Saturday, 4 April 2009

Chelsea Old Church, London

Situated close to Chelsea Embankment, a short walk from Battersea bridge, Chelsea Old Church appears as a rather unprepossessing, modern-looking red brick building. There are some nice leafy gardens around, but from the outside it is totally unremarkable.

But inside, it’s a revelation: for it possesses one of London’s outstanding collection of 16th and 17th century tombs and memorials. The church itself dates back to around the 13th century, although was much modified over the years, with significant additions in Tudor period and later. But all this was shattered in 1941, when the church received a direct hit from an enemy bomb, reducing most of it to its foundations. A huge effort was made to collect the remains and restore the church, and the present interior is faithful to the original mediaeval plan, and uses as much of the salvaged fabric as possible. Particularly lovely are the capitals on the More chapel, with faces and delicate relief carvings, reputedly designed by Holbein, to represent the symbols of Sir Thomas More’s offices of both church and state.

The tombs and memorials dominate the interior. Pride of place has to go to the monument of Sir Thomas More, on the south wall of the sanctuary. A plain perpendicular arch surmounts a marble panel with an inscription he drafted before his death, by beheading, in 1535. It commemorates his first wife and expresses the wish that he and his wife should be buried together. On the south wall, Lord Dacre (1595) and his wife lie, mediaeval style, under a huge classical canopy. Opposite, on the north wall, Lady Jane Cheyne (d 1669) looks out from under a baroque canopy, sculpted by Antonio Raggi, a collaborator of Bernini.

Richard Jervoise (1563) is commemorated with a huge triumphal arch (unique as a memorial in Britain) which thoroughly dominates the entrance to the Lawrence chapel. The bust of Sir Robert Stanley (1632) forms the centrepiece of another substantial Renaissance piece, just beyond. It is said his representation was one of the earliest to be modelled on his true likeness. Other memorials commemorate the Northumberlands, Brays, Hungerfords, Colvilles and Lawrences.

Most poignant for me, though, is a later memorial to four young men who drowned opposite the church when their boat sank in the Thames in 1839, ‘erected by a few of their intimate companions’.

Old Church Street, Chelsea, SW3 5DQ Website

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