OUR LOCAL SCULPTURE GALLERY - CHURCH MONUMENTS AROUND ROSS Ross-on-Wye & District Civic Society newsletter Spring 2006 (number 89)
Article by Philip Anderson (Hon Sec)
One of our greatest national treasures is the huge amount of fine sculpture that exists in the form of church monuments up and down the country. They range in date from early medieval nearly up to modern times and many were created by the finest craftsmen of the age. They were set up by the rich and powerful to glorify their lives in this world or to promote the cause of their souls in the next, but today we can enjoy them as great works of art, a veritable poor man's sculpture gallery.
In our area three churches in particular contain excellent examples of monumental sculpture, Ross parish church, Much Marcle and the church at Holme Lacy, now redundant but maintained and kept open by the Churches Conservation Trust. Here is a brief guide to the splendid sculpture that can be seen in them.
For medieval work Much Marcle is the place to visit. The stone effigy of Blanche Mortimer, who died in 1347, has been called "an image as lovely as any bequeathed to us by a medieval church". She was the daughter of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, and married another great nobleman, Sir Peter de Grandison. We can assume therefore that no expense was spared and the quality and delicacy of her effigy is astounding for such an early date. She lies recumbent on her tomb, and her hand lying across her body and fingering her rosary beads is depicted with the utmost refinement. Her gown falls realistically in graceful folds over the edge of the tomb chest.
Nearby is the figure of an unknown man in civilian costume of the mid-14th century, carved out of a solid block of oak, one of less than a hundred such effigies in the country. His costume is depicted in great detail and in recent years he has been painted in appropriate colours, reminding us that in medieval times all these monuments, and indeed other parts of the church, would have been picked out in bright colours.
There is another medieval tomb in stone from the end of the 14th century of an unknown knight and his lady now buried in the Kyrle Chapel. They lie on their backs with their hands clasped in prayer. Her head is supported by two angels and she has two dogs at her feet biting the edge of her gown. The quality is not quite as exceptional as Blanche Mortimer, but in most other churches it would be the "star attraction".
The Tudor and Stuart Era
We have two fine monuments from the Tudor period, Judge William Rudhall at Ross (died 1530) and John Scudamore at Holme Lacy (died 1571). Both these gentlemen are carved in alabaster recumbent with their wives on their tomb chests. Particularly striking is the Annunciation scene carved on the end of the tomb at Ross with Judge William and his family kneeling in front of the Virgin.
In the 17th century the same format of husband and wife lying on their tombs occurs at Ross (John Rudhall, died 1636) and at Much Marcle (Sir John Kyrle made around the same date during his lifetime - he did not die until 1650). In Rudhall's monument the couple touchingly hold hands and a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, presumably relating to a child lost in infancy, strikes a tragic note. Sir John Kyrle's feet rest on a splendid bristling porcupine, his family crest.
Then in 1651 at Ross a different approach was adopted for Col. William Rudhall. He was a local commander of Royalist troops and is shown standing upright, like a statue in a public square, dressed in Roman armour and gazing over the tombs of his ancestors.
Eighteenth Century and Later
Holme Lacy has a remarkable example of a flamboyant early 18th century marble monument, that to James Scudamore. He actually died in 1668, but stylistically his monument must have been done 30-40 years later and may be by the great Grinling Gibbons, who certainly carved wooden overmantels for the Scudamores in Holme Lacy House. Gone are the figures lying piously on their backs, hands in prayer. Instead James, in Roman costume and a full curly wig, lounges nonchalantly on his side within classical columns with one elbow resting on a cushion. The ensemble is literally theatrical, because above his head is a pair of curtains, all in marble, drawn back by cherubs. Nearby are other extravagant monuments to his wife Jane and his grandson the 3rd Viscount Scudamore, but these have no effigies, just an obelisk festooned with cherubs and garlands for Jane and a flaming urn with cherubs for the other.
Later on the fashion for such flamboyance disappeared and the memorial to John Kyrle, the man of Ross, erected in Ross church in 1776 shows him only in the form of small portrait medallion at the top of a wall monument. Similarly Thomas Westfaling (died 1817) is depicted there only in a small bust with a charming relief of Charity teaching children below.
By the mid-19th century the fashion for monumental sculpture was waning and the deceased were more likely to be commemorated by stained glass or a modest wall tablet. However, there is one remarkable 20th century postscript to the story, which can be seen by stepping outside Holme Lacy Church and going to the east end of the churchyard. Here, gated off from the rest of the churchyard, stands the tall bronze figure of the 10th Earl of Chesterfield, a descendant of the Scudamores, depicted as an Arthurian knight with a shield and a hound at his feet, gazing out over the fields towards the Wye. This was erected as late as 1933, following the Earl's death, and is by Gilbert Bayes, a prolific sculptor of the period, whose best known work is probably the elaborate Art Deco clock outside Selfridges store in London, known as the Queen of Time!
If you have never had a close look at these great works of art, do go and visit them. They are there for us to enjoy for free, or, better, for a small donation to church funds.