Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Whichcote Memorial, Aswarby

click photo to enlarge
The church of St Denys at Aswarby, Lincolnshire, has this fine memorial on the south wall of its nave. It records the death of Marian, Lady Whichcote, daughter of Henry Beckett Esq., and wife of Sir Thomas Whichcote, Bart. It notes that she was born on 27th April 1820, married on 10th July 1839, and died on 10th May 1849. The inscription ends with a verse from the Od Testament's Book of Micah. Aswarby Hall, the grand house in which she lived her short life is no more: but the Victorian stables remain, and were converted into a house in 1969. Also evident, though perhaps less well tended than in her day, is the park in which the Hall was situated. The small village of Aswarby has a number of stone-built "estate houses" in the Tudor style. They would have been for people who worked on the Hall's large estate, and were under construction around the time of Lady Whichcote's death.

I see a lot of Victorian memorials during my visits to churches. Most are fairly formulaic, some are deliberately innovative (with varying degrees of success), and others are fine compositions, often in expensive materials. And then there is a group that is distinguished by the high quality of its figure sculpture. This piece at Aswarby is such an example. It is by the Scottish sculptor, Thomas Campbell (1790-1858), a man who was apprenticed to a marble cutter in Edinburgh, who went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools in London, and who opened a studio in Rome in 1819. There he made portrait busts of English visitors to that city, as well as of Pope Pius VII. In 1829 he relocated to London producing marble busts and reliefs. His subjects included members of the aristocracy, poets, politicians and others. His relief of the actress Sarah Siddons (d.1831), has similarities with that of Lady Whichcote: the figure is in vaguely classical dress, in a classical pose, below an arch in a pedimented frame.

I've admired the sculpture shown in today's photograph since I first saw it about seven years ago. The pose, the handling of drapery, the composition with stool, book (displaying the Lord's Prayer) and lamp, all work wonderfully well. However, there is one thing that has always puzzled me - the snake. Pevsner says it is there as a symbol of eternity. But I think he is wrong. Where a snake is used for that purpose it invariably has its own tail in its mouth making an endless loop or sinuous shape. Snakes (serpents) usually represent the Devil, but I can't believe that is the case here. A grasped or downtrodden snake symbolises triumph over sin, but isn't applicable here either. Mounted on a staff a snake can be used to represent Christ, and God's authority. This idea comes from Moses saving the Israelites from a plague of snakes by raising a bronze snake on a pole, and is the reason for the use of a snake on a pole to represent healing. It seems to me that these are more likely explanations for its presence, particularly since the flame probably signifies the Holy Spirit.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 58mm (116mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/50
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On