Monday, 24 October 2016

Wows Unavoidable: The Montagu Monuments

Here's a coincidence and a half. When I was in the V&A the other day, making my way to the Opus Anglicanum exhibition [see below], I spotted a couple of small-scale models for church monuments by Roubiliac. They looked interesting, and I made a mental note of the monuments' whereabouts, in a place called Warkton in Northamptonshire. The next day, my Derbyshire cousin (who knew nothing of this brief encounter in the V&A) forwarded to me an account of a restoration project that had been sent to her by a friend with an interest in such things. It was the restoration of the Roubiliac monuments and two others, all to members of the Montagu family, in the church of St Edmund, Warkton.
 Clearly this was a sign, so on Saturday the cousin and I duly set off across three county boundaries to see for ourselves these remarkable monuments in their newly restored condition. They occupy the custom-built chancel of the parish church of a small, pretty (and publess) village northeast of Kettering, where they look entirely out of place, fabulously grandiose - and utterly stunning. There is no other word for the concussing impact of all that sparkling white marble, flooded in clear light from the huge east window. Involuntary 'Wow!'s are unavoidable. In art-historical terms, this is a collection of monuments of international importance, and there is nothing else like it in any English church.
 The two Roubiliac monuments whose models I had seen are to John, 2nd Duke of Montagu (d.1749), and Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu (d.1751). Lady Mary is figured in the first monument as the grieving widow, her anguished face upturned to a medallion portrait of the Duke.
The pose is, of course, mannered, but the carving of the dress, the right hand and the Duke's various honours laid out for all to see is quite exquisite.
To the right of the monument, the figure of Charity holds up the medallion portrait of the great man, while one of three children/putti (possibly representing the Montagus' three lost children) sheds a tear. Spilling out of the body of the monument are cannon and shot and other martial items emblematic of Montagu's role as the 18th-century equivalent of Minister of Defence.
 The other Roubiliac monument is every bit as much a bravura display of the sculptor's art, but is made to a rather more artificial scheme. The muse Clotho spins out the thread of life, only for it to be cut by the shears of Atropos (her left hand resting on a skull, along with Clotho's right foot), to the horror of an onlooking Lachesis. Meanwhile two putti are busy adorning Mary's memorial urn.

As if these two stunning monuments were not enough, there's a third, equally brilliant but in a different manner, by another expatriate foreigner, the Dutchman Peter Mathias Van Gelder. He worked with Robert Adam, and it shows in the design of the niche in which the monument stands, and in the neoclassical style of the sculpture. It commemorates Lady Mary Montagu, Duchess of Montagu, and represents her care for distressed women, widows and orphans. The figures are quite beautifully realised, especially the angel who bends over the grieving woman and points heavenward.

The fourth and latest memorial of the quartet, sculpted by the Scotsman Thomas Campbell, is the simplest in design and the least impressive in effect - an anticlimax after the others, but it hardly matters. The Montagu monuments are a national treasure, a wonder of England. If you find yourself anywhere nearby, make your way to Warkton and be amazed (but telephone the churchwarden first, as the church is often closed in the winter months).
 What the Montagu monuments lack - apart from Christian content (only present in the last) - is true emotional impact, a real sense of grief. The 18th century was not too strong on this aspect of monumental art, but the Victorian period certainly was, and a monument from the 1850s that we came across in the little Derbyshire church of St Katherine, Rowsley (neo-Norman, by Salvin junior) was genuinely moving as well as being beautifully sculpted. It commemorates Lady John Manners and her daughter, who died soon after birth, followed within a fortnight by her mother. The work of a Scottish sculptor, William Calder Marshall, it deserves to be better known.

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