Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Great Brington, Northamptonshire
These premises are alarmed!
And so, having taken in the dovecote at Harlestone and its adjacent laundry, to nearby Great Brington, to look at the church and have lunch with a friend. In the church I was prepared to be amazed at the panoply of Spencer monuments, which famously fill a memorial chapel adjoining the chancel.* Sadly, the chapel is fenced off with locked railings. There were notices hanging on these railings, which I expected to contain helpful captions identifying the figures on the tombs, but they turned out to bear warnings that the chapel was alarmed and requests that visitors should not poke their hands or noses through the bars. So one had simply to peer.
What one can make out in the gloom is truly spectacular., A series of large monuments, several with life-size effigies, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries and including works by Nicholas Stone, Nollekens, and Flaxman. The Elizabethan and Jacobean ones are painted in the dazzling array of colours and patterns that people then loved. They are set about with obelisks, columns, pediments, and an array of other architectural devices. The painting and carving was restored, beautifully, by the 7th Earl Spencer in 1946.
I offer a couple of pictures of this rich but inaccessible treasure. The first is a close-up of one of the heads that can be seen through the railings: that of Robert, 1st Baron Spencer, made in 1599 by Jasper Hollemans of Burton-upon-Trent.† The head of the deceased rests on his helm, which has a bird crest visible in the left foreground of my picture. The hair and ruff are cut with the crisp deep detail usual on the best monuments of the time; the face has a chiselled character that must be attributable to the subject as much as to the sculptor.
I can understand the family not wanting crowds getting too near all this precious statuary and paintwork, whatever other reasons there may be for fitting alarms in the Spencer Chapel. I remain grateful for the glimpses I could take, and also hopeful against hope that one day they’ll let the rest of us marvel at their artistic and funerary heritage.
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*Spencer being the family of Diana, Princess of Wales, although the church is famous as the place in which Princess Diana is not buried. Her grave is on an island in the grounds of the nearby family house, Althorp.
†Hollemans was a Dutchman who came to England in the 1580s; Burton-upon-Trent was a centre of alabaster carving. The Hollemans family were Protestant refugees, as were some of the other craftsmen who worked at such major English houses as Burghley around this time. The refugees (Dutch, Flemish, French, and so on) joined other groups from Europe who had recently settled here and who might be called ‘economic migrants’ today: the French ironworkers who settled in the Weald, the German miners of Keswick, and the master glaziers who worked in places such as York. Britain’s commerce, art, and industry gained greatly from such arrivals from the mainland.