As a ‘church crawler’, or someone who likes to poke about in churches and churchyards, I didn’t expect to find this finely carved pair of South American Indians in an Oxfordshire church. They decorate the monument dedicated to Edmund Harman (1509-1577) and his ‘faithful’ wife, Agnes.
The Indians have been identified as belonging to the Tupinamba tribe who, in the early 1500’s, lived at the mouth of the Amazon. They are assumed to be the earliest known representation of South American Indians in England. The Tupinamba tribe were known to be cannibals and the carvings are believed to be the work of a Dutch carver, Cornelis Bos. However, no-one’s quite sure whether they’re there. It has been assumed that they are a reference to Edmund Harman’s Brazilian trade interests. But perhaps Bos might have seen a similar design in the Spanish Netherlands and decided to ‘borrow’ it.
Edmund Harman was an influential man at Henry VIII’s court. In fact, he was one of Henry’s most important and trusted servants. From 1533-1547, he was the King’s personal barber and servant, a position that gave him enormous influence at court as he was so near to the King. I’m sure that he didn’t spend his time asking Henry VIII if he’d been anywhere nice for his holidays……he was probably too busy bending the King’s ear with promoting his friends business schemes. In 1538, Edmund had risen so high that he was included in a list of people at court who were:
‘…to be had in the King’s most benign remembrance…’
Benign it certainly was, as it meant that Edmund was granted several pieces of land in Oxfordshire as well as Burford Priory. He was also one of the 15 servants who made up the Privy Chamber and their job was to attend to every aspect of the King’s comfort.
In 1546, Edmund was one of the witnesses to Henry VIII’s will which was a very important document. According to the Burford church website,
He makes an appearance with his King in Holbein’s last painting which is kept at The Barber’s Hall in London. The artist has helpfully labelled all the assembled men and Edmund is at the front on the right hand side.
Edmund and Agnes had sixteen children (!) but only two of them, both girls, survived their parents. There are representations of them on the lower half of the monument.
According to the Burford church website, Edmund’s epitaph:
‘…..is considered to be an early example of a Post-Reformation epitaph as there is no mention of Purgatory or saying prayers for the dead man’s soul to ease his way out of it. Purgatory and other religious practices had all been swept away by Henry VIII’s determination to divorce Katherine of Aragon and set himself up as the Head of the new Church of England.’
It is a lovely monument with beautiful, crisp carving and a wonderful example of the stone carver’s skill. Sadly, despite all the expense and the effort lavished in creating the monument, Edmund and Agnes were buried in Taynton which is 7 miles away from Burford.
However, it stands as a memorial to a man who rose from humble beginnings, moved in powerful circles and brought the New World closer to home.
This was the inscription that made the most impression as it was so touching and heartfelt. It perfectly expressed the deceased’s belief, that although they had pre-deceased their partner, they believed that they would both wake again on Judgement Day and be reunited.
Its simplicity is what makes it stand out simple and yet I have no idea on which monument the inscription was despite looking through my photos from the day. But it made a powerful impression. In many ways it was more powerful than far more ornate monuments and tombs.
However, when the Penguin Book Cover Generator was doing the rounds on social media just prior to Christmas last year it provided inspiration for one book design.
When we can actually go out again, whenever that is, I’m coming back Burford – ready or not!
Welcome to a new year and a short piece on how part of one of my blog posts became part of a youtube film.
I have to say that, after a cursory glance, that ‘Look it’s behind you! The Chaldon Doom painting’’is undoubtedly my most popular post with 4,205 views since it’s publication in 2018. It was a post about what may the oldest wall painting in England which is on the back wall of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chaldon, Surrey. This is an out of the way place as there’s no real village there. But the church is very picturesque and popular as a destination for walkers especialluy during the summer when there is cake and tea on sale on Sunday afternoons.
The actual title of the painting is the Purgatorial Ladder and was painted in order to instruct the congregation to live a righteous life. After death they were either destined for heaven or hell depending on if they had lived a righteous life. It’s an impressive piece and I did wonder how it might have felt when praying or listening to a sermon with the painting and its angels and demons behind you.
A man called,Richard Gandon from a film company called Eyedears contacted me last year as he’d created an animated explanation of the Chaldon Doom and posted it on youtube. He asked for permission to use my introduction from my blog post on the painting with accreditation. It is a short and accessible explanation of the painting’s elements such as the Seven Deadly Sins and well worth a look at.
For years a romantic ruined church fascinated me whenever I saw it from the bus as we sped along Grand Depot Road in Woolwich. There seemed to be no reason for it to be there, standing quietly under spreading trees with an unlovely corrugated roof over part of it and no sign nearby. Sometimes I could see what I thought was a large mural at the very back of it and always meant to get off and have a closer look. Then the bus would move on and I would forget about it again.
So it wasn’t until 2017, on an Open House weekend, that I finally visited it and discovered what makes this church, or what’s left of it, unique. The mural was actually a mosaic and one of the glittering, restored mosaics which is assumed to have been made by a famous workshop in Venice. They are the survivors of an interior which was once richly decorated with them. But why are they here in SE18?
The marching feet of the parade ground may have now become the marching feet of commuters on their way to the DLR but there’s still many reminders of Woolwich’s military past to be found. The church’s official name is St George’s Garrison Church and it was built to serve the Royal Artillery. Once an important and landmark building that could hold 1700 people inside, it didn’t always sit in solitude. When it was originally built in 1862-63 in the Italian-Romanesque style it was part of the Royal Artillery barracks with the parade ground before it.
St George’s was built as many other garrison churches, hospitals and barracks in response to the outcry about soldiers living conditions after the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and to improve the ‘moral wellbeing’ of the soldiers.
However, St George’s decline began in the First World War when it was bombed and its rose window destroyed. But, on 13 July 1944, a flying bomb started a fire that gutted the interior. During the 1950’s there were suggestions about it being rebuilt but these came to nothing. The widening of the Grand Depot Road in the 1960’s finally separated St George’s from the parade ground and it has sat marooned ever since.
The upper levels were demolished during the 1970’s and the church became a memorial garden. This is when the functional corrugated roof was placed over the mosaics. The Royal Artillery moved to Wiltshire in 2007 and so they will forever be apart.
The corrugated roof has been replaced by a much more attractive canopy. However The Friends of St George’s Trust information leaflet warns visitors:
‘not to stand beyond the altar, the apse and to be ‘careful of fragile/falling fabric as you explore the sanctuary and chapel.’
That sounded scary but I was careful as I didn’t want to become one of the residents of the memorial garden just yet.
But it was the large central mosaic of St George and the Dragon that attracted me. I’ve always been fascinated by mosaics and have seen many in cemeteries. After years of glimpsing it from a bus it was wonderful to be able to see it close up and to admire the quality of its workmanship. According to the Friends of St George’s Trust website:
‘the mosaics are thought to be based on the Roman and Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. St George and the Dragon and those around the chancel arches are assumed to have been made in Antonio Salviati’s workshops in Venice.’
But who is Antonio Salviati? The St George and Dragon mosaic form the centrepiece of the impressive Victoria Cross memorial behind the altar. This was funded by subscriptions in 1915 with no expense spared. The importance of this monument, dedicated to the 62 Royal Artillery men who received the prestigious VC, is emphasised by the fact that they went to one of the 19th century’s leading Italian glassmakers to create it.
Antonio Salviati (1816-1890) is considered to be one of the leading figures in 19th century glassmaking. Originally a lawyer, he became involved in the restoration of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. This led to him becoming interested in glassmaking and establishing his own factory. Salviati also re-established the island of Murano, near Venice, as a major centre of glassmaking and it still has that reputation today. He also created a European interest in brightly coloured pieces of Italian glass as decorative objects. Salviati’s factory soon began receiving commissions from France and England and it’s credited with creating the mosaic glass on the altar glass of Westminster Abbey and part of the Albert Memorial. There are also other surviving works in many churches and cathedrals in the UK.
Restoration work on St George’s mosaics was carried out in 2015 and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Although some of the tesserae from the mosaic – these are the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other material used in its the construction – are missing, the conservators made the decision not to replace them
The chancel mosaics feature birds and vines. The lovely peacocks are appropriate symbols of immortality and rebirth and vines for abundance and as reminders of Christ and his followers. (see Symbol of the Month – the vine for more information.) There are also phoenixes which are traditionally associated with rising from a raging fire and are an ancient symbol of Christian resurrection. It felt appropriate as St George’s is a remarkable survivor of Woolwich’s military past and has risen again. But it’s still a building at risk.
There are pieces of the church on site such as the capitals to two of the broken columns. These feature winged lions and winged griffins. I walked around the memorial garden and thought how lucky we were that its mosaics had survived for us to still enjoy.
St George’s remains consecrated and holds 4 services each year. It’s now open on Sundays and you can admire the newly installed iron entrance gates. Archive photos show what an imposing building it once was but imagine it when newly built as the sun shone through the rose window illuminating the beautifully decorated interior making St George and the Dragon dazzle.
The priest’s sermon has made you feel a little drowsy as you sit in your pew. Then, as your eyelids begin to droop, suddenly you can smell burning and hear crackling flames….faint screams as well and devilish chuckling interspersed with angels singing…..there’s a sudden warmth behind your back and when you turn around, you’re confronted with gleeful demons faces on the whitewashed wall. Is one turning round and beckoning to you? Instantly you’re wide awake again with a nudge from your mother to sit up straight and you turn to face the priest again. But you can still hear the flames and the laughter…..
Chaldon’s Doom painting, or mural as the church prefers to call it, is reputed to be the oldest in England and has been dated to at least the 12th century. It’s believed to be the work of an anonymous artist monk. Until the 17th century it taught the local parishioners which was the right path to follow if you wanted to be going upwards to eternal bliss instead of down to hell for endless torment. The mural’s official title, according to the church’s website is The Purgatorial Ladder, or Ladder of Souls, with the Seven Deadly Sins. However tastes and doctrines change and after the Reformation many of England’s Dooms were whitewashed over. It was felt by zealous reformers that they didn’t follow strict Bible doctrine and were also considered to be ‘Popish’.
But Dooms have a habit of re-surfacing and so it was with the Chaldon Doom. In 1869, the then Rector, Reverend Henry Shepherd was having the church walls prepared for whitewashing when he suddenly noticed signs of colour and halted the work. The mural was then cleaned and preserved. There was a further conservation in 1989 by the Conservator and Director of the Canterbury Wall Paintings Workshop.
According to the painted church website, Dooms were the most commonly painted subject in the Middle Ages. Dooms were often placed on a church’s west wall as a reminder to parishioners as they were leaving the church. But, as at Chaldon, they were also on the back wall or at the front on the chancel arch as at St Thomas’s Salisbury. The Chaldon mural has the disturbing effect of constantly looking over your shoulder when you turn your back on it…..
The Chaldon Doom is large and measures 17ft x 11ft and stands out against the plain white washed walls. It’s painted entirely in red whereas other Dooms are in full colour. However it’s the only image in England of the Ladder of Salvation although it’s common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It’s behind the pews and would have been a constant reminder to the parishioners to be thinking of the afterlife. A medieval congregation would have been illiterate and the Doom would have resembled a picture book or public information film on what could happen to sinners in eternity. They needed to prepare for the Final Judgement and, due to a shorter lifespan, the afterlife was much more to the forefront of the medieval mind than ours. A Doom is a traditional English term for a pictorial rendition of the Last Judgement or Doomsday which is the moment when Christ decides the eternal destination of human souls. This is because the Church was very concerned with how to portray the afterlife in a visual way that could be easily understood. After all a picture is worth a 1000 words…
There are roughly 40 surviving Dooms in Britain but in the 1880’s over 100 were recorded. They can often combine several themes: the parable of the sheep and the goats, assorted Biblical prophecies and other medieval traditions. The Chaldon mural uses the Seven Deadly Sins.
There’s only two choices for the dead as they arise from their graves to go up to Heaven and sitting around on clouds playing harps or down to Hell and the eternal flames. However Purgatory was also uppermost in the medieval mind as people believed that, prior to going to Heaven, a soul would have to spend time there before going up to Heaven. Chaldon’s Ladder represents Purgatory.
To interpret the Chaldon Doom and its crowded canvas you need to begin at the lower right of the painting and look for the serpent in the tree of life which is a metaphor for the fall of man. This is a rough guide from a Chaldon church pamphlet and imagine the priest using it to preach to his flock:
Two demons hold up a bridge of spikes over which dishonest tradesmen have to cross. These include a blacksmith, spinner, potter and mason who are all missing essential tools. The cheating milkman is about to climb the ladder with a brimming bowl of milk due to having given short measure in life.
Then we come onto the 7 Deadly Sins:
Avarice: A moneylender sits in flames as two demons hold him upright. He’s blind and money pours from his mouth. He has to count it all as it flows into his pouch.
Envy: There are two figures on the right hand side of the moneylender. One of them has longer hair than the other.
Lust: On the moneylender’s left hand side are two figures embracing.
On the left hand side of the ladder a demon plucks souls from the ladder of salvation.
Pride: A woman is beside a demon as a devil wolf gnaws at her hands. This could indicate either pride in her hands or that she fed her pets too well in life while ignoring the starving.
Anger: Above the woman two figures fight over a hunting horn. Two demons throw what are considered to be murderers into a cauldron.
Gluttony: A drunken pilgrim lies at the feet of a demon. He’s sold his cloak or badge of office in order to buy wine.
Sloth: At the far left 3 women dawdle.
A cloud bisects the picture to form a cross and the foot of the Ladder is the symbol of life. The Archangel Michael is weighing the good and bad deeds as the Devil slyly has a hand on the scales trying to weigh it down with bad deeds as he holds a rope dragging souls to hell. A penitent tries to point out to St Michael what the Devil is up to. The 3 Marys are being led to Heaven by an angel as another one above them helps a remorseful thief ascend to the Pearly Gates.
Elijah and Enoch are also going upwards to bliss on the right of the ladder as an angel holds up a scroll of their good deeds. Above them another of the heavenly host hold up a scroll which says ‘open ye the gates that the righteous may enter.’
On the far right the Lord is mesmerizing the Devil with his cross while welcoming Old Testament characters into Heaven and finally above the ladder is the demi figure of Christ in the act of benediction.
He has the sun on his right hand side and the moon on the left.
Chaldon church is near Coulsdon in Surrey and its correct name is St Peters & St Pauls.
It’s a lovely picture, postcard church with a candle snuffer tower but it’s in the middle of nowhere except for a scattering of nearby houses. There’s no village attached to it and it’s on the notorious Ditches Lane which leads off Farthing Downs. This can be a lonely road for walkers as there are no houses along it until you reach the church. Chaldon church is rumoured to have been built on a pagan site and there has been a church here since 1086 AD. Its foundations have been dated back to 727AD. I find it strange that such a magnificent and dramatic mural was located in such an out of the way place. It really took me by surprise when I first saw it as it’s so in your face. But as I turned away from it I thought I heard devilish sniggering and wondered what it must have look like under flickering candlelight.
There are other Doom paintings to be seen in England and these are:
South Leigh, Checkendon and Coombe – Oxfordshire
Stratford upon Avon, Worcs (this is in glass)
York Minster (a crypt carving)
St Thomas’s church, Salisbury
I have seen the one in Salisbury and was really impressed. It’s in full colour and is over the chancel arch to greet worshippers. Christ sits on a rainbow at the centre of the chancel arch with the godly rising from their graves with angels whereas on the left the sinners are being helped by demons to go down below. This again was whitewashed over and then re appeared. Here are a small selection of images from it:
This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds. These medieval tombs were an extremely visual way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.
It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having admired its magnificent hammerbeam with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.
I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.
Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb. This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’. This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death. Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:
‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’
This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’. This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the gisant of the deceased as they were when alive and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse. This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.
Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s. St Pauls’ cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne. Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe and particularly in Italy, France. Germany and the Netherlands.
But who was John Benet?
According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors. He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade. This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life. Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….
John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted. It originally lay in his own private chapel. This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling which was restored in 1968. You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling. Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration. The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:
’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services. It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved. The letter ‘S’ which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’
So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.
There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’ Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.
The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.
Now there’s an interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen. It may have been created in the nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops. This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving would also confirm this.
Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read. In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’. Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:
‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘
A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated has obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory. Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see. I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.
The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.
This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal. The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’
It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate. But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck. So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see. I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.
Among the epitaphs displayed on the side of St Stephan’s church in the town of Braunau am Inn on the Austrian-German border, there is a large stone relief of a man with an unusually long beard stretching down past his feet. At first glance it might seem a bit outlandish, but it’s a fitting monument to an important man who was killed by his own facial hair.
The likeness is that of Hans Steininger, a 16th-century burgomaster (town mayor) of Braunau am Inn, who’s since become somewhat of a folk figure. Much about his life and role as a leader have not survived the centuries since his death, but his incredible beard, which is said to have been over four and a half feet long, looms large in the town’s cultural memory.
Steininger was a popular mayor, serving multiple terms, but in 1567, he met an ignominious end. On September 28 of that year, there was a large fire in the town that caused a general panic. Steininger usually kept his prodigious beard hair rolled up and stuffed in a pocket, but during the commotion he was running around with it hanging free. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to step on his own beard, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck. Killed by his own beard.
The full-body illustration at the church shows Steininger’s beard bifurcated into two scraggly strands, stretching down past his feet. And tucked away in the local district museum is the town’s most hirsute artifact: the 450-year-old beard of Steininger.
After his death, Steininger was honoured with the aforementioned epitaph, but that’s not all. Lest the years of work it must have taken for him to grow his beard be lost, the long length of facial hair was cut off and preserved separately, becoming an important town heirloom.
Over 450 years after Steininger’s death, his beard survives, currently on display at the District Museum Herzogsburg in Branau. The artifact has since been authenticated and chemically preserved so that future generations can continue to appreciate this sensational local story.
Today, Braunau am Inn is most often remembered as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, but for understandable reasons, the local tourism board seems more keen to celebrate the mayor who was killed by his own beard. There have even been tours of teh city given by a Steininger re-enactor decked out in a flowing fake beard. Hopefully no costume version will ever prove as deadly as the original.
The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls. But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.
I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.
The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands. St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created. During the 1860’s a chancel was added. But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior. It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls. This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed. An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.
We began by exploring outside and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower . According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.
The churchyard contains over 250 memorials dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance. John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard which had long since disintegrated.
St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints. Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church. This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard. John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs; Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.
William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross. He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter. Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’. My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette. He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863. Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps. Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.
A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone. A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost. However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.
We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch. The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653. The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.
At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury. Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP. He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall. It has three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare. John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.
A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb. This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour. Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380. Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built. The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing. It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.
There are more intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court. He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death. Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘
‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’
The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.
Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt. This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.
Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or otherplace of entombment’ Wikipedia
The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them. Some contained entire families including the Thrales. John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud. This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea. Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed. Only the undertaker was left empty-handed. There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.
The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that. More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there. One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.
As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated. Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished. Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several memorials.