Last of the double-decker monuments? Mary, Lady Wentworth c1676-1706
Visit this monument
Bath BA1 1LT
Bath BA1 1LT
A poignant tribute to a young woman, uniting beauty and bodily decay
High up on the west wall of the south transept of Bath Abbey is a modest Baroque memorial to a late Stuart aristocrat. At first glance, it seems to be a glamorous depiction of a young woman, fashionably deshabillée, held aloft by putti. But look closer, and you see that they stand on bone-strewn earth.
Mary was one of eight children born to John Lowther, 1st Viscount Lonsdale (1655-1700) and his wife Lady Katharine, née Thynne (1653-1712/3), sister of Thomas Thynne, 1st Viscount Weymouth. Lonsdale, formerly a baronet, was elevated to the peerage in 1696 for his support of William and Mary: he was a Privy Councillor from 1689 and a short-lived first lord of the Treasury in 1690, and one of the principal northern magnates of his day. When he died, he received an opulent monument at Lowther (Cumbria) by William Stanton (1639-1705) showing the aristocrat reclining in his robes of state and holding his coronet. Mary married John Wentworth (c.1673-1720) of North Elmshall (Yorkshire West Riding), a gentleman of great means who was created baronet in 1692, the year of their marriage. Wentworth’s second wife would be Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. Mary thus belonged to the smartest echelon of late Stuart society.
Her father, we know, did not enjoy good health and he spent time taking the cure at Bath, Britain’s foremost spa. Mary was one of the many to seek medical salvation there, only to find their resting place instead. Her husband duly raised a monument in her memory, close to her grave inside the Abbey. She was only thirty, and left two children behind.
The marble monument is in three stages. The central section has the inscription cut into a feigned drape, pinned to the front; it rests on a console, carved with luscious acanthus leaves, and its upper level is gadrooned. At the top, an oval portrait medallion with a bolection-moulded frame is held aloft by two cherubs. The portrait is in very high relief, and is relaxed in its portrayal: her hair falls loose on her shoulders and her lace-trimmed shift loosely covers her chest. There is great spirit in the cutting: her hair is piled high in a sequence of thick strands, the drapery is richly conceived and the lace is minutely depicted with drilled incisions. Her blank eyes look heavenwards. There is a spectacular painted portrait of her by the Dutch painter Gottfried Schalcken (1643-1706) which once hung at her parents’ great house of Lowther Castle, showing her standing in a classical landscape beside exotic fruits, and with a glorious parrot beside her. Painted during the artist’s London sojourn in the mid-1690s, it is now in the Sewerby Hall Museum and Art Gallery, Bridlington, and it was very likely the model for the carved portrait on the monument: the portrait and dress are very close to each other.
The part of the tomb which first captured my notice was the rough piece of ground below the oval. It is heaped up, and tooled to create an earthen feel. Leaves and flowers grow from the soil, and when you look closer you will see what makes this ground so rich: scattered about are human bones, emerging from a rich dust.
You could describe this as one of the last of the ‘double-decker’ tombs: those late medieval monuments originating in episcopal circles around 1430, which depicted the dignified figure of a bishop reclining on top, while below lay their emaciated cadaver, exposed for all to see. Here, Lady Wentworth’s fashionable beauty is captured for all time, but her mortality is made painfully clear as well. This was an unusual way of perpetuating the memory of a young wife and mother, and it shows an intense sort of piety which offset the image of lost love against the inevitability of death.
It is not known for certain who carved the monument. William Stanton was responsible for her father’s monument at Lowther (Cumbria) and Edward Stanton (c.1681-1734), his son, is a likely candidate for Lady Wentworth’s. It also has similarities to the work of Francis Bird (1667-1731). The monument has not received much notice over the years, but its combination of Stuart fashion and the enduring theme of physical decay warrant its being better known.
J.V. Beckett, ‘Lowther, John, first Viscount Lonsdale’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), available online.
G.E.C[ockayne] ed., The Complete Baronetage volume 4, 1665-1707 (1904), p.160.
For Schalcken’s portrait, see https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-honourable-mary-lowther-b-after-1665-77816