Sunday 28 October 2018

'in his little orb'

Tiny though it is, this is surely one of the most touching and tender monuments in England. It is all the more heart-wrenching for its isolation, lying alone on a window sill in Ickenham church (Middlesex/ London Borough of Hillingdon), having been dug up in the churchyard in 1921. What was its original setting? Did it form part of a larger monument? There is no knowing now.
  The little figure, carved with perfect naturalism, shows Robert Clayton, his eyes closed in death, his shroud wrapped about him. The son of Sir Robert Clayton, an Alderman of the City of London, and his wife Martha, he 'dyed ye 16th August 1665, within a few howres of his birth...' The Claytons were probably in Ickenham to escape the plague.
  They have their own monument – a splendid piece of Dutch-flavoured Baroque (Sacheverell Sitwell calls it 'the finest monument of the Baroque in England')  – in Bletchingley church, in Surrey. The setting for the figures of Sir Robert and Lady Martha is theatrical, almost like a proscenium, but they stand four square and down to earth, with no exaggerated expressive gestures. And between them, at the centre of the monument, lies another little sculpture of their dead son Robert, this time not in his shroud but, more consolingly, in a fine lace-trimmed gown and bonnet. When the Betchingley monument was made, this son had been dead forty years and more – yet still his parents' grief for his loss was alive, and still they wanted to commemorate his few hours of life.
 Why do some historians like to persuade themselves that parents barely mourned their children in pre-modern times? Surely they did, but their mourning was perhaps unlike ours in being tempered by a lively faith in the blessings of heaven. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Jeremy Taylor in 1656: 'Sir – I am in some little disorder by reason of the death of a child of mine, a boy that lately made us very glad. But now he rejoices in his little orb; while we think, and sigh, and long to be as safe as he is.'

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