Saturday, 28 June 2014

Back from D****shire

Yes, I've been up in the Peak District for a couple of days, where in Wirksworth all the talk is of the StarDisc - that rather wonderful work which I've mentioned here before. It has just been shortlisted for the National Lottery Arts Awards, and it deserves your vote - you can vote here...
 Revisiting Ashbourne was a joy. This is a fine and flourishing town, full of handsome buildings, including the house of John Taylor, Dr Johnson's old schoolfriend, whom he often visited. A most unclerical cleric, Taylor's chief interest lay in his herd of milch-cows - the finest in Derbyshire - but he read the service at Johnson's funeral.
 Also in Ashbourne, in the tall-spired church of St Oswald, is one of the finest and most touching of all English church monuments - that of Penelope Boothby, exquisitely carved in Carrara marble by Thomas Banks in 1791. It shows the little girl - she was just five when she died - lying on her side as if peacefully asleep. Life-sized and life-like, it is all the more heart-breaking for the contrast with the relatively stiff and formulaic effigies of other Boothbies in the family chapel in which it stands - and for the fact that Penelope is turned away from them all, toward us alone.
 Penelope's father, Brooke Boothby, was the subject of a famous portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (above), in which he reclines in a sylvan setting, with a volume of Rousseau in his hand. This was painted ten years before his daughter's death and, though he too lies on his right side, the contrast between the two images could hardly be starker.
 Brooke Boothby never really recovered from losing his only daughter, and wrote a book of sonnets dedicated to her memory. Sonnet XII describes the monument in Ashbourne church:

Well has thy classick chisel, Banks, express'd
The graceful lineaments of that fine form,
Which late with conscious, living beauty warm,
Now here beneath does in dread silence rest.
And, oh, while life shall agitate my breast,
Recorded there exists her every charm,
In vivid colours, safe from change or harm,
Till my last sigh unalter'd love attest.
That form, as fair as ever fancy drew,
The marble cold, inanimate, retains;
But of the radiant smile that round her threw
Joys, that beguiled my soul of mortal pains,
And each divine expression's varying hue,
A little senseless dust alone remains.

More eloquent are the words inscribed on that monument: 'She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate Parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.' 


  1. Quite sublime Nige. The wonderful English painting, the statue and the painful sonnet and inscription. "dread silence" - how terrible.

  2. The Penelope Boothby monument is one of the most touching I have ever seen. I have taken many visitors to St Oswald's over the years and when they have looked at this sweetest of sculptures and read that pain-wracked inscription each one has been affected.

    Little Penelope was painted, aged four, by Sir Joshua Reynolds - the painting sometimes known as "The Mob Cap" - and she looks a most delightful child.

    Lovely piece, Nige!

  3. Thanks, both. There is also a Fuseli painting, The Aoptheosis of Penelope Boothby, in which an angel sweeps the little girl up to Heaven. There's more grief than art in it...