Nige visits one of the most touching monuments in the country…
Ashbourne in Derbyshire is a fine and flourishing town, full of handsome buildings, including the house of John Taylor, Dr Johnson’s old schoolfriend, whom he often visited. A most unclerical cleric, Taylor’s chief interest lay in his herd of milch-cows – the finest in Derbyshire – but he read the service at Johnson’s funeral.
Also in Ashbourne, in the tall-spired church of St Oswald, is one of the finest and most touching of all English church monuments – that of Penelope Boothby, exquisitely carved in Carrara marble by Thomas Banks in 1791. It shows the little girl – she was just five when she died – lying on her side as if peacefully asleep. Life-sized and life-like, it is all the more heart-breaking for the contrast with the relatively stiff and formulaic effigies of other Boothbies in the family chapel in which it stands – and for the fact that Penelope is turned away from them all, toward us alone.
Penelope’s father, Brooke Boothby, was the subject of a famous portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (above), in which he reclines in a sylvan setting, with a volume of Rousseau in his hand. This was painted ten years before his daughter’s death and, though he too lies on his right side, the contrast between the two images could hardly be starker.
Brooke Boothby never really recovered from losing his only daughter, and wrote a book of sonnets dedicated to her memory. Sonnet XII describes the monument in Ashbourne church:
Well has thy classick chisel, Banks, express’d
The graceful lineaments of that fine form,
Which late with conscious, living beauty warm,
Now here beneath does in dread silence rest.
And, oh, while life shall agitate my breast,
Recorded there exists her every charm,
In vivid colours, safe from change or harm,
Till my last sigh unalter’d love attest.
That form, as fair as ever fancy drew,
The marble cold, inanimate, retains;
But of the radiant smile that round her threw
Joys, that beguiled my soul of mortal pains,
And each divine expression’s varying hue,
A little senseless dust alone remains.
More eloquent are the words inscribed on that monument:
She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate Parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.