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Plate 1.3: Baptismal Font at St. James’s, Piccadilly
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.3. Commentary by Anne Myers.
Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after a drawing by Charles Woodfield (c. 1650-1724) in the collection of Samuel Gale (1682-1756), who also provided the drawing for Plate 1.2. The engraving was already in progress at the time of its first mention in the Minute Book on 12 February 1718 (SAL Minutes I.10). An initial impression of 24 copies was ready on 30 April, and Vertue was ordered to print 100 copies in January and another 100 in February of 1719 (I.19-20).
Object: Marble baptismal font of St. James's, Piccadilly, presumed to be by the famous Restoration wood and stoneworker Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), although according to David Green this engraving is the strongest evidence that the font is actually the work of Gibbons (1964, 64). Geoffrey Beard points out that since the engraving was issued three years before Gibbons died, there is little reason to doubt the attribution (1989, 33). Horace Walpole (1717-1797) also attributes the font to Gibbons (1763, 86). According to the church vestry book, the font was given to the church in 1685 by “an unknown person piously inclined” (Green 1964, 64). The font remains in St. James's, Piccadilly, to the present day.
VAS MARMOREUM / SACRO BAPTISMATI DICATUM ACROTERIO DEAURATO CORONATUM IN ECCLESIA DIVI JACOBI WESTMONASTERII. / Opus Grinlini Gibbons Ære iam perenniori sculpsit Georgius Vertue 1718.
A marble vessel dedicated to the holy baptism, topped with a golden ornament. It is in the Church of St. James, Westminster. The work of Grinling Gibbons is now engraved in everlasting copper by George Vertue, 1718.
Commentary by Anne Myers: The engraving gives details of the three scenes on the sides of the font: Noah’s Ark, the baptism of Christ, and the baptism of the eunuch of Candace by St. Philip. The plate also shows the flying angel cover, which no longer survives, and was probably sold in 1822, when the font was moved. In his A New View of London, Edward Hatton described the cover as “a spacious Angel Descending from a Celestial Choir of Cherubims, all gilt with Gold” (1708, 298). The engraving seems to indicate the presence of some sort of pulley structure for raising and lowering the cover. The Adam and Eve pedestal, carved in the form of the trunk of an apple tree, reflects contemporary belief that babies were tainted with original sin.
One question that arises with respect to this engraving is why such a recent object would be included in a collection of antiquities. Indeed, the church itself, by Christopher Wren, was not even constructed until 1684, and at least one antiquary found nothing of interest there for that reason (Bailey 1734, xx). Grinling Gibbons’s contributions to wood and stone carving apparently established him as a figure of historical and aesthetic importance throughout the eighteenth century. His name appears in many tourist guidebooks on London, where he erected a famous statue of Charles II in the Royal Exchange, much praised by contemporary viewers (Philipps 1684), and in guides to such great houses as Chatsworth, Derbyshire and Burghley House, Lincolnshire. Hatton’s A New View of London in which the cover is mentioned, describes Gibbons’s work in the church in some detail, but without mentioning his name (1708, 298).
The diarist and connoisseur John Evelyn (1620-1706) claims to have discovered Gibbons by accident and introduced him to King Charles II, and his entry for January 18, 1671 presents us with a picturesque tale:
In this account, Gibbons himself becomes a kind of collectible object, available to Evelyn to be snatched up, taken away, and presented with pride to a wider audience. In fact, he is nearly paralleled to Evelyn’s own copy of Tintoretto’s crucifix. In this way, Gibbons resembles many of the other curiosities and antiquarian objects presented in the volume.
I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man, Gibson, whom I had lately found in an Obscure place, & that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poor solitary thatched house in a field in in our parish neere Says-Court: I found him shut in, but looking into the Window, I perceiv’d him carving that large Cartoone or Crucifix of Tintorets, a Copy of which I had also my selfe brought from Venice. . . . he opned the doore civily to me, & I saw about him such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing, & studious exactnesse, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells. (1955, 3.567)
Moreover, it seems that George Vertue conducted considerable research into the life and work of Gibbons, so the inclusion of the font in Vetusta Monumenta may have been an expression of his own interest. Horace Walpole mentions Vertue’s inquiries into the place of Gibbons’s birth (Holland by one account, Spur Alley in the Strand by another), as well as Vertue’s consultation of certain manuscripts to prove Gibbons’s responsibility for a “brazen statue of James II. in the Privy-garden” (1763, 84). Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting includes a fine engraved portrait of Gibbons (between pages 82 and 83).
Vertue’s engraving of the font is clearly meant to represent the delicacy of Gibbons’s art and the intricacy of his skill. The foliage, in particular, that winds around the base of the font, appears almost too fragile and sinuous to be carved of marble, and indeed the pictures of the font now featured on the church’s website reveal the engraving to be somewhat of an exaggeration, fine though the carving actually is.
In fact, this delicacy and verisimilitude were the qualities for which Gibbons was best known in the eighteenth century. Walpole calls Gibbons “[a]n original genius, a citizen of nature” and claims that “[t]here is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species” (1763, 3.82). He also notes another carved work by Gibbons “over a closet door" at Chatsworth, "a pen not distinguishable from a real feather” (3.85). William Hogarth indicates Gibbons’s status as a recognizable standard for excellence and realism in The Analysis of Beauty when he describes a certain leaf-like figure as one that “would have been above the power of a Gibbons to have equalled” (1753, 68). In 1766, John Gwynn described him thus:
Gwynn’s comparison of Gibbons’s statue to the classical sheds light on the inclusion of his font in a print series purporting to focus on antiquities. Gibbons is rendered here as producer of modern antiquities, an eighteenth-century counterpart to the ancients.
Gibbons, the admired Gibbons! the touches of whose chisel are inconceivably delicate, arose the wonder of an admiring people; his productions of the vegetable and animal creations are above description. St. Paul’s, Windsor, Petworth, Chatsworth, and the whole united kingdom, conspire to make his character equal to any age or country, and the statue of James the Second in [the] Privy-Garden, may rank with the productions of the Roman school. (30)
Of the font itself, eighteenth-century commentators say little, but this is not surprising given the sheer volume of Gibbons’s work. Modern art historians consider the font somewhat inferior to Gibbons’s other work (Green 1964, 64; Beard 1989, 33). Nonetheless, Vertue clearly admired it. Esterly points out that while Gibbons’s name is now often associated with Christopher Wren’s, Gibbons had little to do with Wren’s post-fire redesigning of London churches until his reputation was well established. This font of 1685, along with Gibbons’s work on the church’s reredos, may in fact been his earliest contribution to a Wren church (Esterly 1998, 22-23).
Bailey, N. 1734. The Antiquities of London and Westminster. London: J. Osborn.
Beard, Geoffrey. 1989. The Work of Grinling Gibbons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Esterly, David. 1998. Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Evelyn, John. 1955. The Diary of John Evelyn. 6 vols., edited by E. S. de Beer. Oxford: Clarendon.
Green, David. 1964. Grinling Gibbons: His Work as Carver and Statuary, 1648-1721. London: Country Life Limited.
Gwynn, John. 1766. London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans. London.
Hatton, Edward. 1708. A New View of London. Vol. 1. London: R. Chiswell, et al.
Hogarth, William. 1753. The Analysis of Beauty. London: J. Reeves.
Philipps, Samuel. 1684. To the Learned and Worthy Artist Mr. Grinsted Gibbons. London.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
Walpole, Horace. 1763. Anecdotes of Painting in England...Collected by the Late Mr. George Vertue. Vol. 3. Strawberry Hill: Thomas Farmer.
Kinds of Monuments in Vetusta Monumenta
About Thematic Essays for Vetusta Monumenta
Overview by Noah Heringman: Vetusta Monumenta is a miscellaneous series by any standard, presenting monuments that range in date from the third to the seventeenth century CE and in size from a half-groat to a castle. Martin Myrone has noted the positive and negative aspects of this enormous range: “Viewed as a serial publication, the Vetusta Monumenta was, depending on one’s point of view, enormously flexible and responsive … or simply incoherent” (2007, 103). This heterogeneity can be vexing to modern readers trained in more specialized disciplines, but it also facilitates a new kind of engagement with the cultural past: the antiquarian idea of antiquity was a capacious one, in some ways more so than ideas that are current today.
The remit of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) was originally defined as “Brittish Antiquitys” in the Articles of Incorporation drawn up by William Stukeley in 1717; to judge from Stukeley’s own contributions to Vetusta Monumenta, this field extended from the map of Roman Verulamium (Plate 1.7) to medieval built works such as the eleventh-century Bishop’s Chapel at Hereford (Plate 1.49) and Waltham Cross (Plate 1.8), erected in the late thirteenth century. When John Fenn classified the contents of the first two volumes of Vetusta Monumenta in 1784, he narrowed the field to pre-Conquest monuments, subdivided into British, Roman, Saxon, and Danish Antiquities, but then identified six additional categories of monuments, mainly medieval and post-medieval: II. Coins, Medals, and Seals; III. Castles, Palaces, Gates, Crosses; IV. Abbeys, Churches, [and related architectural features]; V. Portraits; VI. Historic Prints and Processions; VII. Plans, Maps, and Miscellaneous (Fenn 1784, 18).
I. Antiquities (British, Roman, Saxon, Danish):
All but two of the sixteen plates listed by Fenn in this category are dedicated to Roman Britain, though one of these has since been recognized as medieval (Plate 1.1). The only item under “British antiquities” is Plate 2.20, which features bronze instruments found in Ireland, along with an Iron Age shield from Shropshire. The item under Danish Antiquities is the “Horn of Ulf” engraved in 1718 (Plate 1.2). The first and only Saxon monument recorded in Vetusta Monumenta in the eighteenth century, Ruthwell Cross (Plates 2.54-2.55), was engraved in 1789, postdating Fenn’s index. The only other additions to the whole class of “antiquities” after Fenn are three more Roman mosaic pavements: Plates 2.43, 2.44, and 3.39. The overwhelming majority of the plates engraved after George Vertue’s death in 1756 (most of them by James Basire Sr) represent Gothic architecture, an emphasis which in turn demonstrates the influence of the medievalist Richard Gough, the director of the SAL during much of this time.
For more on engravings of Roman Britain, see “Vetusta Monumenta and Britain’s Classical Past,” written specially for this edition by Sarah Scott.
II. Coins, Medals, and Seals:
In the 1720s, members of the SAL began planning a history of British coinage, to be titled Metallographia Britannica, and subcommittees were appointed to supervise the recording of Roman, Saxon, Danish, and English coins. Like many early projects of the SAL, this one crumbled under the weight of its own ambition, but a number of side projects, including several plates in the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta, provide evidence of repeated attempts over about four decades. Crystal B. Lake and David Shields provide a detailed account of this attempted history of coinage in their commentaries on Plates 1.55, 1.56, and 1.69. Plate 1.56 concludes a four-part series of plates featuring coins (Plates 1.37-1.38, 1.43, and 1.56), and Plate 1.55 features a number of medals not otherwise accommodated by the series. Plate 1.20, engraved considerably earlier, was updated several times to reflect the progress of the Society’s efforts in this area. All these plates show medieval and early modern coins. Many Roman coins were exhibited at meetings of the SAL from the very beginning, but neither these nor the Saxon and Danish coins are visible in the print series.
Fenn’s index shows a more sustained engagement with seals, which are featured in each of the first three volumes. In addition to Plates 1.5, 1.28-1.33, 1.53-1.54, 1.58-60, 2.7, 2.19, and 2.36 (all listed by Fenn), seals are also featured on Plates 3.26-3.30. In addition, as noted by Fenn, facsimiles of certain documents are included at least in part because of the seals attached to them, including Plates 1.62, 2.4, and 2.6. George Vertue, who engraved all but two of the first 87 plates in the series, collected coins himself and used this subset of prints to make a study of arts historically related to his own art of copper engraving, including seal engraving and the even older art of creating the dies from which coins were struck.
For more on medieval seals and Vetusta Monumenta, see the “Introduction to Medieval Seals and the Growth of Sigillography,” written specially for this edition by Laura Whatley.
III. Castles, Palaces, Gates, and Crosses:
IV. Abbeys; Churches and Chapels; Tombs and Shrines; Fonts and Windows:
It is less than clear why Fenn subdivided the architectural plates in Vetusta Monumenta in this particular way, though the large total number of architectural subjects certainly helps to account for these numerous subdivisions. As these subcategories suggest, a large majority of the subjects are medieval, ranging in date from the eleventh through the early fifteenth century. Some Tudor and Stuart monuments are also included, and the only font in Volume I is actually the most recent antiquity in the whole set, Grinling Gibbons’s marble font in St. James’s, Piccadilly (Plate 1.3). Three medieval fonts were engraved for the series by Basire in 1785 and 1793 (Plates 2.39-2.40 and 3.25).
Fully eight of the castles listed by Fenn were engraved by Vertue from Elizabethan drawings of castles from the office of the Duchy of Lancaster, all of which were in ruins or entirely destroyed before the eighteenth century. Only Colchester Castle (Plates 1.35-1.36) was depicted in its then-current state. Five plates of Hedingham Castle, Essex, were added in 1796 (Plates 3.40-3.44). The creators of the series turned more attention to palaces after 1750, including the Savoy (Plates 2.5, 2.12, and 2.14) and the royal palaces of Richmond (2.23-2.24), Placentia (2.25), and Hampton Court (2.27). Beaulieu or New Hall, Essex (2.41-2.42), was added in 1786. The subset of Gates and Crosses includes a mix of religious and secular built works, including the monumental St. Benet’s Abbey gate (1.13-1.14) and the Eleanor Cross at Waltham (1.7), on the one hand, and, on the other, two gates built by Henry VIII for Whitehall Palace (Plates 1.17-19), along with four market crosses (Plates 1.61, 1.64, 2.8, 2.10)—though of course the market cross presents a nexus of religious iconography and commercial space. Waltham Cross became the first and only monument to be engraved twice for Vetusta Monumenta, appearing for the second time in 1790 when Basire engraved it from a new drawing by Jacob Schnebbelie as part of a plate set comprising six of the Eleanor Crosses (Plates 3.12-3.17). Yet another cross engraved for the series was Ruthwell Cross, mentioned above as a “Saxon antiquity.”
The pairing of gates and crosses seems less intuitive than the pairing of castles and palaces, but since at least some monuments in each group are secular, the group as a whole may be distinguished from Fenn’s fourth class, which comprises only religious structures.
Fenn’s Class IV, with its seven subcategories, comprises the largest set of engravings on his list, including twenty-four plates dedicated to fourteen monuments. The largest plate set in the group and in the whole series (Plates 2.29-2.35) features seven plates of funerary monuments in Westminster Abbey, in which the interest in abbeys converges with the interest in tombs and shrines. The engravings by Basire are based on preparatory drawings traditionally attributed to his apprentice William Blake, though that attribution is now in doubt. Another monument in Westminster Abbey, the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, had been published quite early in the series (Plate 1.16). Sepulchral monuments, as Gough called them in the title of a large work he published under his own name (1786-96), became a special focus for the series in the 1780s, with engravings of three massive monuments in Winchester Cathedral, the monument of Edward IV at Windsor Castle, and others. Walsingham, Fountains, and Furness Abbeys, “majestic though in ruin,” were all featured in Volume I, along with the newly demolished chapel at the Bishop’s Palace in Hereford. The subcategories of fonts and windows are represented by only one monument each on Fenn’s list, though three more fonts were added later, as already mentioned; the east window of St. Margaret’s, Westminster remains the only window, though of course windows appear in many of the plates of churches in Volumes II-III—seven all told, ranging in size from Magdalen Chapel, Winchester to Lincoln Minster (other cathedrals were engraved for the separate cathedral series launched by the SAL in the 1790s). No other abbeys are featured in Volumes II-III, however.
Fenn’s admittedly capacious list of religious structures points toward a powerful interest in medieval ecclesiastical architecture that would only increase in the last two decades on the eighteenth century.
Fenn includes eight portraits in his list, but not all of these are ancient. In the commentaries in this edition there is a special focus on the portraits of modern antiquaries (Plates 1.45, 1.66, 2.3, and 2.28), which Fenn groups somewhat incongruously with historic portraits of Richard II (Plate 1.4) and the twelfth-century monk Eadwin of Canterbury (Plate 2.16). The portraits of antiquaries are of particular interest here because collectively they tell a story about the history of antiquarianism, linking the eighteenth-century SAL genealogically to the Elizabeth Society of Antiquaries by including Robert Cotton (1571-1631) along with the eighteenth-century antiquaries Thomas Tanner, George Holmes, and Charles Lyttelton (all of whom are honored by engraved portraits in the series shortly after their deaths). Intriguingly, Fenn also includes the two portrait medals of Queen Elizabeth (Plate 1.20) in this category, along with a whole series of portraits by Vertue that were reissued separately from Vetusta Monumenta. Lyttelton’s portrait in 1770 was the last to appear in the series itself.
VI. Historic Prints and Processions:
Only one entry from Vetusta Monumenta appears under this heading in Fenn’s list, the plate set devoted to Henry VIII’s Westminster Tournament Roll of 1510 (Plates 1.21-1.26). As Crystal B. Lake shows in her commentary on that plate set, Vertue is equally concerned to document the medial form of these images, the spectacularly long vellum roll painted with colorful chivalric figures, a virtual procession to rival the tournament itself. Although it does not apply broadly to Vetusta Monumenta, Fenn’s classification remains useful because it places this series in the context of another important publication series of the SAL, the Historical Prints series that ran from 1774-1781, in which Basire’s engraving of the “Field of the Cloth of Gold” is perhaps the most famous entry.
VII. Plans, Maps, and Miscellaneous Prints:
It might be said that Fenn ran out of steam at this point in his classification project, or perhaps the final “Miscellaneous” grouping (VII.2) had to be created for those five plates that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Volume I, in fact, includes two maps of Roman Britain: both Stukeley’s map of Verulamium (Plate 1.8) and Francis Drake’s Plan of the Roman Roads in Yorkshire (Plate 1.47), which is (oddly) overlooked by Fenn. The two plans listed by Fenn—a plan of the Tower Liberties from 1597 (Plate 1.63) and a plan of London after the Great Fire (Plates 2.1-2.2)—are both quite modern and are quite similar in style and approach.
Fenn’s “miscellaneous” antiquities—an arbitrary and incomplete subset, but nonetheless indicative—comprise fragments of the Cotton Genesis MS after it was decimated by the Cotton Library fire of 1731 (1.67-1.68); the exechequer’s Standard of Weights and Measures, an exquisitely illuminated black-letter manuscript from the reign of Henry VII (Plate 1.69); two medieval bronze bells, which even to Fenn do not seem to fit with the Roman bronze objects with which Vertue grouped them (Plate 2.17); a medieval mantlepiece from Saffron Waldon (2.19); and curiously, the 1747 title page and catalogue from Volume I of Vetusta Monumenta itself.
Fenn, John. 1784. “An Index to the Prints Published by the Society of Antiquaries.” In Three Chronological Tables, Exhibiting a State of the Society of Antiquaries, 17-30. London: J. Nichols.
Gough, Richard. 1786-1796. Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain. London: J. Nichols.
Myrone, Martin. “The Society of Antiquaries and the Graphic Arts.” In Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007, edited by Susan Pearce, 98-121. London: The Society of Antiquaries.
Stukeley, William. 1717. “Articles of Incorporation.” Society of Antiquaries of London, Manuscripts MS 265. [SAL Minutes, Vol. 1].1