Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, around 1830 (the battlements have changed since then)

The guides are eager to point out there are some 640 monuments in Bath Abbey, more than anywhere else bar Westminster Abbey. Most are simple plaques. However, there are a good crop of busts, alto-relievos and full figures from the 17th, 18th and mostly early 19th centuries. In a few cases, the sculptural monuments show an awareness of earlier work nearby.

First, a word on the history. A certain Osric founded a nunnery here in 676, was at one time in the possession of Offa, King of Mercia, before becoming a Benedictine abbey, burnt down and rebuilt in the 12th Century. By the end of the 15th Century, it was in somewhat ruined state, and rebuilt, somewhat smaller, by Bishop Oliver King, helped by his prior, William Birde. The rebuild was more or less complete before it was seized by the King in 1539, stripped of gass and metal (480 tons of lead alone), and eventually passed to the citizens of the town to serve as a parish church. Restoration and decoration followed, most notably under Bishop Montague (bishop from 1609), and bit by bit thereafter, its collection of tablets and monuments grew.

The cream of the collection is, as might be expected, the 18th century work, and this blends seamlessly across the turn of the century into the 19th. We therefore take a chronological sequence, rather than, as is our wont on these pages, starting with the Victorians.

The two most important 17th century monuments are those to Bishop Montague (d1616), recumbent, ruffed, in marble, and the enormous monument to Lady Waller, wife of Sir William Waller, designed (it says on the note) by Epiphanius Evesham. The Guide says that despite the statues of both of the couple, he was buried elsewhere (Tothill St Chapel, Westminster), which is why the right plaque behind them is empty. A massive monument, he reclining, looking down at her lying body, head raised on two pillows. Children at head and foot. The whole ensemble within a Greek temple structure, with four black Corinthian pillars, two reclining girls mourning, and standing or walking angels, above, flanking the very complicated coat of arms, bedecked with various wreaths. A splendrous conception of black and coloured marbles.

Also from the 17th century we should note the bewhiskered, ringletted bust of Sir Philip Frowde (d1674), a proud man with long curled hair and a dashing moustache, flanked by considerable weaponry, and noting nine children by two of his three wives. Notable also, a typical Tudor couple facing each other, with offspring in small underneath, and the Mary Frampton monument (d1698), with a rather expressionless bust of the deceased.

On to the Eighteenth Century, with sculptural works from every decade, except, I think, the 1740s. We proceed chronologically through the most interesting works.

In the Lady Wentworth Monument (d. 1706) her portrait is held by two fleshy cherubs – a characterful work with much attention to surface and musculature. The Finch monument is a panel with more cherubs and cherubic heads, and on an oversized scale is the Godfrey Monument, a fireplace style design with two pairs of large pillars flanking the central panel, and lightly sketched depictions of an hourglass and a skull, both with wreaths.

The monument of Granville Pyper (d. 1717) has two mourning cherubs, one with handkerchief, the other with a skull. Winged cherubic heads below, above coat of arms with 3 ducks, helmet, and a bird.

More ambitious is the remarkably busty bust of Dorothy Hobart (d.1722), somewhat akin in mood to the Frampton monument nearby. From the 1730s is a roundel profile, rather unflattering, of William Steuart.

Next, an excellent small thing, the monument to Alexander Hall of Barbados. A variation of the girls with pot theme, with two girls, legs crossed in the usual manner of the time, but one holding a shroud over the pot and the other lifting the lid to peek inside. Admirable character and drapery throughout. Of slightly later date is the monument to Elizabeth Grieve Monument (d. 1757), wife of James Grieve, physician to Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. It consists of a panel in high relief which is more of a picture than a sculpture, with a carefully constructed composition. The central figure is the man, in patrician costume, resting his chin thoughtfully on one hand as he reads, his small dog contentedly resting under the chair. He does not notice the tragedy unfolding around him – his young wife next to him (aged just 33) being lured upwards by Death – a cowled skeleton carrying a broken arrow – and his ally, Time, with hourglass and scythe. Much attention to harmony and balance, with the positions of drapes and limbs carefully thought through.

The Sarah Currer Monument (d 1759), a rounded panel with cherubic head, dove, hairbrush and floralities, is notable chiefly because it is our first signed work, by Carter, Benjamin and Thomas.

Next, two small monuments paired nicely together, which loses our chronology. Mary, wife of John Boyd, (d. 1763), and Elizabeth, wife of James Moffat (d. 1791), by Reeves and Son, stand looking at each other, with very similar drapes and pose. The Boyd girl is disproportionate – too short for her breadth and with large head, but the pose and the parts are good, especially the hand holding the crown. The later Moffat girl has better proportions, but an inelegant posture, with one hip thrust out and a slightly bow-legged stance, though the drapery on both figures is admirable, harking back to Durer rather than a more calm classical treatment. We’ll come back to Reeves later on.

The Henshaw monument (d. 1764) has a particularly Baroque girl leaning heavily on an urn. The Coward Monument is worth seeking out for its study of a cherub crying, with funeral urn, skull and dagger on a bier, fallen flowers and an exotic tree.

The Quin Monument (d. 1766) has a characterful bewhigged portrait in low relief. Next in date is Jacob Bosanquet (d. 1767), a big flat monument in pale and coloured marble, with inscription on the end of the bier, nicely symmetrical folds of shroud framing it, and below, a frieze of the good Samaritan. It is signed WC. The frieze has the principal figures as the collapsed central figure, clutching his chest, resting under a big tree. He is held by a middle-eastern draped figure with turban, pouring balm onto his wounded chest, while to the right his horse looks on sympathetically. Two more distant Persian-looking figures wend their way towards a castle. Comparable with the tympanum of the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, nearby.

Next, the remarkable monument to William Baker (d. 1770), with plaque showing two classically dressed girls, one a Justice figure, the other bearing a cornucopia, a turbaned man leading a camel and holding an incense burner, a cow, a horse, and a sheep, a cherub and a boy holding a beaver, typically found in sculpture as an allegory of Canada. Irresistible.

Then, in the next decade, the most important monument, by the estimable John Bacon Senior, to Lady Miller (d.1784) – she of the Batheaston Vase in the Royal Victoria Park. Her monument has two girls, an urn on a pillar with a roundel showing her portrait, all these conventional elements combined with liveliness and movement to the pose. The urn bears some points of resemblance, and difference, to the Batheaston vase.

And another interesting work is the monument to Andrew Barkley (d. 1790), alas with no signature to identify it. Again a standard composition – urn with portrait of the deceased, with on one side, a mourning girl cross legged, leaning on elbow, and on the other, angel looking skywards, but all with a very Baroque treatment and the drapery repaying much study.

Nollekins’ monument of Col. Alexander Champion (d. 1793) has a beautifully draped angel, supporting shield with head and shoulders portrait of the deceased wearing Roman attire, various accoutrements strewn around base.

The John Sibthorp Monument (d1796) is apparently due to Flaxman. A plaque shows the subject, a botanical Professor, in profile, stepping off the prow of a ship onto land, a temple in the background. He carries a herb, and wears a short classical wrap, and has a wide brimmed hat on his back.

A little later, also by Flaxman and this time clearly signed, is the monument to William Bingham, native and senator of the US. Two angels, wings raised, holding a wreath in each hand, flank the inscription. Elegantly simple, like his drawings.

Another important sculptor of the time, John Bacon Jr, is represented by the Katencamp memorial – a rounded urn festooned with flowers, lovingly clasped by a girl, who in typical Bacon fashion has clinging drapes revealing rather than concealing her full figure.

There are several monuments by the local stonemasons Reeves and Sons – the Moffat monument has already been noted. The best is the monument to Joseph Sill (d. 1824). A beautiful classical girl leans her elbow on the bier, legs crossed in the usual late 18th/early 19th C fashion. A superior work. What a contrast to the earlier plaque to Balfour (d. 1791), with a fat flying cherub gliding downward, holding the inscription to the deceased on an unfurling scroll. The plaque to Lady Cosby (d. 1817) by the same hand has a conventional, neat Greek pot with a drape and flame.

We note en passant the small bronze portrait to Admiral Arthur Phillip, founder and first Governor of Australia, d. 1814, and the Harington monument (d.1816) showing an organ and music.

Next a more substantial monument, to Josiah Thomas, Archdeacon (d.1820), by Sebastian Gahagan (brother to Lucius Gahagan of Bath) – a standing girl with bible and crusader shield, Greek in attire, in front of a Greek pillar, with Greek inscription loosely translating as ‘column of the foundation of truth’. This can be compared with the Champion monument by Gahagan’s teacher, Nollekins, noted above.

The Fletcher Partis plaque (d.1820) echoes the Bosanquet memorial, with a plaque of the Good Samaritan, this time with reversed composition with the dying man held by the turbaned one to the right of a much smaller tree, and the horse to the left, and two rather more sketchy background figs climbing a hill. A couple of little palms, and oddly, a sapling supported by a stick give local flavour.

The monument to Col. Nooth (d. 1821) has a lion-footed sarcophagus on a plinth, military accessories behind, with a youthful angel trumpeting and holding a bell.

The last of the important monuments are two by the great Chantrey. The earlier is to William Hoare, dated 1825, with a kneeling male angel holding a portrait roundel. Nine years later is the Richard Bickerton Monument. A draped funeral urn bearing Bickerton’s name, partly covered, stands on a blocky plinth with roundel portrait of the subject. A young Greek girl with long, loose hair kneels against this plinth. Her face is in classical repose, her emotion conveyed by the pose of her shoulders and her hands.

All the monuments after this date are rather humble, though we might mention a font with four carved angels dating from 1874, and three saints and a bishop, also 19th Century, around the altar.

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