Granite responses to an age in flux

Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England
April 5, 2002

The funerary monuments of early modern England are an underestimated resource. The demise of biography-based history means that we are indifferent to the lives of those whom they commemorate. Art historians dismiss them as aesthetically inferior, objects to be endured until we reach the glories of Roubiliac and Scheemakers. An art historian once said to me: "Nicholas Stone's all very well, but he's not Bernini, is he?" Well, no, but he knew about Bernini, and sent his son to see him. Added to this is the difficulty, except in the case of Stone, who kept a liber veritatis , of establishing a corpus of monuments that can certainly be ascribed to an individual atelier.

This last difficulty has begun to be tackled, thanks to scholars such as Jon Bayliss, John Broome and Adam White. Now Nigel Llewellyn corrects the false approaches that have beleaguered the study of 16th and 17th-century tombs. He sets out to free early modern funerary sculpture from the Italocentric obsession of conventional art historians: the monuments are not primarily to be approached aesthetically, but, like so much else of the time, for their didactic and moral content. They were meant to please the mind, not the eye. They stand for continuity, power and virtue, not loss, grief and virtu.

Llewellyn places the monuments in the troubled context of the English reformation. The social upheavals of the 15th and 16th centuries meant that continuity was craved by private persons and the state alike - but in the context of disjunction: of new dynasties, new religion, new men. There was an almost complete separation between the purposes of pre and post-Reformation funerary monuments; the latter, shorn of their eschatological purpose, were often an attempt to add antiquity to a bald and unconvincing genealogy.

Besides this sociological and historical placement, Llewellyn gives a clear and interesting explication of the monument industry, discussing the process of ordering, the contribution of the patron, the distribution of the monuments and the materials used. The book is lavishly illustrated, and the variety of monuments shown emphasises the richness of this comparatively neglected aspect of art.

For, despite Llewellyn's reservations, this is art, and there are limitations to his approach. He discusses the monuments as aspects of visual culture, and talks of their sociopolitical importance, but deals with epitaphs only briefly, and scarcely links the monuments to the form to which they are closely allied: the emblem. Here, text and image are interdependent: to separate them is to diminish both. Llewellyn is following a traditional division in funerary studies - books of epitaphs omit their visual context; the photographic collections at the Courtauld and the National Monuments Record do not include inscriptions. How much is lost from this unnatural divorce is shown by two monuments - there is an exquisite epitaph legible on that to Mrs Campion (d. 1632, Baginton, Warwickshire), where elaborate neo-platonic word-play is set off by the elegant architectural frame; while Stone's monument to the Lyttleton brothers (d. 1635, Magdalen College, Oxford) depends on the epitaph's explanation of the circumstances of their deaths by drowning for a full understanding of the figures, with their combination of classical heroism, discarded shrouds and wet towels.

The Lyttleton memorial pinpoints another area in which Llewellyn's touch is less than sure. Funerary monuments of this date may not conform to a familiar aesthetic, but they can be remarkably beautiful. This one is exquisite, and there are many other such delights: Stone's Lady Carey, Edward Marshall's Lady Culpepper and Lady Bruce of Kinlosse. Some of Llewellyn's illustrations bring out the beauty of their subjects, but this is not the reason that they have been chosen, and any appreciation he gives it is a bonus.

It is true that their locations make such appreciation difficult, but to imply that these objects have mainly historical importance is to undervalue them. Nor is Llewellyn concerned to decipher the full meaning of the monuments. There is a large component of allegory and symbolism, which invites the appreciation of the discerning observer, but he spends little time on this. He is sceptical about how many of those who saw the monuments would be capable of any greater appreciation than awe at others' wealth and power.

Funerary monuments are the area in which people present themselves, or their families, as they wish to be seen. Llewellyn deals well - often brilliantly - with the presentation of the public person, but what of the private visions? They are documents in the history of emotion: when Grace Pole (d. 1636, Charminster, Dorset) looks up into a vision of heaven in which infant angels carry the two infant sons who died before her, John Latch parts the shroud over his wife's face for a last kiss (1644, Churchill, Somerset) and Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines share a monument with much of the imagery of marriage (1684, Christ's College, Cambridge); we are invited to share their feelings. Llewellyn stresses the emotional difference of the monument builders from modern people, but their monuments are also the point at which we may come emotionally closest to them.

Despite these limitations, this is an important work, not only for those interested in monumental sculpture and the culture of death, but for historians, art historians and cultural anthropologists. It is disgraceful that its production standards are so low. The proof-reading is deplorable, with errors of fact and presentation, for which author and press must share responsibility. Llewellyn is to be congratulated; Cambridge University Press should be ashamed.

Jean Wilson is adjunct professor of English, Boston University, Massachusetts, United States.

Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England

Author - Nigel Llewellyn
ISBN - 0 521 78257 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 471

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