Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Monument – and a Walk

A glorious autumn day yesterday (and another one today), so I was off into the country for a walk – one that would happily combine with a church visit. Taking the train to Ashurst in the Weald of Kent, I walked South and East and back over the Sussex border to Withyham, where the church of St Michael and All Angels houses the Sackville Chapel, in which stands one of the finest church monuments of its time.
 It commemorates Thomas Sackville, who died in 1675 at the age of 13, his father, who died two years later, and his mother.  The grieving parents kneel beside the chest tomb on which their dying son lies, their anguished faces turned towards him, their postures eloquently expressive of their grief. It's an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, very Baroque (Italian by way of Dutch Baroque) but with the inward, unself-conscious melancholy of monuments from an earlier time.
 While the figures on most Baroque monuments are thoroughly self-conscious, turning their pose and gaze outward to an imagined audience, in this one the grieving parents seem quite unaware of any presence but that on which they are so intensely focused – their dying son. This makes it a great rarity for its time, and a much greater and more moving work of art than many another carved and designed with equal skill. And skilful the Sackville monument is, the figures and clothing far more convincingly carved than the generically similar Ashburnham monument by John Bushnell (as written about elsewhere on this blog). The relief carvings on the sides of the tomb chest, showing the dead boy's siblings, are beautifully done too. It's impossible not to be reminded of Epiphanius Evesham's work, especially the Lewin monument at Otterden.
 The maker of the great Sackville monument was Caius Gabriel Cibber, a Danish sculptor who worked successfully in England (among other things, he carved the impressive relief at the base of the Monument in the City of London). He was paid £350 for the Withyham monument – not a huge sum for such an ambitious work – and full payment was apparently dependent on the finished work being to 'ye well liking of Mr Peter Lilly [Lely], his majesty's painter'. Presumably this proviso was to ensure that the likenesses of the parents – the Earl and Countess of Dorset – were satisfactory. Amazingly, considering the quality of the Sackville monument, Cibber seems never to have made another church monument. Perhaps this one was too far out of the ordinary run of English Baroque monuments of the time, too out of kilter with fashionable taste.
 And then I went to the pub – the Dorset Arms – for a little lunch, and walked back over the rolling, wooded hills of the Weald in glorious autumn sunshine. Wide views, enamel blue skies, the endlessly varied colours of the turning leaves and ripening hedgerow fruits... Is there anything better than walking in the English countryside on a sunny autumn day?

8 comments:

  1. Cibber is also, I believe, the sculptor who carved the rather weather-beaten Charles II in Soho Square

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  2. I wonder if he's related to Colley Cibber, the butt of much of Alexander Pope's satire....

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  3. He is indeed, Paul – and he also carved two quite extraordinary figures representing Melancholy Madness and Raving Madness for the Bedlam hospital. I believe they can still be seen at the hospital's modern incarnation in Beckenham. And yes Guy, he was Colley Cibber's father.

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  4. I've got a feeling those statues get a mention in the Dunciad......

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  5. Yes they do, characterised as Colley Cibber's 'brothers'!

    Close to those walls where Folly holds her throne,
    And laughs to think Monroe would take her down,
    Where o’er the gates, by his famed by father’s hand
    Great Cibber’s brazen, brainless brothers stand...

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