Sunday 29 April 2018

Not That Cranford

Yesterday I went to Cranford. No, not that one* – my destination was Cranford Park, one of those curious survivals of ancestral parkland that dot the outer fringes of West London. This one lies almost literally in the shadow of the M4. Approaching on foot from the North, you follow a succession of unlovely suburban streets until you come to a pedestrian subway that passes under the motorway – and you emerge on the other side into another world, one of decayed parkland, huge old trees, lush grass and new-growth woodland through which paths lead in all directions. The roar of the motorway is unignorable, but mute the soundtrack and you'd never think you were anywhere near London.
  Following the high brick wall of what must have been a kitchen garden – now in use as a community orchard – I came to the dismal 18th-century stable block that is all that remains of the demolished great house. And there, its brick and stone tower showing among the trees, was my target, the little church of St Dunstan with Holy Angels. My researches had led me here to see a tomb by William Cure II, one of a dynasty of monument makers of Dutch origin who did much distinguished work over here. I knew, too, that the church has a monument by Nicholas Stone, but as it's one that seldom gets much of a mention (and I'd never seen a picture), I wasn't expecting anything very exciting.
  So I was in for a glorious surprise. Stone's marble effigy of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley – who, 'after her pious pilgrimage of 59 yeares, surrendered her soule into the hands of her redeemer, the 23rd day of Aprill, anno domini 1635' – is one of his most beautiful. Sculpted in surprisingly low relief, it shows Lady Elizabeth lying atop her tomb chest in a relaxed pose, knees to one side, as if peacefully asleep – but in her shroud. This is quite extraordinary: a shrouded effigy is usually portrayed as if dead or at the point of death (as in John Donne's stark monument in St Paul's, also by Stone), but Lady Elizabeth is clearly alive, and young, and beautiful. The shroud is knotted above her head, but most of her lovely face is exposed, as are her elegant hands – this is more of a posing shroud than a burial shroud; it sets off the beauty of the body, and has no point to make about its imminent corruption.
  Elizabeth Carey's mother was the scholarly Elizabeth Spencer, patron of the arts and muse of Edmund Spenser, and she was as scholarly as her mother, and as interested in the arts. At the age of 18, she translated two of Petrarch's sonnets into English, and she was the dedicatee of Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night and Peter Erondelle's The French Garden. She married Sir Thomas Berkeley at 19, and it might well have been at their wedding that A Midsummer Night's Dream was first performed in public. Elizabeth certainly danced in one of Ben Jonson's masques.
  Unfortunately Sir Thomas was ruinously extravagant, running up colossal debts, to the point that Elizabeth had to take over the management of his affairs and, with the Berkeley family steward John Smyth, the whole management of their various households. By the time Sir Thomas died, at the age of 37, most of his debts had been paid, thanks to Elizabeth's shrewd management, and she had enough money to buy the Cranford estate (from the co-heirs of Sir Robert Aston, whose monument faces hers across the chancel of St Dunstan's). After a short second marriage, she lived her latter years at Cranford, 'amongst [according to John Smyth] her thousands of books'.

A curious Cranford footnote: in the churchyard is a memorial tablet to the comedian Tony Hancock and his mother. Hancock's ashes were placed just outside the then boundary of the consecrated burial ground, as he was a suicide. A depressive alcoholic, he took his life in an apartment in Sydney, and his ashes were retrieved by Willie Rushton, who happened to be in the country, and brought back to England in his luggage.

* The original of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford is Knutsford in Cheshire.

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