Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral contains a bit of Victorian funerary sculpture, and much more impressive earlier things. Architecturally, Rochester Cathedral dates back in parts to early Norman times, having been started in 1080 - survivals of this period include parts of the Nave and the atmospheric crypt. Much of the rest dates from the rebuilding in Gothic style which started at the end of the 12th Century. The surrounding Priory was dissolved in 1540 by Henry VIII, and only slight ruins survive. Finally, there were major renovations in the 19th Century - though largely based on what had been there previously. This 19th C restoration was by Gilbert Scott, L. N. Cottingham, J. L. Pearson (refacing of the West Front 1889 and some interior work), and C. H. Fowler (central tower 1904).

Sculpture on the exterior includes the much weathered specimens on the main entrance, and 2 more modern figures in niches with Kourios smiles, early bishops holding Cathedral and Castle. Round the side lie the remnants of the Dominican Priory, including arches and doorways with weathered fragmentary sculpture (12th Century) of Caen stone. In the garden is a well-situated bronze Mother and Child by John Doubleday.

The most interesting sculptures inside are the effigies of medieval bishops, the famous Bishops of Rochester, whose London seat, incidentally, was Lambeth Palace. There seem to be three of the effigies around the altar, but these cannot be examined at close hand. However, two others can. The earlier one is John de Bradfield, a late 12th C Bishop, a flattened and headless effigy in granite. The flattening is probably due to the hard, uncompromising nature of the stone, and it is noticeable that the draperies, too, are not deeply cut. The other effigy is to the left of the Altar area, John de Sheppey, Bishop in the mid-14th C. The figure is much battered, but the painted features can be seen. Characteristically rather blank expression, with no apparent attempt at naturalism or a likeness, and also typical, the too small and naïvely structured hands. There is a contrast to the robes, which are well modelled, especially the sleeves, though the cloth on the front of the figure would be unlikely to hang as they are portrayed.

At the back of the Cathedral is the Chapter Room Doorway erected by another 14th Century Bishop, Hamo de Hythe. In a state of excellent preservation (and restoration), carved saints on chairs go rocketlike up the sides of the arch, with lots of extra small heads etc. There are 19th Century restorations to two of the figures on the left, but the rest are typical of the period, each piece like a solid squat block, characteristically crouched forward in their chairs - look at the Jerome reading, right.

So much for the earliest sculpture. Skipping forward to the 17th Century, the next monument, on the outside of the Lady Chapel, is the very beaten up one to William Stretton, 9 times Mayor of Rochester, d. 1609. This must once have been a very typical early 17th Century monument, with two figures, man and wife, kneeling on small tasselled cushions and facing one another, across a central casket, hands raised in prayer. Pillars on either side, and these supporting a single or double arch - it looks here as if there were two arches, with a central pillar, now lost, central and behind the casket. All that is left now are the two torsoes, with quite highly worked drapery on the woman.

Other 17th Century work, much later, includes plaques to Baronet Richard Head, d. 1689 - a flat portrait with flowing wig, almost ¾ face, finely done but self important; and on the left hand side, a plaque to Archdeacon Lee Warner d. 1698, with kneeling obese pair of ridiculous cherubs above, holding open curtains.

In the transept, among 19th Century work to be discussed in a moment, is a painted bust of Richard Watts, erected 1736. Not a very dignified effort, this man set up the charity for which a building may be seen in Rochester High Street (see main Rochester page).

Jumping forward to the close of the 18th Century, are two of the most impressive monuments, next to each other on the right hand wall. The monument to Dame Anne Henniker shows a casket front in high relief, flanked by two free standing figures. Left, a bare breasted angel, eyes and one arm raised, and right Time- bald, winged, bearing scythe/hoe with hourglass, sitting hulkingly on a rock. This figure is extremely well executed, but the overall impression is slightly histrionic. The whole effort is in Coade stone, and dated 1793.

The monument to John, Lord Henniker, d. 1803, is more self conscious. Again a central casket end, with grieving bosomy woman on left, lounging in typical late 18th/early 19th Century fashion, with legs crossed and leaning elbow on the casket. A very fine statue, with excellent feminine face and clinging draperies, and holding small nest with pelican, wings wide, sheltering several of its young - a Catholic symbol of self-sacrifice. At her feet is a portrait medallion shield of the deceased - - plumpish, yet with strength to features. To the right, a more formal and severe crowned Victory stands holding a wreath above the casket. Underneath, small panels show what seems to be two views of Rochester Castle. For this work, we have a signature - J. Bacon jun. sculpt. London 1806. A prolific sulptor of funerary monuments, his work can also be seen in St Pauls and Westminster Abbey.

Some 19th Century work is in the South Transept, next to the Lady Chapel. There is a strongly featured bust of William Franklin d. 1833, in classical garb, sculpted by a certain Samuel Joseph, and the medallion profile of James Forbes, d. 1837 is also in a classical setting. Contrast the whiskered profile of Joseph Maas, singer and musician, d. 1886.by J. Currie of Oxford St West.

The central monument to Dean Samuel Reynolds Hole actually dates from past the turn of the century, 1904, and combines fairly simple treatment of the drapery with an excellently modelled head. The sculptor was F. W. Pomeroy, who conceived four of the enormous figures on Vauxhall Bridge (in another association with the architect J. L. Pearson). Pearson's central stone choir screen also holds eight standing figures of saints, bishops etc, in a good taste, elaborate, slightly elongated late 19th Century medieval style. The larger than life effigy of Walter de Merton, Chancellor and Bishop of Rochester during the 13th Century, would also appear to be turn of the century in date. One more piece of late 19th Century sculpture is the font, by Thomas Earp, 1893, with four groups of figures in semicircular pillared arches, each separated by two single standing figures in narrower pointed arches.

It is also worth noting the good 19th and early 20th Century stained glass in a variety of styles, with perhaps the most effective being that in the West Front windows. Fragmentary much older glass may be found in the crypt.

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Rochester // Victorian art in Britain // Cathedrals and churches

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