Church Monuments Society

fig4isaac newton monument surround westminster abbey 1


Month: June 2024
Type: Effigy  
Era: 18th Century

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Westminster Abbey
Dean's Yard, London SW1P 3PA

More about this monument

Isaac Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey on 28th March, the first scientist to be so honoured.

The New Scientist has described Sir Isaac Newton as:

The supreme genius and most enigmatic character in the history of science. His three greatest discoveries – the theory of universal gravitation, the nature of white light and calculus – are the reasons why he is considered such an important figure in the history of science

He died on 20th March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 28th March, the first scientist to be so honoured.

The accounts of his executors record the following payment on 11th May: “for a Grave Stone of Marble 7 foot 3 inches by 3 foot nine inches and Cutting the Inscription £11-0-0”. This is the equivalent of £1,800 today. The inscription is in Latin and can be translated as: “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton.”

Subsequently Newton’s family paid for a monument to be erected near his grave. It was completed in August 1730 and unveiled the following year. The monument was designed by William Kent based on a sketch by John Conduitt, the husband of Isaac Newton’s niece, Catherine Barton. William Kent’s fee was £21 “for designing and conversing the said monument.” The sculptor was Michael Rysbrack who was paid £200 “on account of the deceased’s monument.” A further £300 was paid to three other people. The total cost of £521 is equivalent to £9,200 today.

There are a number of surviving sketches of the design for the monument. John Conduitt’s initial sketch is in the Keynes Library at King’s College, Cambridge (Fig. 1). William Kent’s original drawing (altered by Michael Rysbrack) together with the sculptor’s terracotta model are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A preliminary design by Michael Rysbrack together with another terracotta model are in The Box, Plymouth’s Museum and Art Gallery. Michael Rysbrack’s sculptor’s drawing is in the British Museum.

The Westminster Abbey website at describes the monument as follows:

The monument is of white and grey marble. Its base bears a Latin inscription and supports a sarcophagus with large scroll feet and a relief panel. The relief depicts boys using instruments related to Newton’s mathematical and optical work. One has a telescope, one is looking through a prism and another is balancing the Sun and planets on a steel yard. Others depict Newton’s activities as Master of the Mint (producing coin of the realm) – the figures carry pots of coins and an ingot (bar) of metal is being put into a furnace.

Above the sarcophagus is a reclining figure of Newton, in classical costume, his right elbow resting on several books representing his great works. They are labelled (on the fore-edges) “Divinity”, “Chronology”, “Opticks” (1704) and “Philo. Prin. Math” [Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1686-7]. With his left hand he points to a scroll with a mathematical design shown on it (the “converging series”), held by two standing boys. The background is a pyramid on which is a celestial globe with the signs of the Zodiac, of the constellations, and with the path of the comet of 1680. On top of the globe sits a figure of Urania (the muse of Astronomy) leaning upon a book. On either end of the base is his coat of arms, two shinbones in saltire, within a decorative cartouche.

The monument forms a pair with that for the Earl of Stanhope of 1733 (Fig. 2). The Westminster Abbey website continues:

“The monument originally stood out against the flat front of the choir screen (Fig. 3), but was enclosed within the present decorative arch when Edward Blore re-modelled the screen in 1834 (Fig. 4).”

There is a long inscription in Latin. Alexander Pope also wrote the following epitaph:

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light”

but the Westminster Abbey website comments that “this was not allowed to be put on the monument in the Abbey.” However, it does mean that the monument features in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” In the novel it is wrongly stated that Alexander Pope gave the eulogy at Newton’s funeral. This gives rise to the clue that the hero of the novel, Robert Langdon, has to solve in order to identify Newton’s monument as part of the quest which forms the theme of the novel.