Monuments in St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

St Martin in the Fields, the iconic church on the corner of Trafalgar Square, is today famous for its music, but as well was influential in church architecture, and was the burial place of many artists. From the point of view of these pages, Nicholas Stone, the early British sculptor must be mentioned – more on him below. The sculptor Roubiliac also. And we should mention Nicholas Hilliard, the famous goldsmith and jeweller to Queen Elizabeth, Nicholas Lanier, and as an aside, the courtesan Nell Gwynn.

The architect was James Gibbs, who won this commission on the basis of his nearby church along the Strand, and the massive Corinthian portico is one of the most impressive of any London church. The controversial part of the church was the steeple, placed atop the Nave rather than visibly rooted to the ground to emphasise its weight and solidity, and many architects were inspired to follow this example, in Britain and apparently in America. The church dates from 1722-24, and replaced an older medieval structure from which a few monuments still remain, as we shall see. The 16th century structure was enlarged and repaired several times, survived the Fire of 1666, but was judged unsound and was demolished in about 1720. At that time relatives of those buried in the church were allowed to take away both remains and monuments, and apparently among those removed was the monument to Sir Amyas Paulet, in alabaster, which went to the church of Hinton St George. We should note that the splendid site of the new church only came about with the opening up of Trafalgar Square in the 19th Century, and at the time it was built, St Martins would have been quite hemmed in and not seen to such advantage.

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The exterior, in Portland stone, is notable for its Corinthian portico and its steeple (see the page on Gibbs). We may also note here the large carving of the Arms of George I, see bottom of this page. Inside, the nave is notable for its lightness and airiness, and delicate mouldings by Italian artists (Artari and Bagutti), as favoured by Gibbs. In the 19th Century, the church was presented with two busts by Rysbrack, one of which was of James Gibbs, but this has not been on display when I have visited, though I have seen photographs of it. There are two nice paintings at the East end, with mosaic background, from the end of the 19th Century.

Now to the monuments which are the concern of these pages. As noted above, Nicholas Stone, the sculptor, was buried in St Martin in the Fields. His monument is gone, but Vertue saw it and noted the epitaph (quoted from Walpole Soc transcription):

‘To the Lasting Memory of Nicholas Stone Esqr. Master Mason to his Majestie. In his Time esteemd for his knowledge in Sculpture & Architecture wh[i]ch his works in Many parts do Testifie. And (though made for others), will prove Monuments of his Fame. He departed this life on ye 24. of August 1647. aged 61. And lyeth buried near the Pulpit in this church. Mary his wife & Nicholas his Sonne lye also buried in the same grave. She died Nov 19 & he on the 17 Sept. 1647.

[N. Stones bas-reliefe his effigies also and round the effigies these words NICHOLAS STONE sculptor & architect &c.].

Vertue also notes that another son, Henry Stone of Long Acre, painter and Statuary, was also buried in the church and had a monument on the exterior of the church on the East wall near the Gate.

1900s view of St Martin in the Fields.

The collection of monuments as it exists today extends to perhaps 50 or 60 pieces, though many are fragments, and others are simple plaques of interest for their inscriptions rather than any carved work. Until WW2 they hung on the walls and pillars of the nave, and in the choir and vestry, and by and large those on the pillars seem to have survived, and those on the walls mostly perished. What remains, together with some fragments from the old church which were already underground in pre-War times, are now all together in the crypt, bar a single plaque in the nave to Louisa Louis, d.1838, servant to Princess Charlotte of Wales, with a thick border carved with scrolls and a bit of foliage. Down underground, the monuments are nicely displayed and well lit, if losing something of their previous ambience by being placed in the new space beneath and now extending well beyond the old foundations of the church.

There are half a dozen monuments with significant sculptural adornment, and we note these first:

There are a variety of nicely carved fragments too. Oldest are probably the headless and handless kneeling female of Tudor date, and not associated with this, three small kneelers in high relief, much damaged, likely the female children on a larger monument from the old church.

Next to the Bilson monument, and even older, are two fragments of dark stone, showing similar coats of arms. The first is a dark little shield, quartered, with a helm on top with a winged beast, originally a unicorn, but which has lost its front part to the jaws and nose, leaving a short snout, lots of swirls around, all in a perfect circle with a base and a projection on top, perhaps one of three such circles on top of a monument. The second fragment has more complex heraldic adornment, being in eight vertical divisions, divided horizontally to give 16 compartments, with various simple insignia, including a lion, perhaps a thistle, three flying birds, and nine standing birds among lesser designs. All surrounded by the remaining parts of an oval wreath of fruit and flowers, well carved and most three dimensional. These two are all that remain from the ‘spacious marble tomb and monument’ to William Cooke, son of Sir Anthony Cooke of Giddea Hall – the more complex crest is thought to be that of his second son, Sir Hercules Francis Cooke.

Look out too for the complete top of a the white marble monument, being the shelf which would have been on top of the plaque, now missing, a coffin tomb with heavy drape lying over it, and the relief profile of a lady with a wreath of olive leaves around. The face is delicately modelled, and shows her as smooth skinned but perhaps past the first flush of youth, with a long neck, and with her longish hair pinned up and back close to the skull. No inscription remains, but we may guess at 1820-1840.

We note en passant other, plain monuments, in date order:

And that is it. The lunchtime concerts are greatly recommended to the visitor to London, as is tea in the atmospheric crypt.

Royal Arms in the pediment.

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James Gibbs // Trafalgar Square // London sculpture // Sculptors

Monuments in some London Churches // Churches in the City of London // Introduction to church monuments

Angel statues // Cherub sculpture

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