Francis Chantrey – Sculptor to the Regency

In 1813, a newly made widow was journeying to Bath, accompanied by her young daughter. Ellen-Jane, for she was named after her mother, was perhaps unused to travelling. It may have even been the unfamiliar surroundings. One night, as she was preparing for bed, the little girl’s nightdress suddenly caught fire. She soon died of the burns she received. Distraught, the widow returned home to seek comfort in the company of her last remaining daughter, Marianne. Alas, a wretched illness overtook the child while they were in London. The widow had lost her entire family in the space of a few years.

Chantrey's Sleeping Children - photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Chantrey’s Sleeping Children – photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Look at those sleeping children; softly tread, Lest thou do mar their dream, and come not nigh
Till their fond mother, with a kiss, shall cry,  ‘Tis morn, awake! awake! Ah! they are dead!

William Lisle Bowles, chaplain to the Prince Regent

Untimely death was so very common in those days. However, this widow was determined her children would not be forgotten. She commissioned their likeness so their memory may live on. In death, their sculpture took the  ton by storm. By the time the Sleeping Children had been moved to the cathedral in Lichfield, the creator had become the new sculptor to the Regency:  Sir Francis Chantrey (1781 – 1841)

“Chantrey was designed by his father for the law; accident made him a carver in wood, poverty a painter, and his own genius a sculptor.” — The Eclectic Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art (vol. II, 1843)

His genius was clearly apparent in the tender simplicity expressed in his work. It is almost as if Chantrey was driven to create an unforgettable impression. Perhaps he had been moved by the widow’s fear her little girls would be forgotten, having been on this earth for such a short time. Indeed, it seems Chantrey was driven all his life to set portraits in stone before death destroyed the sitter’s flesh–and time his memory.

Chantrey’s sculptures of the Georgian era’s greatest figures still remain, even if their legacies are less certain: George III and his son, the Prince Regent. William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. They are also so numerous one can scarcely travel through England without encountering a roundabout circling “a Chantrey.”

The sculptor had a reputation for being blunt, which was somewhat surprising in a man who carved with such delicacy. That candor is perhaps a clue into his genius–a sign that Chantrey himself was suffering from an inordinate fear of being forgotten. It seems he felt that the ones who should remember him won’t. That the ones who he hoped loved him best will forsake his memory all too soon.

The acts of women in this regard seemed to have vexed him most particularly.

Grave of Marie Louise of Austria - Kaisergruft, Vienna

Grave of Marie Louise of Austria – Kaisergruft, Vienna

On several occasions he expressed extreme displeasure when any widow cast off her black weeds. His own mother had remarried after his father died, an act which he never forgave her for. Throughout the rest of her life he called her by her first married name–Mrs. Chantrey–and made certain all his letters to her were addressed in the same way. After he had become famous, his opinion on Napoleon’s widow remarrying made the rounds in Mayfair. His ideal was the famous Duchess of Marlborough, who swore never to remarry. Although her own architect (in a fit of temper) wished a Scottish ensign to have her, Sir Chantrey quite approved of the example she set.

When his own death approached, the sculptor took no chances. He drew up a will cutting off Lady Chantrey’s income if she should remarry. He had less success with the plans for his elaborate tomb. A close friend thought he was mad, not understanding how one should desire to be sealed up “like a toad in a stone for some future geologist to discover.”

But no marble tomb or bust encrusted with pigeon droppings can compare to the legacy Chantrey’s will created. Dutiful to the last, his widow left behind his fortune for the benefit of others. This bequest created and maintained England’s marvelous Tate Museum, an effort which continues to this day.

Thanks for the memories.

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15 thoughts on “Francis Chantrey – Sculptor to the Regency

  1. What a great post! So sad about the widow’s children sculptured in stone….that is lovely. I have always been intrigued by cemetary sculpture/ monuments in U.S……the famous weeping angel sculpture comes to mind. (I have forgotten the name of the sculptor.) Thanks for the interesting post.

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    • Some of these grave monuments are very evocative. It wasn’t cheap (not that it is now) to commission a carving of this magnitude. She was a widow of the rector of Lichfield.

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