Monday 24 July 2017

A Visit to Egham

Egham, an unlovely semi-suburban Surrey town on the opposite side of the Thames from Staines, is the kind of place you wouldn't be inclined to visit without good reason. My reason was, of course, research: St John's church in Egham contains two monuments to members of the Denham family, both of which are well worth the time of any monument man.
 The church, conveniently near the station, stands in a large churchyard, an enclave of old Egham in a town centre that, for the most part, looks much like any other. The church - a big, ugly Georgian rebuild in yellow brick and stone - shows evidence of being a thriving institution with a taste for evangelism (an impression confirmed by its website). It has been much extended and modernised in recent times and is the very model of an urban evangelical church. Though it opens for a couple of hours on Mondays, I fancy this is not for the benefit of antiquarian thrill-seekers like me.
 I entered with trepidation, and was greeted cordially by a man and a woman, neither of whom, to my relief, had the evangelical glint in their eyes. 'I'm here to have a look at the Denham monuments,' I declared breezily. A puzzled silence ensued; they clearly knew of no Denham monuments. 'I'm pretty sure they're in here somewhere,' I persisted, and the woman volunteered to help me find them, after I'd wandered round the body of the church and into the vestry and found no Denham monuments. She took a key and led me into the vestibule and up to the gallery to check the monuments there: nothing. This was odd.
  As we were going down the stairs from the gallery, I looked up at the opposite wall - and there, above us, was Sir John Denham*, rising from the grave in triumph, his shroud still over his head, the tomb beneath him a riot of skeletons and cadavers. 'I'd never noticed that,' said the woman, impressed. After admiring it a while, I set out to find the other Denham monument - could it be...? Yes, it was in exactly the same position on the other staircase to the gallery. A less dramatic affair than Sir John's monument, it portrays his two wives, with a baby and a free-standing miniature child. The design is brilliant, obviously Italian-inspired, and the figures of the two women (especially the one holding the baby) are full of life and wonderfully expressive. It looks like nothing else of its time. According to the Oxford DNB, there is good reason to think it might be by - yes - Epiphanius Evesham. The presence of this monument too was news to my guides, and they seemed glad to have noticed it. It's certainly prettier than Sir John's memorial.
 Visiting churches these days, you rarely meet the likes of the Rev. Henry D'Ascoyne (from Kind Hearts and Coronets) - 'I always say that my West window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of the period' - and that's no bad thing: it can be very tedious being shown round a church by an enthusiast who knows the building and its history in rather too much detail. On the other hand, it does seem odd that often the custodians of our churches, the believers who keep them functioning - even thriving - as places of worship, are often unaware of much of the beauty and interest of their buildings. But at least they are preventing them from falling into disuse, and are keeping Christian worship alive, even if in forms that some of us might find problematic. If we aesthetes, monument men and High Anglican sentimentalists were to take over the job, we surely wouldn't make much of a fist of it.

* Father of the poet.

1 comment:

  1. Marvellous. I share your enjoyment of these sculptures and thank you for them. Love the drama of the resurrection with its 'riot of cadavers and skeletons.' And is that unusual to have his two wives depicted together like that? Love the way their attitudes and dispositions give a sense of passing time like a line of Scottish Kings stretching to the crack of doom. I've sometimes found that the moment that babies turn into 'free-standing miniature children,' breaking out of the frame, is a dangerous one.