SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Fine stone memorials, of the calibre of those that take pride of place in St Paul’s, were among the losses of Croydon Minster’s great fire. DAVID MORGAN has tracked down the history of one such destroyed monument
The televising of the Platinum Jubilee service from St Paul’s will have reminded everyone just what a glorious building the cathedral is.
The sheer size and scale of it is immense. The decorative carvings are exquisite. The sculptures and memorials there remind us of figures both historic and more recent, who have made such a contribution to national life.
One of the most striking of them is the statue of Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar.
During his lifetime, Nelson met with a well-known artist and sculptor of the late 18th Century, John Flaxman. Nelson commissioned a bust of himself and was so impressed by the (no doubt flattering) representation that he told a member of his family that after his death, if any sculpture was to be created of him, then he would like Flaxman to do it.
And so it was that after the Battle of Trafalgar, when the admiral’s body was brought back to England, in January 1806, he was given a state funeral, his coffin conveyed up the Thames to be buried in St Paul’s. Two years later, Flaxman’s memorial to Nelson was given pride of place in the cathedral. The admiral, decorated in full naval honours was sculptured standing heroically on a round pedestal with sea gods and lions in attendance.
Flaxman was one of the leading sculptors of his day. He worked with Josiah Wedgwood for many years, designing reliefs for his pottery. In the 1780s, while doing this work, he lived above his studio at 27 Wardour Street with his wife, Ann, who was an artist in her own right and worked closely with her husband.
While working for Wedgwood on his classical designs, Flaxman decided he wanted to go to Italy to study the classical arts for himself. Largely funded by Wedgwood, from 1787, the Flaxmans spent seven years based mostly in Rome.
During this time, Flaxman greatly enhanced his reputation by improving the Wedgwood designs and by illustrating the work of medieval poets and of various classic books. He also began to accept commissions for statues, too.
On his return to England Flaxman was created a full member of the Royal Academy in 1800, was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Society of the Arts in 1807. In 1810, he was appointed the first Professor of Sculpture by the Academy.
It was around this time, in 1809 when Flaxman was at the peak of his fame in Regency England, that he was approached by John Bowling of the firm Bowling, Walker and Co of 36 Blackman Street, Southwark, “chemists and druggists”.
Perhaps with the Nelson memorial in mind and with an eye on the place in society with which Flaxman’s works were associated, Bowling wanted the artist to design a memorial for his wife Ann, who had died in April of the previous year aged 24.
A price of £120 – around £9,000 by today’s values – was agreed with a fixing charge of £8 15 shillings. Bowling paid the first installment of £50 on February 26, with the balance paid on March 23.
The monument to Ann Bowling was erected in Croydon Parish Church, which, back then, was a church where many wealthy and influential families chose to have their loved ones buried.
For that price, Flaxman offered John Bowling a bas-relief. This is a sculptured figure which projects just slightly from its background – similar, in fact, to many of the pieces of Wedgwood pottery through which the artist had built his reputation.
Bowling chose an angel bearing up a woman to heaven with the words, “Then shall the good be received into life everlasting” etched at the top.
The sculpture was made of marble and, although designed by Flaxman, it was most likely completed by someone who worked in his studio. This kind of work was in great demand. Similar designs with this angel and a woman can be found in several other Flaxman memorials, most notably the one to Agnes Cromwell in Chichester Cathedral.
Ann Bowling’s memorial was erected in Croydon Parish Church, what we now know as Croydon Minster, in the St Mary Chapel, close to where the once influential and powerful Heron family had their tomb.
Often referred to as the Heron’s Chancel, the area contained the white marble tomb of Sir Nicholas Heron, with his helmet hanging over it, together with the plain altar tomb of Elis Davey, an early Croydon benefactor, who died in 1459.
Ann Bowling was buried in the best of company as far as Croydon society was concerned.
As we have learned since, often works of art and memorials which may have survived the blaze were either damaged beyond repair in the clear-up afterwards, while some were simply stolen by workmen.
A part of the inscription stone on which was written Ann Bowling’s elegy did survive the fire, although very badly damaged.
It stands today almost forgotten, the remaining fragments left under other stones that survived the fire.
The poem etched on it was poignant.
“Bright excellence! With every virtue fraught
Such may we be by thy example taught;
Pure in thy eye of Heaven like thee appear
Should we this hour death’s awful summons hear:
Like thee, all other confidence disown,
And, looking to the cross of Christ alone
In meekness, tread the paths thy steps have trod
And find with thee, acceptance from our God.”
The other information on the stone tells us that Ann died after just two days of an illness and that she was the daughter of John Harris, of “this place”, which explains her and her widowed husband’s attachment to Croydon.
Bowling continued with his chemist business. In 1818, it was included in a directory of businesses in Southwark. He was still alive in 1841 and as he is mentioned in his brother William’s will.
His brother, who lived at St George’s Circus, Southwark, was described as a “chemyst”, too. No mention was included in the will about whether John had remarried.
Flaxman went on to turn out his sculptures for many years. His own wife died in 1820, and he continued to work until his death, at the age of 71, in 1826. John and Ann had no children but they adopted Ann’s younger sister, Maria Denman, as their own daughter. She, too, was an artists and won a silver medal at the Royal Academy for her drawing.
Many of John Flaxman’s works today are held in a special gallery in the library of University College London. Several are scattered around churches and cathedrals of the land.
And if it hadn’t been for that fire of 1867 we would have had one in Croydon.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- Brassed off: following the trail of church’s long-lost memorials
- Capturing every step of non-league Dorking’s meteoric rise
- The bitter 18th Century court battle over a pew with a view
- This mayor in the Minster earned his impressive memorials
- Restoration royal connections of Minster’s marble mausoleum
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
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