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Lady Louisa Waterford and her little-known fascination with labyrinths

Updated: Mar 17


Two forthcoming events explore the relationship between Victorian artist and philanthropist Lady Louisa Waterford and the labyrinth.


Born in Paris in 1818, Lady Louisa Waterford is gaining a modern reputation as a woman ahead of her time. Best known for her artistic talents and generous acts of philanthropy, Louisa was tutored by Ruskin and heavily influenced by both the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements. Upon the untimely death of her husband Henry in 1859, Louisa moved to take up residence at the estate he bequeathed her for the duration of her life – Ford, with its village and castle, in the far north of the county of Northumberland. Wasting no time, in 1860 Louisa set about refurbishing the castle and remodelling the village. This entailed building new cottages, as well as a school for the local children. The school clearly captured her imagination, and upon its completion, Louisa spent the next 21 years working on murals that still adorn the walls today.


These facts of Louisa’s life are well-documented. Less well-known perhaps, was how Louisa’s tenure at Ford, from 1860 to 1891, was book-ended by the appearance of two rather unusual labyrinths, one in stone, the other of wood. The former has been preserved, adorning at it does Louisa’s gravestone, while the latter, a decorative labyrinth ceiling, has all-but disappeared from contemporary memory.

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Walk south through the pretty village of Ford and after passing the castle, the path soon arrives at St Michael and All Angels Church, a small, stone building dating back in parts to medieval times. Falling away from the churchyard, the view opens out spectacularly over historical Flodden Field to the rounded peaks of the Cheviot Hills beyond. Tucked into the south-west corner of the churchyard is Lady Louisa Waterford’s grave. The headstone of angels was the creation of renowned artist George F Watts; it was his wife, Mary Seton Watts however, who designed the labyrinth adorning the tombstone:


Image courtesy of Nick Jones


According to Jeff Saward, one of the world’s leading labyrinth experts, 1891 is the first recorded appearance of this labyrinth design. The design is a member of relatively small group of labyrinth-designs known as a ‘mirror’ labyrinths, so-called for their almost-symmetrical properties. Sadly, we know very little about how the decision came to be made for the placing of a labyrinth on Louisa’s tombstone. But we do know that Louisa herself held a peculiar fascination for labyrinths, so much so that she had one installed in the ceiling of Ford castle during the refurbishment she arranged upon inheriting the estate in 1859:


Image from 'Labyrinths' by Franco Maria Ricci


The image above shows the carved, wooden labyrinth ceiling in Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy, known to have inspired Louisa, who requested her architect, Bryce of Edinburgh, to copy it. Bryce was unfamiliar with the design and so Louisa contacted an Italian acquaintance at the British Museum who surely must have helped secure blueprints. We know the ceiling was eventually installed because visitors to Ford are recorded as commenting most favourably on it; sadly, both the ceiling and any accompanying provenance have since been lost to the annals of time, leaving us with a labyrinthine mystery at the heart of Lady Louisa’s story.


It is likely we will never know Louisa’s motivation for installing a labyrinth ceiling at Ford castle, just as we may never know the sorts of conversations she is likely to have had about labyrinths with close friends, including George and Mary Watts. The fact that the labyrinth remains such a prominent part of Louisa’s legacy, inscribed on her tombstone for all the world to see, suggests this ancient symbol was significant to her in ways we can now only imagine…


What was it about labyrinths that appealed to Louisa Waterford? What was her enduring fascination with these ancient symbols? And why might her interest in labyrinths be resurfacing at this time? Join us in exploring these questions and more at two exciting events coming up next month:


4th April 2022 @7pm - Lady Louisa and the Mystery of the Labyrinth: Presentation for Bowsden History Group. Advance tickets essential. Please contact: Nick Jones, Programme Secretary Email : nicolasjbjones@gmail.com Text: 07889 509324


30th April – 2nd May 2022 – Garden Labyrinth at Ford and Etal Art Trail. This walkable labyrinth installation will be modelled on the ‘Ford Ceiling Labyrinth’ design for visitors to the Art Trail to experience. For more information including details of the newly-inaugurated Lady Waterford Prize visit: https://www.thetinshed.co.uk/ford-and-etal-art-trail


For more information about Louisa's legacy at Ford including how to see the Lady Waterford Hall murals visit: https://www.ford-and-etal.co.uk/lady-waterford-hall/



Will you be able to help unravel the mystery?!

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