Mystery Obelisk

So – I’m back – again – the blog’s been a bit interrupted recently, for which I apologise – sometimes Real Life just gets in the way. I’ve been computer-free for the last week – liberating in many ways, scary in others. I have discovered the internet is a bit like alcohol – it’s very, very easy to become addicted without even noticing.

But enough of my own personal whinging and back onto the massive backlog of correspondence I’m ashamed to have accrued.

Carol is curious to know” the origin and importance of this obelisk in Charton Park.  Was it once one of a pair,” she asks, or is it possibly Masonic?

Just in case you’re not sure where this is here’s another pic, taken from further back. It’s round the back to the north side, not far from Inigo Jones’s Loo and the splendid old mulberry bush.

Now of course I’m no architectural historian, so this is down to guesses. My usual recourses and guide books are strangely silent on the matter of curious garden furniture in what must have once been a rather splendid garden at Charlton House but I referred this to someone I know who is a Masonic historian and we’re both pretty sure it’s nothing to do with Freemasonry. He’s promised to ask someone he knows who is a Masonic garden historian (yes, there’s a specialist for everything) so I’ll update this if he comes up with anything good.

So in the absence of anything even remotely resembling an expert, I’m guessing 17th or 18th Century – it has the flamboyance of those incredible Italian baroque gardens – but could be utterly wrong. As obelisks go it’s pretty squat. There’s probably some funky name for the style, but I don’t know it. If it was just viewed from the end it might be a fancy tomb, but it’s square, so that seems unlikely.

Although it reminds me of Italian garden statuary, there’s something very robustly English about it. Perhaps it’s the fancy acorn on top. In Italy the acorn is often used as a symbol to imply the penis. I suspect there are more ‘ sturdy British Oak’ intentions about this one, though it is very large and, um, manly.

The other symbols are harder to work out as they’re eroded. The one nearest appears to have some kind of rope or knot and I can’t work out whether the rest is an anchor (which would mean ‘hope’ in Christian symbolism) or a newt which would mean an ancestor of Ken Livingstone was once head gardener.

The other appears to have a torch and a caduceus – both Greek symbols – the torch ‘life and truth’, the caduceus a symbol of medicine (though I’m not sure how far that goes back as a symbol; before that the alchemists were rather fond of it.)

Oh, hell, I’ve got no idea. Anyone else got any clues to this odd little survivor of the old Charlton House garden?


Aha – thanks to Steve and to Julian Watson who has confirmed that it is

“is an authentic Roman chest brought to Charlton house in the first half of the 19th cent. It is a fascinating and very ancient item. John Smith in his ‘Charlton, a Compilation of the Parish and its People.’ Vol. 1, 1970, states that Thomas Maryon Wilson brought it, and other items, from Italy in 1822. The eroded Latin inscription commissioned by TMW says: ‘These remnants of the Art of the Ancients were brought personally from Rome, and erected on his family estate by Sir Thomas M. Wilson 1 September 1822.’


Thanks guys. I ask and I receive…

the attachments to this post:

charlton obelisk low 2
charlton obelisk low 2

charlton obelisk low
charlton obelisk low

11 Comments to “Mystery Obelisk”

  1. Steve says:

    According to Darrell Spurgeon it’s a “Roman stone chest (imported in the 19th century)” ["Discover Greenwich and Charlton" 1991]

  2. Steve says:

    And I found this in the Greenwich Council booklet “The gardens at Charlton House”:
    “The Roman Stone was brought back from Italy by a former resident of Charlton House, a member of the Maryon Wilson family, in the early nineteenth century. It is the only remaining piece in what was once a garden full of ornamental statutes….a Latin inscription reads ‘These remnants on the Art of the Ancients were brought personally from Rome and erected on his family estate by Sir Thomas M Wilson 1 September 1822′”

  3. D’oh! And I checked Darryl Spurgeon too. Thing is, I’m not totally convinced about that. That acorn just looks too modern. But then what do I know?

  4. Cor – where do you find that leaflet, Steve? In the library or is it for sale somewhere?

  5. Steve says:

    I think I got it from Charlton House itself (free). It’s a very nice little A6-sized booklet and worth getting hold of.

  6. Brilliant. I’m over there…

  7. …when I get past this mountain of Real Work :-(

  8. Carol says:

    Hey Guys

    that’s brilliant, I will follow up on these responses.
    The decorations appear to be the side nearest the path – reminiscent of the Egyptian Ankh above a dragon?; the side in the holly bush – a crab holding an urn, and below something that looks like part of a slug – due to the erosion; the side closest to the House, a pair of entwined snakes surmounted by a bowl of fire, and the side furthest from the House has the inscription.

    So any more suggestions as their meanings would be great.

    many thanks to all


  9. Carol says:

    Steve is right: ‘The Gardens at Charlton House’, published by Greenwich Council and free on request from the Charlton House Office, very nicely produced and interesting.

  10. [...] back in July, I wouldn’t have publicly made an ass of myself by not knowing that the strange Mystery Obelisk in Charlton House’s back yard is actually a real ancient Roman stone, the sole survivor of a [...]