July 2, 2021

    Gaetano Meo is my great great uncle

  10. Anna Luna permalink
    September 21, 2021

    Gaetano was my Great, Great Grandfather ?

  11. Wayne Edward permalink
    December 8, 2023

    A very interesting insight, thank you. I have 2 paintings by Gaetano Meo and they are the pride of my collection.

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