The blank eyed stare of a marble congregation – Part 2 of a visit to Knebworth – The Lytton Chapel, St Mary’s Church


Sir William Lytton. ©Carole Tyrrell
Sir William Lytton.
©Carole Tyrrell

Everywhere I looked, as I stood in the Lytton Chapel, a well-upholstered, well dressed 18th century gentleman stared impassively back at me.  They seemed to jostle for space in the small chapel and, although these past members of the Lytton family, couldn’t take it with them, you certainly knew that they’d had it when they were alive.  These were powerful men and there’s plenty of beautifully sculpted marble on show in the Chapel.   Nowadays, people would ask an artist or sculptor to make them look slimmer but here the subjects are unashamedly larger than life.

All three of the memorials are in the baroque style which was made fashionable by the Italian sculptor, Bernini.  It was a technique that achieved effects in carving such as flesh, hair and textures that were remarkably realistic as well as other pictorial effects that had previously only been attempted in 2D paintings .  And yet English Baroque was dismissed as mundane.  However the three tombs in the chapel seem anything but that.

Both Pevsner and Simon Jenkins in ‘1000 Best Churches’ mention the Chapel.  Indeed the latter describes  it as having ‘the best of 17th and 18th century monumental art (is) on parade and ‘three of the Knebworth tombs are among the finest 18th century monuments  In England.’   It was originally built in 1520 and then rebuilt 200 years later.

The first one as you enter is Lytton Strode Lytton who stands perfectly posed in his shell niche dressed fashionably in his coat and shoes with some of his coat buttons undone to display the buttoned up waistcoat beneath, Too many power lunches perhaps?  He died young at 21 as his epitaph reveals but he looks older with an almost feminine face and full lips. Lytton is guarded on either side by winged cherubs, or Cupids, as Historic England describes them..  One is copiously weeping and the other is in prayer and the whole memorial has been attributed to Thomas Green of is a helpful English translation of the Latin epitaph:

‘Here lies Lytton Strode Lytton Esq., sole son and heir of Sir George Strode (of Etchinham in the County of Sussex_ and also heir of Sir William  Lytton of this parish, his great-uncle. He married Bridget Mostyn, the eldest daughter of Richard Mostyn, Eds., of Pembedwinthe county of Flint. He died without issue at the age of 21 in 1710.  He left the ancient patrimony of the Lytton family to his dearly beloved relative William Robinson, who erected this monument at his own expense as a pledge of his own affection.’


Then you turn and are almost crowded out by the other two:  Sir William Lytton to the left and Sir George Strode on your right. Their heads are both inclined towards Lytton Lytton as they lie semi-recumbent on marble beds, sheets rumpled and you almost feel as if you’ve disturbed them in conversation.  Sir George Strode was Lytton’s father and Sir William was his maternal great-uncle so it’s not surprising that they both look to their cherished heir and once the bearer of the Lytton dynasty hopes.

Both of these memorials are credited to Edward Stanton. (1681-1718).   He was a very successful mason who carved 40 monuments between 1699-1718 and in 1720  became a mason to Westminster Abbey where he remained until his death.  Stanton was married 3 times and one wondered where he found the energy.  He has his name prominently displayed at the base of one of the pillars on Sir William Lytton’s huge monument.

The carving on Sir William’s cravat, cuffs and wig as well as the delicate lacing of the Grecian style boots on two life size allegorical female figures or Virtues on either side of him is beautifully detailed. However, his opposite neighbour, Sir George Strode, has a wig that reminds me of waves of whipped cream.  Both men face each other and lie in the fashion of old style glamorous Hollywood stars with their rumpled marble sheets and supporting cushions.  But, perhaps in a feat of one-upmanship, William’s shrine is bigger than George’s as it’s laden down with figures and decoration such as the two Virtues dressed in flowing robes and showing a fair bit of leg.  There are also 3 winged cherubs heads under the cartouche decorated roof with swags of fruit and flowers.  But if you look up still further there are two small female figures, possibly children, perched on top of the roof and one appears to be playing an accordion.  The English translation of the Latin epitaph is:

‘Here lies Sir William Lytton, Knight, son and heir of Sir Rowland Lytton, Knight of the ancient family of the Lyttons de Lytton in the County of Derby (which has flourished happily in this neighbourhood since the time of King VII) in the direct line of descent.  He married first Mary the daughter of Sir John Harrison of Balls in the county of Hertford, then Philippa the daughter of Sir John Keyling of Southill in the county of Bedford; he died without issue, his second wife surviving him. 14th Jan AD 1704-5’

 By contrast, his neighbour, Sir George Strode, Lytton Lytton’s father, is far more restrained as there wouldn’t have been enough room in the chapel for another tomb as large as William’s.  George appears to be in mid-conversation with his hands making a gesture and one thumb indicating the epitaph above him.  This translates in English as:

‘Sacred to the memory of Sir George Strode of the ancient family of the Strodes, the eldest son of Sir Nicholas Strode of Etchinham in the county of Sussex, and his wife Judithe the oldest daughter  of Sir Rowland Lytton of Knebworth in the county of Hertfordshire, who piously and peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on the 9th of June, 1707, whose remains repose at his own wish in the Church at Etchinham aforesaid, who married Margaret Robinson (the daughter of John Robinson Esq., of Geursylt in the county of Denbigh). She survived him and from this union was born one son with the Christian name of Lytton, who by the will of Sir William Lytton his maternal great-uncle changed his family name from Strode to Lytton, and this became styled Lytton Lytton to whom the aforesaid Sir William Lytton bequeathed the ancient patrimony of his family.  He has dedicated this monument at his own expense as a tribute of piety and affection.’ 

The motto underneath George’s figure  reads:

‘Life is the gateway to death, and death in turn the gate of a new life and learn to die to the world, and live for God.’

 Comforting words for a man who lost his only son at an early age.

And so I left them, perhaps in an eternal interrupted, silent conversation, after marvelling at the skill of the mason’s work.  They are all behind iron railings, presumably to stop visitors touching them, but I also felt that the figures were so realistic that it might also be to stop them coming to life and lunging at sightseers.

 ©Text and photos unless otherwise indicated Carole Tyrrell







11 symbols for the price of one! – The Anne St John memorial, The Lytton Chapel, St Mary’s Church, Knebworth


St Mary's church Knebwoth, view from the House. © Carole Tyrrell
St Mary’s church Knebwoth, view from the House.
© Carole Tyrrell

Most people associate Knebworth with huge rock concerts and as a Gothic backdrop to many well-known films including The King’s Speech.

But it has other claims to fame apart from gargoyles and lovely gardens.  It also has a wonderful mausoleum in its own field and the Lytton Chapel which, according to Pevsner and Simon Jenkins, has the finest 18th century memorials in England.

The Knebworth church is officially known as St Mary’s although it’s actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury or Thomas a Becket.  It sits facing the House with its own small graveyard and surrounded by trees and railings.  This is where many of the past owners of Knebworth are buried and you enter under a lovely lychgate.  But why is it there?

St Mary’s was originally part of the medieval village of Knebworth and was first recorded in the Domesday Book. But when the village was moved after the creation of Knebworth Park in the late 1300’s , St Mary’s stayed in its place.  It’s a church steeped in history and an architectural jigsaw as so much of it comes from different periods.  The nave and chancel, for example, date from 1120 AD.   When you first enter, the interior appears very plain but St Mary’s real glory is the Lytton Chapel in a side room near the altar.

However, amongst its impressive marble monuments was a memorial tablet mounted on a side wall, to the left as I entered.

The Anne St John wall memorial, Lytton Chapel, Knebworth in it's entirety. One of the most fascinating examples of iconography I've ever seen. ©Carole Tyrrell
The Anne St John wall memorial, Lytton Chapel, Knebworth in it’s entirety. One of the most fascinating examples of iconography I’ve ever seen.
©Carole Tyrrell

This is dedicated to a woman who died on the last day of February 1601, Anne St John, and for anyone fascinated by iconography it has a rich display of symbols.  She was the wife of Sir Rowland Lytton who was her second husband. Sir Rowland’s memorial slab is on the church’s floor and he died in 1674 at 59.  Anne died comparatively young at 40 and I wondered if this is why there are so many references to death on her tablet.    The motifs on Anne’s memorial are beautifully carved and delicately coloured. It’s a wonderful example of a memento mori. According to J C Cooper:

This was an image or item that urged people to remember their death.  It was a reminder that death was an unavoidable part of life and to be prepared at all times.’

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which translates as: ‘Remember you must die’ and often expressed in art through symbols as in this memorial.

The epitaph is in Latin but, helpfully, there is an English translation provided.  It reads:

‘Here lies the most illustrious Lady Anne Lytton, daughter of Oliver, Lord St John who had previously married Robert C – of Morton C—— Esquire, by whom she had two daughters, Elizabeth, who married Sir Henry Walop, and Anne, who married Adolphus Carye, Esqre, by her second husband, Rowland Lytton, Esqre of Knebworth, she had 3 sons, William, Rowland and Philip, and four daughters, Anne, Judith, Elisabeth and Jane.  She lived 40 years, a noble, handsome and pious lady, beloved alike by God and men.  She died, greatly d—– on the last day of February 1601 for the fulfilment of whose noble life give praise to God, and pray that you may be in communion with her among the blessed ones.’

NB:  The gaps are where my camera decided to play up and rendered the words unreadable.

This was my favourite memorial in the Lytton Chapel because of its modest size and unusual iconography. I apologise for the quality of the photos – the light levels are low in the Chapel and I didn’t have much time.

Let’s begin at the top of the tablet:

Anne St John wall memorial. The mace and the spade are meant to symbolise power and the humble labourer but Death levels them all. ©Carole Tyrrell
Anne St John wall memorial. The mace and the spade are meant to symbolise power and the humble labourer but Death levels them all.
©Carole Tyrrell

Top panel:

It’s no accident that the skull takes centre stage, as it, Death. is the ultimate conqueror of life.  There is no escape and one recalls Hamlet and Yorick’s skull.  The crossed mace and spade beneath it are representations of both high and humble stations in life.  The mace is a representation of absolute power whereas the spade indicates a labourer.  This demonstrates that it doesn’t matter what your status was in life as Death makes us all equal.

Detail of side panel of Anne St John wall memorial. Note vase of broken, dying flowers in vase at top with open Bible at Daniel chapter 10 with the hourglass and scythe at bottom. ©Carole Tyrrell
Detail of side panel of Anne St John wall memorial. Note vase of broken, dying flowers in vase at top with open Bible at Daniel chapter 10 with the hourglass and scythe at bottom.
©Carole Tyrrell

Left hand side panel.:

Vase of broken or drooping flowers:   According to Howgate, this signifies ‘the brief transience of life before death intervenes, even in the first flowering of youth.’    I have discussed in a previous post the significance of roses in funerary iconography and broken rose blossoms also indicate a life cut short as the flower never blooms. But flowers are a representation of the brevity of life.  Beneath is a Bible which is open at Daniel, chapter 10 which refers to Daniel going through 3 weeks of mourning.  At the bottom of the panel is an Hourglass.  This has been discussed in a previous post but it means that the ‘sands of time’ have run out.   J C Cooper describes it as indicating

Time is passing quickly…everyday comes closer to the hour of their death, Life and Death is the attribute of the Grim Reaper, Death and Father Time.

When the Grim Reaper or Death is depicted as a skeleton he is often holding an hourglass and a scythe which is the next symbol.  This is one of the most potent symbols of Death as the Grim Reaper is always depicted as holding one.  He cuts down lives like cutting down crops or grass. Cooper adds:

‘…also symbolises the harvest which, in turn, implies death, rebirth, destructive and creative powers of the Great Mother.’

However, Keister says: ‘…form of a scythe is a union of the masculine, upright and cutting with feminine as curved and reaping.

Right hand side panel:

Detail of side panel of Anne St John memorial. Note thread of life on spool with Hand of God about to cut it and the slightly ajar coffin waiting below. ©Carole Tyrrell
Detail of side panel of Anne St John memorial. Note thread of life on spool with Hand of God about to cut it and the slightly ajar coffin waiting below.
©Carole Tyrrell

At the top is a spindle on which is wound the thread of life. Beneath it, the Hand of God or, as one commentator has suggested, the Hand of Fate, emerges from a cloud with a fearsome pair of shears to cut the thread and indicate that life is at an end.  He is in charge of making that decision. Underneath is an empty coffin with the lid slightly ajar awaiting its next incumbent.

The bottom of the memorial – The Day of Judgement

Ann St John wall memorial. This is at the bottom of the memorial and depicts the resurrected dead on teh Day of Judgement. One of the shapes has their hands joined in prayer. ©Carole Tyrrell
Ann St John wall memorial. This is at the bottom of the memorial and depicts the resurrected dead on teh Day of Judgement. One of the shapes has their hands joined in prayer.
©Carole Tyrrell

Due to time constraints I didn’t look at the bottom of the memorial in detail.  But Howgate reveals that it is an ‘image of the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgement.’  He goes onto to say that ‘The lumpy looking resurrected dead, some with hands joined in prayer, appear to be gasping for breath as they emerge with difficulty from the earth.’    Although this isn’t a very good photo I can see one person with their hands in prayer at least and I have to admit that when I saw the panel, it didn’t register as an image of people.  A return visit to have a closer look is undoubtedly in the offing.

Two of Anne’s 4 daughters, Judith and Anne, are commemorated nearby in the church with floor memorials.  They both lived to ripe old ages.

I am indebted to Revd Jim Pye who very kindly emailed me an informative article based on a talk given in 2008 by Michael E Howgate on the St John Memorial and the contentious panel on William Robinson Lytton Strode’s monument.  My grateful thanks to him and to the 2 very helpful volunteers who were on duty in St Mary’s on my visit.

NB: Due to malicious thefts St Mary’s is only open during services and on Sundays 2-4pm during July and August – check the St Marys or Knebworth House websites for info in 2017.

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


Remembrance of the Dead (based on a talk given at St Mary and St Thomas church on Sunday 5th October 2008 – Michael E. Howgate M.Sc

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thams & Hudson, 1978

How to Read Symbols, Clare Gibson, Herbert Press, 2009

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004


The Terracotta Trio – The Doulton mausolea of West Norwood and Nunhead – Part 3 The Stearns Mausoleum, Nunhead

View of the Stearns mausoleum - note stepped roof and water spouts. copyright Carole Tyrrell
View of the Stearns mausoleum – note stepped roof and water spouts.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is the last of the trio and, in contrast to the ones in West Norwood, wasn’t designed by Harold Peto.  He had left Peto  and Geoge by then and it has been suggested that the building was actually designed by an anonymous assistant who worked from previously rejected designs.  It’s very different from the other two, both in style and decoration.   It was built in 1901 to house the coffin of Mrs Laura Stearns.   She died in 1900 and came from Twickenham.  William Chillingworth, her father, is buried next to her in his own vault.

He was a wine merchant and they owned Radnor House in Twickenham.  It was known as Pope’s House as it was built on the site of Alexander Pope’s original house.  It no longer exists as it was demolished in 1940 after being hit by a bomb.  There seems to be no mention of a Mr Stearns.  In the 1930’s Mrs Stearns’ coffin was removed from the mausoleum by her relatives and interred behind it.

The interior was never finished which is why it is so plain.  However, 20 years later, an anonymous builder glazed it with bland tiles.  There are two simple, unadorned stone coffin shelves set into each of the side walls.  A trefoil shaped window on the back wall lets light in as the side windows are blocked up.

The mausoleum is decorated in the Romanesque style.  This is an architectural style of medieval Europe which possibly dates from the 10th century and was characterised by the use of semi-circular arches. It was used extensively throughout Europe and in Britain is referred to as Norman Architecture.  The word ‘Romanesque’ originally means descended from Roman and most surviving examples are on churches.

It is also characterised  by its use of columns and, on the Stearns vault, we can see that the two small ones on either side of the entrance are carved with birds etc in a medieval style.   The carvings are very tactile and I can never walk past within wanting to touch them.  The side window columns are also patterned but not as beautifully as the entrance ones. Romanesque was also a highly decorative style as can be seen from the arched bands of stylised leaves over the entrance.

Close-up of Romanesque semi arch over entrance with stylised leaves. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Close-up of Romanesque semi arch over entrance with stylised leaves.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The 19th century saw a Revival of Romanesque although it was decried by some writers as ‘barbaric ornament.’    The Natural History Museum in London is highly decorated in Romanesque Revival style and is well worth seeing.

It’s the only surviving mausoleum within Nunhead Cemetery and, although a tree tried to grow through it while the cemetery was abandoned, it’s still in good condition.  When I first visited Nunhead in 1989, it was rumoured that the only person who now rested within the mausoleum was a passing tramp.  It now has a wrought iron gate to protect it.


Nunhead Cemetery, An Illustrated Guide by The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery . 1988, FONC Publications, London

The terracotta trio are all so different and unique and  all three are Grade Ii listed and although, in comparison to other mausoleums such as  Highgate’s Beer vault and Hannah Portnoy’s vast Egyptian Revival sepulchre in Brompton, they are relatively modest.  However, I feel that  they deserve their own special place in 19th century English funerary architecture..

©Carole Tyrrell Text and photos unless otherwise stated.