Saturday 19 September 2020

A Monument and a Mineral

Yes, a church monument! This is like old times... I came across this one in the church of St Nicholas, Chiswick, an old church largely rebuilt by Pearson in the 1880s, with the low broad aisles and ornate screens of a West Country church. For a wonder, it was (partly) open, and there, in the South chapel, was this fine alabaster monument, to one Sir Thomas Challoner, who died in 1615. What struck me about it was the curious combination of an old-fashioned central composition – man and wife facing each other in prayer – and the decidedly Baroque drama of the framing, with curtains swept back from a semi-circular canopy (Doric, with a pyramidal top) and, especially, the dashing figures of the two armed servants holding back those curtains. These figures are full of life, and carved with brio. Indeed, even the kneeling figures are very much livelier than most (and Sir Thomas's lady has her hair swept high in fashionable style). This monument, which has benefited from a recent restoration, seems to be the work of someone who really knew what they were doing – was it a foreign monument maker, or one of our own? Sadly, no one knows.
   What we know about Sir Thomas is that, as well as being a successful courtier, he introduced the manufacture of (potassium) alum to England, thereby ending the nation's dependence on the Papal States and Spain for this versatile mineral, widely used in tanning, dyeing and medicine. Sir Thomas had a cousin, also called Thomas, who, while prospecting for minerals in Ireland, recognised that certain plants grew where the minerals required for alum were present – and that those same plants grew on Sir Thomas's estate at Guisborough (the former priory lands, gifted to Sir Thomas's father). Challoner picked up on the hint, and so was born the English alum industry. It was to devastate the landscape of Northeast Yorkshire for years to come, as cliffs were quarried, forests felled for charcoal, and the land polluted by sulphuric acid and toxic ash. There's always a down side...

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