Survey of London Monograph 13, Swakeleys, Ickenham. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1933.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
IT is not often that English sculpture has a place in English literature, but there is a locus classicus in Pepys's Diary about the screen at Swakeleys which tells us much that we could not otherwise have guessed, though not the name of the sculptor, which, happily, is no longer a mystery.
(fn. 1) "A coach of Mr. Povey's stood ready for me," he says on Sept. 7th, 1665, "and he at his house ready to come in, and so we together merrily to Swakely, Sir R. Viner's. A very pleasant place, bought by him of Sir James Harrington's lady. He took us up and down with great respect and showed us all his house and grounds; and it is a place not very moderne in the garden nor house, but the most uniforme in all that ever I saw; and some things to excess. Pretty to see over the screene of the hall (put up by Sir J. Harrington, a Long Parliament man) the King's head, and my lord of Essex on one side and Fairfax on the other; and upon the other side of the screene, the parson of the parish and the lord of the manor and his sisters."
The screen then was an addition to the original hall, built by Sir Edmund Wright, father-in-law of Sir James Harrington, in 1638, and Sir Robert Viner had only owned it a few months when Pepys visited it. Harrington, a theoretical Republican, had been groom of the chamber to Charles I at Holmby House and Carisbrooke, and his choice of heroes for his hall is not a little curious. The lord of the manor and his sisters, and the parson of the parish have disappeared, and only two busts, those of Charles and of one of the Parliamentary generals, are still in situ. That of Fairfax represents him in armour with a scarf, and appears to be the only contemporary bust in existence. (fn. 2) The Charles is of a somewhat heavy type, its nearest analogy being the Charles I at Portsmouth, but before discussing it further, since to do so involves discussion of the screen itself, it may be well to note the fact that in the mausoleum attached to the church at Ickenham, now used as a vestry, is the missing bust of Essex, sadly weathered, but unmistakable. Like Fairfax he wears armour and a scarf, and his condition can only have been due to long exposure to the open air; it would seem that at some period it was removed, probably along with the three busts of which no traces now remain, and was recovered and placed in the church during the nineteenth century. Its style can be judged from the Fairfax—competent but somewhat heavy work.
As to the authorship, it is absolutely certain that busts and screen are contemporary, and from the same hand. The style is that familiar in many works by members of the Masons' Company: plain pillars, a heavy architrave and broken pediment, on which the busts were placed to face both ways, as the surviving examples show, taking the place, that is, of the coat of arms which usually occupied such a position, though the placing of busts on such a pediment is by no means unprecedented. (fn. 3) The date of erection is uncertain : it cannot have been before Harrington's marriage, and may well have been some years after; about 1655 would be a reasonable guess.
The following is a summary of the documentary evidence relating to the sculptor whose claims to the authorship seem to me to be overwhelming, but whose very existence is unknown to historians of English art.
John Colt the younger, son of the John Colt who executed various details on the funeral effigy of Queen Elizabeth, (fn. 4) and nephew of the famous Maximilian Colt, was English born, brought up as a carver from his youth, and ultimately the trusted assistant of Le Sueur, for whom he executed most, if not all, of the marble portions of Le Sueur's works. This screen is a most curious amalgam of the two contrasted influences. The busts of Essex and Fairfax are, in details of scarf-armour and technique, twin brothers to the bearded officer by John Colt on Le Sueur's monument of Richard Weston, first Earl of Portland, at Winchester; the Charles generally resembles Le Sueur's bronze bust at Portsmouth, but the lions are pure Maximilian, and so are the classic masks on the entablature, the latest of the type known to me on a seventeenth-century work; (fn. 5) the shields are of the type used by almost all members of the Mason's Company at the time, (fn. 6) and the cherubs bear a remarkable resemblance to those on Maxmimilian's tomb of the little Princess Mary in Westminster Abbey.
Maximilian Colt was dead; Le Sueur, abroad in 1651, may have been dead also; it was entirely natural for Harrington to apply to the nephew of the one, the assistant of the other, when he required a bust of the King whom both had served; Colt, who had not left the parish where his family had lived so long, was the obvious man for the commission, and Swakeleys is fortunate in possessing the largest known work, so far the only one identified as wholly his, by a sculptor whose activities were unsuspected until June, 1933. And can the bust in the niche upon the gable of the north-west front be, by any chance, Sir James Harrington himself à la romaine ? Be this as it may, he, too, may well be the work of this John Colt, whose existence, even, was unknown, save for a summary of a petition in the State Papers Domestic for 1660, which omits the one important fact of his having been assistant to Le Sueur. The full publication of this and other facts relating to the family must be undertaken elsewhere; here we are only concerned to show that the busts on which Pepys commented were the latest known works of the last survivor of a family of artists which had been at work in England since 1585.
While this was in the press, a photograph of the signed bust of Richard Shuckburgh (d. 1656) was sent me by Mr. Philip Chatwin, F.S.A., which seems to prove that the Swakeleys Charles is the work of Peter Bennier or Besnier, sculptor to Charles I., and appointed keeper of his statues in 1643. Hair, armour, the very scarf-knob, are identical in treatment, and it seems likely that, while Harrington already possessed the bust of Charles, he, on acquiring Swakeleys, commissioned John Colt to do the screen and the remaining busts, some of which are of local interest. The sculpture thus represents the work of two Royalist carvers, both new to our art history.