Friday 2 February 2018

A Monumental Binge

For all its many charms, Wellington has no buildings that a visiting Brit would count as old – nothing, indeed, built before the mid-19th century, and therefore no old churches. The church known as 'Old St Paul's' is an interesting wooden building of the 1860s in a rather confused Gothic style – by English standards neither old nor beautiful. Wellington Cathedral (also dedicated to St Paul) is a much larger building of reinforced concrete which blends streamlined Gothic with more modernist elements. Begun in the 1950s and completed late in the 1990s, its spacious interior works quite well, but there's nothing to lift the soul – and, of course, nothing old. As for church monuments, New Zealand is too young a country to have any.
 So, after a month of ecclesiological drought, today I decided to treat myself to a monumental binge – a visit to Westminster Abbey. I hadn't been for some years, and thought it would be a good idea to wallow in all those monuments – and so it was, if only to confirm me in my view that English funerary sculpture was, by and large, sorry stuff until foreign influences (and refugees) brought about a brilliant golden age in the early decades of the 17th century, after which the Baroque style got out of hand, with often ludicrous results,  neo-classicism made matters worse, and then came the long decline through the Victorian period, until finally it was all over bar the lettering.
 Too many of the monuments in Westminster Abbey (and there are too many monuments in this abbey - they're everywhere) are monstrously overblown products of the period from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries – decidedly public monuments to public men (and a few women), displaying 'the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power' and over-asserting the all-round magnificence of their (often forgotten) subjects. This is entirely fitting for a grand church at the very centre of national power, but it makes for a far from numinous space, especially when thronged with tourists, garishly over-lit and loud with the noise of building work, chair stacking and general Abbey busyness. Still, it's always worth a visit – even, perhaps, worth the £22 entrance fee (£17 to oldsters like me) – if only to marvel at the tombs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (Torrigiano), Elizabeth I (Maximilian Colt, Flemish) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Cornelius and William Cure, of Dutch origin) and the monuments by Nicholas Stone and others of the all too brief golden age. 


  1. Goodness, 22 pounds? Could one pretend to be a devout Anglican, sit through a bit of the service, and then have a look around?

    The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited by W.H. Auden, includes a letter to Lord John Russell, dated November 19th, 1837, on the matter of charging two pence for admission to St. Paul's. He mentions "the extreme injustice of exhibiting a national gallery of Sculpture at the expense of individuals who have (undeservedly perhaps) permitted the Church to which they are the Guardians to be turned to such a use", and also the crowds: "It has happened that in less than an hour between 2000 and 3000 people have entered the Church, many of them of the lowest description with their hats on laughing taking and making an uproar totally incompatible with any idea of religion."

  2. Great stuff - thanks for that, George. 'Extreme injustice' indeed. You can get in free for Choral Evensong, I gather, but they make sure you don't go off exploring.
    The price tag has one obvious effect - the place is full of tourists, with very few 'natives' in evidence.