By the beginning of the 1800s, Bath had one of the largest populations in Britain. Thousands visited the city for the season, often to take the reputedly health-improving waters. As well the daily visit to the Pump Room and myriad Georgian pastimes – from angling to travelling zoos – they promenaded the Parades, danced at the Assembly Rooms, gambled at cards, and visited ‘the Abbey-Church’. There, as Dr. Henry Harington quipped, they could see around its walls monuments and busts which showed “how well Bath waters lay the dust”.
Attending a service at the Abbey was part of Bath’s social scene where card sharps and tricksters “infested … the very churches” and beaux made eyes at and passed notes to prospective lovers as at a ball: “the Ladies were the only Saints several came there to Adore”, bemoaned one writer. In wet weather, the Abbey was also a place to promenade “after church time”. In addition to the living one might meet, visitors walking in the church could experience an unparalleled ‘gallery of sculpture’ commemorating the dead. Oil painters such as William Hoare and Thomas Gainsborough had showrooms where they exhibited work in the 1770s. However, before the city’s now-celebrated museums and galleries, the Abbey was the only permanent place one could view the latest works of sculpture in Bath, some by celebrated London-based sculptors such as John Bacon, John Francis Moore, and John Flaxman. Samuel Grimm’s 1788 depiction of ‘A Service at Bath Abbey’ shows the Nave and the impact on and the extent to which the monuments dwarfed the congregation, with busts of the previous century looking down from the heights of the window mullions and Tudor pillars. In June 1780, the writer and diarist Fanny Burney attended the Abbey one Sunday morning and “after church-time” spent “an hour or two looking over the abbey-church, and reading epitaphs”. The actor James Quin’s and novelist Sarah Fielding’s monuments caught her eye causing her to wonder if anyone would erect such monument to her.
John Nixon’s drawing of ‘Quins monument, Bath’, which appeared as the frontispiece to The European Magazine and London Review in 1792, shows the Abbey ‘after church-time’ at the end of the eighteenth century. Like other eighteenth-century images of the interior, it shows a number of people walking around the church taking in the monuments. Nixon’s drawing is especially interesting in that it contrasts a trio of well-to-do male mourners for Quin with a working-class woman in an apron and a boy looking at another monument. In the background, a pair of elderly ladies observe a large monument in the North Aisle. For rich and poor, old and young, by the end of eighteenth century the Abbey’s monuments were a spectacular collection of ancient and contemporary sculpture, by some of the most celebrated local and national sculptors. They were a chance for viewers to see the most recent works of a popular artform from London, including those to famous individuals drawn out for special mention by local commentators, and to see Bible stories, symbols of Christian faith, and representations of resurrection before their eyes.
To eighteenth century eyes such monuments were both edifying and instructive. The Bath Chronicle drew its readers’ attention to the latest works that could be viewed and appealed to them for subscriptions to proposed works. Before the work of G.P. Manners in the mid-1830s and the installation of stained glass windows from the mid-nineteenth century, the Abbey’s monuments were the principal way in which the interior of the church was modernised and beautified annually. So popular were the monuments by 1778 that the Abbey produced its own guidebook to them. It was obviously popular in itself since the book ran to an updated second edition and was sold by the sexton, who also took a small fee for guiding visitors around the monuments.
Every seven years, Georgians could also pay threepence to see the tomb of Margaret and Thomas Lichfield (Queen Elizabeth I’s lutenist) opened and inspect their mummified remains. By the time of Victoria’s reign, church monuments had begun to fall out of fashion and were regarded as excessive distractions from what should be plainer, worshipful church interiors. The Abbey, like many cathedrals, attracted criticism for its “marble excresences;– sepulchral fungi;– stone tumours”. In particular, Westminster and Bath Abbeys had “become mere show rooms of sculpture, and warehouses of marble”, more akin to stonemasons’ yards than houses of God. The pewing of the church, introduction of central heating, and rearrangement of the monuments as part of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s reordering of the interior left the monuments in forms and locations almost unrecognisably different from their pride of place in the Georgian Abbey. Yet Scott’s work led to a renewed appreciation of the monuments and the Abbey interior and late Victorian writers, such as Emma Marshall and Mary Deane, continued to celebrate the Abbey’s monuments’ Georgian hey-day and their attraction to the city’s tourists.
Dr. Oliver Taylor’s book Bath Abbey’s Monuments: An Illustrated History tell’s the full story of Bath Abbey’s monuments for the first time and highlight the significance of the collection. Bath Abbey contains the greatest number of church monuments in any UK church or cathedral. Drawing on a wealth of unpublished material on the Abbey’s history, the book explains how the church and the city used monuments to help the Abbey rise from the aftermath of the Dissolution, to give it a new identity, a unique floor, and walls that tell the social history of Bath.
By Dr. Oliver Taylor