On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, by Nigel Andrew Charles Keen
On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death
Nigel Andrew labels himself a ‘church crawler’, in the sense that other people go on ‘pub crawls’.
In this book, we crawl with him to all sorts of out-of-the-way places in search of carved memorials. We must expect to find ourselves in a small country church, miles from anywhere, distinguished only for an imposing effigy of a medieval knight, who ruled in those parts.
Beside the knight lies his lady and round them, perhaps, their offspring. They are described in meticulous detail but there are no illustrations, apart from black-and-white snapshots – so we must keep our mind’s eye open. More important, the subjects of the sculpture are thoroughly researched, and their lives expounded for us. It is a fascinating record.
A climax is reached with the chapter dedicated to ‘Saddest Stories’, which opens with the lamentable death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte in 1817. She was a highly popular figure – her death is extensively compared to that of Princess Diana in 1997, and at the end we have a description of Charlotte’s memorial, created by Matthew Cotes Wyatt. The princess is seen on her way to heaven, with an angel carrying her baby, the whole a moving expression of the nation’s grief.
The chapter carries us through a series of child and childbirth deaths. Child mortality was, of course, much more frequent in earlier centuries than it is in ours. Andrew allows himself the consoling reflection that religious faith was also more widespread. The effigies convey hope as well as grief.
Our crawl started in what the writer calls (after Coleridge) Platonic England. It consists of undistinguished, back-ofnowhere places, once depopulated by the Black Death. (How Plato links with it is hard to see; Bubonic England might have been a meaningful alternative.) This takes us to rural Nottinghamshire, where we visit Winkburn and Langar, small churches with fine monuments. Then we crawl on to Bottesford, with memorials to seven Earls of Rutland.
We have moved into the ‘Golden Age’, as Andrew terms it, a flowering of monumental art in the late-16th and early-17th centuries. It was dominated by two masters, Epiphanius Evesham, born in 1570, and Nicholas Stone, his one-time pupil. These two, Andrew argues, brought the dead to life in their effigies. He rates Epiphanius more highly, but Stone had a particularly light touch with the female form and drapery.
Next we are in Kent, and have admired Lord and Lady Teynham and their progeny, sensitively carved by Epiphanius, from where we travel on to Felsted, and encounter the three grim Barons Rich, 1st, 2nd and 3rd. All, from the hand of Epiphanius, reflect their cruel depravity. The 1st Baron turned the rack that tortured Anne Askew, the only woman ever imprisoned in the Tower.
The career of Nicholas Stone came to an end, as did the Golden Age
itself, with Cromwell’s Protectorate. Memorial art, however, lived on in Europe and returned to England with the Restoration; but the self-conscious artistry of the baroque had relinquished the human touch of Epiphanius and Stone.
These treasures are hardly few but certainly far between; Andrew rescues them from obscurity. Fired by his theme, he looks behind it, to consider attitudes to mortality. He visits cemeteries with no sculptures. He devotes a chapter to Gray’s Elegy, and another to butterflies, those emblems of life and death,
In his concluding chapters, he steers us still closer to the grave, detailing the 17th-century vogue for the deceased to be depicted in their burial garments. John Donne posed for Stone in his shroud. The monument was lost in the Great Fire of 1666, but found and reinstated some 200 years later.
Finally, he addresses the question of what may lie beyond the grave; a marble bust, after all, is just a marble bust. Inspired by Philip Larkin’s line ‘What shall survive of us is love’, he theorises that love may be the ultimate reality, not to be extinguished by death.
We are presented with some agreeable effigies of husbands and wives hand in hand, whose love may be said to have outlived their mortal flesh. It makes a cheerful end to a scholarly and entertaining book.