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SHERBORNE, St. Mary Magdalene  (SP 169 148),

GLOUCESTERSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Upper Inferior Oolite Group.)

 

A church notable for its exceptional eighteenth and early nineteenth century monuments.

 

 

This web-site is not much concerned with church monuments but an exception is made of some important late seventeenth to early nineteenth century examples that serve to illustrate wider trends in the art and architectural history of these years.  Although any attempt to divide a complex series of changes into discrete stages is susceptible to the charge of over-simplification, as a basic introduction to the subject, four principal phases in its evolution can be identified:

1.  the age of heraldry and ostentation, which is essentially the late Stuart period, c.1660 - c.1714, in which the aristocracy sought to depict their departed relations, bewigged and dressed in all their finery, with coats of arms to display their long pedigree, and 'symbols of mortality' (most notably skulls) to advertise their piety;

2.  the Age of Politeness, corresponding roughly to the period of the Whig Supremacy and the ascendancy of Palladian architecture, c. 1714-60 (that is, the reigns of the first two Georges), in which the new ruling class actively rejected the old Tory memes and mores and sought to present themselves as the new èlite, and their deceased relatives dressed in the timeless apparel (usually Roman togas, suggesting they themselves were like Roman senators)  that eschewed vulgarity and ostentation (skulls again, heraldic devices - not least because their pedigree often offered little to shout about) in favour of the appearance of effortless superiority;

3. the period of the 'Gothick' style, which overlapped periods 2 & 4 but which was particularly prevalent around the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was in turn a reaction to the Age of Politeness in favour of something more theatrical and exciting, frequently characterised by monsters or Death personified as a skeleton, on the one hand, and a damsel in distress on the other or some other form of female imagery calculated to add some sexual frisson;

and 4. the Age of Sensibility, in which it suddenly became not only fashionable for gentlemen to show display their emotions, but de rigueur.

These themes between them, fashioned many of the monuments of these years to a greater or lesser degree, as will appear further on the page below.  

 

 

St. Mary Magdalene's church,  Sherborne, is a difficult church both to view and to photograph, for it is overshadowed by trees to the north and east, and (most inconveniently) enclosed within the private grounds of Sherborne House to the south and west, to which it is attached by a corridor from its southeast corner.  It is fortunate, therefore, that the building itself is not an important one, for it consists of only a Victorian nave and chancel without structural division, together with a restored southwest tower with an octagonal spire that may originally have been constructed around 1300.   Externally this is now impossible to examine properly, but the bell-openings are two-light and the spire is lit by two tiers of gabled lucarnes.  The nave and chancel are probably the work of Anthony Salvin (David Verey and Alan Brooks, The Buildings of England: Gloucestershire Cotswolds, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 601), whose reputation they do little to enhance.  The windows are loosely Second Pointed (Decorated) in style, though the lights are cinquefoil-cusped,  the wide but shallow N. porch, built into the nave has a quadripartite vault,  and two arches across the church divide the westernmost bay (housing the organ above a gallery) from the rest of the nave and the sanctuary from the rest of the chancel.

 

None of this is of much consequence, but the church deserves to be visited on account of its exceptional collection of monuments, all of which commemorate members of the Dutton family, owners of Sherborne House from the sixteenth century until World War II, and formerly a family of real substance as witnessed by the artists they commissioned, amongst whom were some of the best of their generations.  Monumental statuary did not come cheap in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even for the well-to-do, and Matthew Craske, in his excellent book The Silent Rhetoric of the Body (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 31) gives the comparison that 'whilst [in the first half of the eighteenth century] a butler could be engaged at six guineas per annum, an ambitious monument with numerous figures was likely to cost two or three thousand pounds' (about a quarter of a million pounds today).  Yet here at Sherborne are large monuments by John Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), 'the acknowledged head of his profession' (Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660 - 1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, p. 334) during his working life, Richard Westmacott the Elder (1747 - 1808), whose 'most important monument' (ibid, p. 423) faces Rysbrack's monument across the sanctuary, John Bacon the Elder (1740 - 1799) and John Bacon the Younger (1777 - 1859), whose renown and fees later outran his skill, and a number by lesser statuaries, including Thomas Burman (1618 - 1674), William Theed the Younger (1804 - 1891) and Mary Grant (1831 - 1908), a granddaughter of Lord Elgin.  It will be sufficient here to consider three of these monuments in more detail.

 

The first in time is John Michael Rysbrack's monument to John Dutton (d. 1743) (illustrated right), featuring the deceased in Roman attire, leaning nonchalantly against an urn.  This is a design of classical simplicity, largely free of extraneous clutter, imbued with the spirit of the Age of Politeness.   The monument references another dedicated to James Craggs, erected in Westminster Abbey in 1727, by Giovanni Battista Guelfi (fl. 1715-34), who had been brought over from Italy by Richard Boyle, Third Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), who was busy promoting the revival of the Palladian style in England and whose desire for 'many status for his villain Chiswick [kept Guelfi] much, continually almost, employed'  (Dictionary of British Sculptors, p. 183).  Here, and subsequently in Rysbrack's' monument to John Dutton, the stiff frontal bust in fashionable dress of the Stuart period has been replaced by the studiedly relaxed, standing effigy clad in timeless apparel that is above fashion.  The cultivated Georgian could reach for an elevated model of his dead relatives  in a monument like this, which suggested the gentleman-of-taste's inevitable rise to glory.  A simple pyramid, symbolizing eternity, now provided a more appropriate background than the former elaborate architectural surround, and  heraldry is eschewed here, not least because the decline in the system of county heralds was enabling the nouveau riche (principally - horror of horrors - people in trade) to undermine and devalue it.  Besides, there was no need to draw attention to one's departed relative's wealth and status when everybody knew how much such a monument cost.  Notice, however, that when Rysbrack or, more probably, one of his assistants, misspelt Sir John Dutton's maternal grandfather's name on the pedestal, even the Dutton family shrank from replacing it and ordered the offending name to be crossed out instead.

 

 

Rysbrack's monument stands against the south wall of the sanctuary, so the contrast to the monument to his heir and nephew, James Dutton (d. 1776) and his wife, Jane, on the north wall immediately opposite (shown right), could scarcely be more noticeable.  This is the work of Richard Westmacott the Elder.  It stands 'nearly eighteenth feet high and [displays] a life-size figure of an angel with outspread wings who tramples underfoot a prostrate figure of Death, represented by a realistic and macabre skeleton' (Dictionary of British Sculpture, p. 423), featuring thereby the two prerequisites of the then fashionable Gothick tale - the ghastly figure of Death, for once meeting his comeuppance, and the obligatory female form in the very human angel.  A totally different readership is being sought here from the one Rysbrack was seeking to invoke three decades earlier.  The images of James Lennox and his wife are confined to a (quite literally) partially-cloaked bas-relief on a medallion on the right hand side, and the nub of the design is very evidently not centred on this but on an out-and-out piece of theatre.  This monument, it seems safe to assume, was not constructed to the deceased's specification, but was borne out of popular fashion.  Margaret Whinney (Sculpture in Britain: 1530-1830, Hammondsport, Penguin, 1964, p. 171) was determinedly hedging her bets when she wrote, '[the work] is of exceptionally high quality but curiously mixed in style and design...  The figure hesitates between the Christian and the classical, for it is palpably female, with a classical garment slipping from one breast, and the large wings seem somewhat inappropriate'.   That sounds remarkable prissy over half a century later, for surely the response Westmacott was seeking in entirely transparent.   This monument is an early product of the romantic movement and it is blatant in its attempt to direct its appeal to a potential audience.

 

That leaves one other monument here which demands particular attention, namely John Bacon the Younger's monument on the wall to the southeast, where the chancel narrows into the sanctuary.  (See the photograph, right.)  This commemorates Frances Princess Bariatinsky, née Dutton, who died in childbirth in 1807, aged 29, and features the mother and child below, looking up at an allegorical female figure, while, higher up, they ascend to heaven on a cloud.  Monuments such as this, overtly depicting death in childbirth, were almost in vogue around the turn of the nineteenth century, whereas for much of the eighteenth, it had been a subject that dared not speak its name.  Bacon makes a reasonably successful job of this commission even though his work became increasingly formulaic as his career progressed, particularly after he formed his partnership with Samuel Manning in 1818, as he traded ever more on his and his father's name.  There is evident emotion in the pose and face of the mother even though the allegorical female seems decidedly detached. The 'cult of sensibility' had first arisen as a literary movement following the publication of such novel's as Laurence Stern's A Sentimental Journey, published in 1768, and, perhaps especially, after the appearance of Hentry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling three years later, and the movement was sufficiently well-established to be satirized  by Jane Austin in Sense and Sensibility, begun in 1795 but only published in 1811.  Francis Mary, Princess Bariatinsky (b. 1777) was  a granddaughter of James Lennox Dutton, discussed above, and her marriage to Prince Ivan Ivanovich Bariatinsky shows how far the Dutton family fortunes had risen.  Nicholas Penny made the point ('English Church Monuments to Women who died in Childbed', The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 38, 1975) that the theme was usually testimony of a love-match, and it seems to have been this, together with the new acceptance (indeed approval) of men displaying their feelings that was the wellspring of its appeal directed towards a more intimately involved audience.

 

[For other churches on this web-site that discuss other important church monuments see Gosfield in Essex, Chevening in Kent, Coleshill in Oxfordshire, and Condover in Shropshire.]