(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



SHERBORNE, St. Mary Magdalene (SP 169 148)   (October 2010)

(Bedrock: Middle Jurassic, Upper Inferior Oolite Group)


This 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, albeit the narrower sanctuary projects a short way beyond, and a restored southwest tower with 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 (Pevsner), whose reputation they do little to enhance.  The windows are loosely Second Pointed 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 its visitors due to its exceptional collection of monuments. Inevitably, these all commemorate members of the Dutton family, owners of Sherborne House from the sixteenth century till World War II, but that they were a family of real substance is evident from the artists they commissioned, amongst whom were some of the best of their generation. 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(Yale University Press, 2007) 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".  Yet here at Sherborne are large monuments by the great John Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), "the acknowledged head of his profession" (Gunnis) during his working life, Richard Westmacott the Elder (1747 - 1808), whose "most important monument" (ibid) faces Rysbrack's monument across the sanctuary, John Bacon the Elder (1740 - 1799) and Younger (1777 - 1859), whose renown and fees later outran their 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 somewhat more detail.


The most striking is surely the monument by Westmacott on the N. wall of the sanctuary (illustrated at the top of the page, on the left) Commemorating James Dutton (d. 1776) and his second wife, Jane, it stands "nearly eighteenth feet high and has 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: 1660-1851 by Rupert Gunnis, The Abbey Library, 1951).  It provides above all, however, an opportunity for Westmacott to celebrate the female form and his skill in handling draperies.  


Facing Westmacott's monument from the sanctuary S. wall, is Rysbrack's monument to John Dutton (d. 1743) (shown above right), featuring the deceased in Roman attire, leaning nonchalantly against an urn.  The design has a classical simplicity, largely free of extraneous clutter, and one might imagine there is little to say about it.  That would be a mistake, however, as Matthew Craske makes clear (ibid), for in the first place, it illustrates an increasing desire of the landed gentry from c. 1720 to avoid the displays of ostentation increasingly associated with the funerals of the "unrefined" mercantile classes, while secondly, the Roman clothes and classical pose were intended to give the work a timeless quality seen by contemporaries to be so conspicuously lacking in the monuments of the previous century, where the deceased were depicted in their most fashionable clothes, now all so very out of date!


Finally, John Bacon the Younger's monument on the wall to the southeast, where the chancel narrows into the sanctuary, also deserves close consideration.  (See the photograph, left.)  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, the subject would have seemed indelicate.  Bacon is seen at his best in this work:  the child appears a thing of real flesh and blood and there is evident emotion in the pose and face of the mother even though the allegorical female (Pevsner said she represents Faith) seems rather less concerned.