Monday, 9 February 2015

Lichfield

I was strolling around Lichfield on Saturday - a fine city, with a handsome but homely old town of red brick, sandstone and black-and-white, a market square with a grand (ex-)church, a string of large ponds, and everywhere you look the famous three spires of the great cathedral. It was in Lichfield that Samuel Johnson was born and spent the first 27 years of his life, in the house of his bookseller father - which, happily, still stands, is open to the public and now houses England's second 'Dr Johnson's House' (the other being on Gough Square in London). It's a pleasant house to visit - all creaking boards and twisting stairs and small rooms with undulating floors - with a warmer and more welcoming feel than the London house, informative displays presented with a light touch, and even a rather wonderful second-hand bookshop downstairs.
 Lichfield also has the charming Erasmus Darwin house, larger and more imposing than the Johnson house - in fact very handsome - and with displays inside that must be doing a great job in bringing the Grandfather of the More Famous Charles some of the recognition he deserves, as natural philosopher, poet, inventor, physician, thinker and all-round good egg. His physic garden has also been recreated and must be quite something in the summer months.
 And then there's the heartrender, which caught me unawares. In the southeast corner of the cathedral stands a monument every bit as moving as the great memorial to Penelope Boothby in St Oswald's church in nearby Ashbourne. The Lichfield monument, by Sir Fancis Chantrey, is known as The Sleeping Children, and made a huge impact in its day (it was initially displayed at the Royal Academy) and into the Victorian period. The children asleep in one another's arms - the younger holding a little posy of snowdrops - are Ellen-Jane and Marianne Robinson, daughters of Mrs Ellen-Jane Robinson, whose husband, a prebendary of the cathedral, had died of tuberculosis in 1812, at the age of 35, leaving her widowed with two young daughters. The following year, Ellen-Jane (the elder daughter) died of burns after her nightdress caught fire while she was preparing for bed. Then, in 1814, the younger daughter, Marianne, fell ill and died during a visit to London. In three years, Mrs Robinson had been trebly bereaved, losing her entire family. It is hard to imagine how anyone could survive such an onslaught, hard to conceive the sheer strength of faith and hope required. The children's epitaph concludes thus:

              '...Their affectionate mother
In fond remembrance of their "heav'n-lov'd innocence",
        Consigns their resemblances to this sanctuary,
                    In humble gratitude
            For the glorious assurance that
          "Of such is the kingdom of God".'

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