Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Eastnor, Herefordshire

Rest and art

Standing in the corner of the churchyard at Eastnor, Herefordshire, is this extraordinary seat of c. 1900, sheltered by a sloping tiled roof and adorned with a series of five large terracotta panels, each bearing a sculpted figure and a Christian text. Many is the visitor, tending a grave perhaps or just taking a stroll, who must have been thankful for this unusual bit of churchyard architecture, their eyes moving across the sculpted panels and their messages: from a figure representing the harvest (‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’), past an angel, Christ in Majesty, another angel this time carrying a child, to a sower (coming back to the agricultural metaphor again: ‘He that now goeth on his way weeping bringeth forth good seed’). There’s much to admire in the gentle realistic modelling of the figures and faces, from the upward-glancing harvest figure (sometimes called Ceres) to the expressions of repose in the faces of the angels.
If the user of the seat is thankful, who deserves their thanks? The seat was provided by Lady Isabella Somerset (also known as Lady Henry Somerset, 1851–1921), one of the notable social reformers of the late-Victorian era. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage: her husband was gay, a fact he only revealed to her after the wedding. She bore him a son, moved out, and threw herself into social work. Lady Somerset was a leader of the temperance movement, a campaigner for the emancipation of women, and an advocate of contraception. But she did more than campaign. She gave funds to causes she supported, devoting much time and money to causes such as a home where women alcoholics were helped to overcome their addiction. She was a pragmatic social reformer; it was not enough for her piously to condemn, as some of her contemporaries did, those addicted to alcohol: she wanted to help them too. Small gestures like this churchyard seat in the village next to the castle she inherited, not to mention the well on the village green, must have been typical of her.

Some sources (including Pevsner) say that Lady Somerset actually modelled the terracotta panels herself. This surprises me in a way: they seem very good for an accomplished amateur with a very busy life; and yet Lady Somerset seems to have been a person who could pull surprises. Whoever did them, though, clearly had a flair for modelling and a sympathetic eye for female faces. As for the donor, it’s perhaps typical that she wanted people to have not only rest and shelter, not only religious messages to ponder, but beauty too. A very Victorian mixture of values, and by no means a bad one.

Note I first found out about the seat from the excellent Tile Gazetteer compiled by Lynn Pearson (Richard Dennis, 2005).


LondonRemembers said...

Thanks for finding this very unusual shelter. Could the "modelled herself" comment be trying to say that she was the model for the female figures of the walls? We did a little research on the Lady ourselves and found no hint that she was a sculptor, or artist of any kind.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hello. Thank you for your comment. The sources I looked at don't use the phrase 'modelled herself' - that was my own paraphrase. Pevsner unambiguously says they are 'by' her, the Tile Gazetteer uses the wording 'modelled by hand'. Neither of these books normally makes claims rashly or without research, so I think it may simply be that their authors know something that we don't. If I find out anything else, I'll add it to the post.