Monday, March 19, 2012

Guildhall Statues in the Garden


Images from the Museum of London website

I’m in London several times a year but it was only on my last trip that I visited the Museum of London for the first time.  There is a set of four statues in their medieval section, weather-weary but still graceful:  Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence, c. 1430, once decorated the great London Guildhall. Nothing unusual so far, except for a little note at the bottom of their placard that reads “Recovered from a garden in North Wales in 1972”.   

Seriously, the seventies?  Circa Joan-of-Arc statues still moldering in some garden while Nixon was president?  This is why I love England.   And WHAT GARDEN?  These things keep me up at night.

But no one knew that day, and it wasn’t until I was back home that I got a nice little packet from the Museum’s curator with at least part of the story.  
 
The Guildhall’s medieval façade, featuring ornate porches that included statues of Christ in Majesty and Law and Learning in addition to our friends Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, and Pru, was intemperately taken down by George Dance the younger  in 1788.   For a while the four figures lay ‘useless under the hall’ until in 1794 the Common Council granted permission to the sculptor Thomas Banks to remove them to his studio.
The old facade of the Guildhall, City of London, 1788, Jacob Schnebbelie. 

John Carter's drawings of the statues for his 1783 Specimens of Ancient Sculpture

But Banks himself died in 1805, and our four friends went the way of all such things:  to an estate sale. 
I dream of medieval statuary at estate sales.  There they were purchased by one Mr. Bankes (with an e, no relation),  M.P.  Corfe Castle, and it was said in 1846 that "they are probably still at his country residence".

When I started this little piece of garden history detective work, I hoped I'd find that these statues had a starring role in in an obscure garden--centering the parterres or surmounting the fountains at some musty estate, valued for their ethereal English beauty even though their origins might have been long forgotten.  But there is no evidence that the statues were ever installed in either of the Bankes' landscape:  Kingston Lacey in Dorset, or Soughton Hall in Flintshire, where in 1972 they were rediscovered by historian Caroline Barron.  Headless and leaning against a stable wall. 

As with so many country houses, Soughton Hall is now a luxury hotel.  Image via the Soughton Hall website.
 Fortunately, a morning's excavation of the leaf mould unearthed their missing members. 

This rather disappointing end to the story of medieval-statues-found-in-a-garden-in-Wales is curious to me, because the Bankes family had a long history of art appreciation.  The purchaser of  "Lot 110:  Four Highly Curious Gothic Figures"  for £100 at that estate auction was Henry Bankes, "an accomplished scholar, intimately acquainted with ancient and modern literature" (according to his obit in the Gentleman's Intelligencer) who amassed collections which are still in the British Museum, for whom he served as an 'active and zealous' trustee as well as their advocate in Parliament.  His son, William John Bankes, assembled the world's largest individual collection of Egyptian antiquities, even erecting an obelisk in the garden...

Kingston Lacey obelisk, via wikimedia commons
 ...but not the Guildhall statues.  Their sale was attempted on more than one occasion, but they didn't make the minimum.

And does the Italianate facade of Soughton Hall ring any bells?  The house was redesigned for William John Bankes in the 1820s by none other than Charles Barry,  the architect of that greatest edifice of the Gothic Revival:  the Houses of Parliament.

It is so much easier to value the exotic than the vernacular.  The real thing was right under their noses, leaning against the stable wall. 

Sources:

Many thanks to Museum of London curator Meriel Jeater, who provided me with a copy of “Anniversary Address on the Guildhall of London” by Caroline M. Barron, from the Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, Vol. 23, 1978-79.  Most of the story can be found in the Annals of Thomas Banks, page 177.  Information on the Bankes family is widely available on the web.   Their remaining properties, including Kingston Lacey, were donated to the National Trust in 1981. 

2 comments:

James Golden said...

A fascinating piece of detective work, and a bit of abstruse history. Just the thing before I head off to work feeling a bit lighter in spirit.

Mrs. Sutton said...

You're right - that must have been some Estate sale! Absolutely fascinating story.

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