Dead Knights and Ladies
Alabaster Tombs of the Pre-Reformation Period In England By Arthur Gardner. (Cambridge University Press. 21s.) A FEw weeks ago it was my privilege to refer in these columns to the scholarly but unreadable publications in the grand pre- 1914 tradition which used to appear on church architecture and furnishing. They were profusely illustrated and with a strong prejudice in favour of pre-Reformation work, and as reference books they are still invaluable. Alabaster Tombs is in the same noble tradition. The text is exhaustive and a little exhausting; there are more than 300 photographic illustrations, reproduced by the half-tone process; the study confines itself to those effigies which Mr. Gardner describes (somewhat loosely, I fear, for readers from the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes) as re- taining "a Gothic character, even if mixed to some extent with Renaissance details." Out of the possible 520 alabaster effigies in England coming within Mr. Gardner's definition, he has mentioned 507. We may take it, then, that this book is the final word on the subject. The Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on its splendid unconcern in producing so hand- some a book in 1940 The alabaster effigy business probably owed its impetus to Royal patronage from London, where there are no local stone quarries. The chief centres of the industry were Chellaston, Notts, and Tutbury, Derby, where the quarries produced an alabaster that was fine grained and easy to work. The earliest effigy which Mr. Gardner records is that at Hanbury, Stafford- shire (1303). By the sixteenth century the business was so thoroughly established that carvings from the workshops were sent abroad, and there is to this day a reredos of English ala- baster depicting the life of St. James in the Cathedral of St. Iago de Compostela. And if they were sent abroad, they were certainly sent all over England from her various workshops. Most alabaster quarries seem to have been run as firms and to have supplied somewhat stereotyped designs, much as a church fur- nisher supplies less ambitious and far more hideous church appurtenances today.
Only in the very early figures and in the latest ones do we find any attempt at variation in posture or at portraiture, though royal and particularly important people had their portraits made. For the most pan alabaster effigies are mere lay figures, lying with the feet out straight and the hands praying. Where men are depicted, the logical minds of the sculptors, who clothed the figures in armour, would not allow them to show the crossed legs and curved postures of the old stone effigies, postures which the rigidity of a suit of armour made impossible. The sculptor only allowed himself freedom when carving weepers in relief round the tomb chest or at the feet of an effigy, and in angels beside the heads of the figures. The effigies themselves were designed to receive the insignia of the person's rank in life, such as the Yorkist collar of alternate suns and roses, the Lancastrian collar of S's. The fine grain of alabaster made the depiction of details like jewellery possible in stone. The figures wear distinctive crowns, armour, headdress or clothes, and often rest on their crests. Indeed, the earlier antiquaries studied them purely for genealogical reasons and often ascribed an effigy to the wrong person. Mr. Gardner warns us to treat with suspicion the names given to effigies in many churches.
What sorry relics those scraped, scratched, shiny figures are when we think of their former glory. The Victorian zeal for clearing chancels of the old obstructions to put in new ones in the form of choir stalls and altar steps has meant the relegation to a recess in the north wall of many a "table tomb" in alabaster which formerly stood in the chancel or before a chantry chapel. Puritans and Victorians removed the colour from the figures, so that all we know of what they once looked like is in Stothard's coloured drawings. Greedy fingers removed the paste with which coronets were studded. Ignorance carved its initials on the soft stone, and carelessness, with broom and ladder, chipped fingers and noses from the delicate limestone. Yet Mr. Gardner tells us that neither the pure white nor the streaky stone was used for anything but its ease of working. Only rarely was the natural colour of the stone suffered to appear as a flesh tint. Chest, effigy, weepers, insignia were a blaze of colour above the tiled floor.
Mr. Gardner has classified the effigies into six well-named periods : (t) Early experiments before 1360—when the sculptural qualities of the stone effigies was used; (2) Edwardian 07 camail and jupon armour 1360-1420, (3) Lancastrian or early plate armour, 1415-50; (4) the Yorkist or fluted armour, 1440-85; (5) the Early Tudor, 1485-1540; (6) Post-Reformation—the Gothic overlap.
This book is essential for church antiquaries, if only for the useful and well-nigh complete catalogue of alabaster tombs, arranged under counties. It will be useful to students of armour, and female costume, and hair fashions. It is less to be recom- mended to those expecting to see fine photographs of sculpture. Many of the illustrations are rather small and the subjects battered. Some of the details commended in the text do not appear in the photographs to which the reader is referred. Besides, the effigies are more of antiquarian than aesthetic interest But here and there are beautiful figures, particularly the Duchess of Suffolk at Ewelme (1477) and Archbishop Stratford at Canter- bury (1348), while the shrouded Beresford figures at Fenny Bentley, Derby, have all the horror of an M. R. James ghost