The Screen and its Busts. By Katharine A. Esdaile.
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.