27 January 2018

The woman who sculpted
the figures on the west
door of Lichfield Cathedral

The figures on the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral were carved by the Victorian sculptor Mary Grant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Although the 18th century was a golden age for the City of Lichfield, it was a period of decay for the cathedral. The 15th-century library, on the north side of the nave, was pulled down and the books moved to their present location above the Chapter House.

Most of the statues on the west front of the cathedral were removed the 18th century and the stonework covered with Roman cement. At the end of the 18th century, James Wyatt organised major structural work, removing the High Altar to make one worship area of Choir and Lady Chapel and adding a massive stone screen at the entrance to the Choir.

The ornate west front was extensively renovated in the Victorian era by the Gothic revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). He was influenced and inspired by AWN Pugin, and his pupils included George Edmund Street.

The west front includes a remarkable number of ornate carved figures of kings, queens and saints, working with original materials where possible and creating fine new imitations and additions when the originals were not available.

Almost all the 113 figures on the west front were replaced during Scott’s restoration of the cathedral. The architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, dates them to 1876-84, ‘replacing cement or stucco statues of 1820-1822.’ Most of the statues were produced locally from the Bridgeman workshop nearby in Quonian’s Lane.

The only exceptions were a likeness of Queen Victoria on the main fa├žade, by her sculptor daughter Princess Louise, and those around the central doorway by Mary Grant (1831-1908). A mediaeval carving of Christ in Glory remains in place in the canopy over the doorway.

Visitors viewing the west front seem to pay less attention to the figures around the central doorway by Mary Grant. These include her sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who supports her lifelike infant gently. The Christ Child has one arm raised in blessing. Next to them, on the viewer's left, stands Saint Mary Magdalene, holding ointment, and the ‘Other Mary’ to the right. The figure of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, with the two women who visit the grave at Easter morning placed behind them, link the Incarnation and the Resurrection, Christmas and Easter.

Mary Grant, once described as ‘one of the busiest of lady-sculptors,’ was born in 1831 in Kilgraston, Perthshire, into a distinguished family. She was a granddaughter of the seventh Earl of Elgin, who pilfered the Parthenon Marbles from the Acropolis in Athens and sold them to the British Museum in London.

Her aunt, Mary Anne Grant, and her uncle, Sir Francis Grant, were artists too. Sir Francis was a successful portrait painter and became President of the Royal Academy and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Another uncle, General James Hope Grant, was a British military hero.

Sculpture was a profession that required a degree of physical strength but her aristocratic and artistic background probably were advantages for a woman seeking to work in what was virtually an all-male preserve in the Victorian era.

After taking up sculpture in her 20s in the 1850s, Mary Grant studied in Florence under Odoardo Fantachiotti, then with John Gibson in Rome. After further studies in Paris under Michel Merier, she set up a studio in London in the late 1860s, where she worked under the direction of John Henry Foley. She later visited America.

She was best known for medallion reliefs and received commissions from aristocratic families and from Queen Victoria. Her work includes a portrait of Queen Victoria for India and a bronze bust of Charles Stewart Parnell for the Royal Academy.

Her other works include the screen of Winchester Cathedral and the marble reredos and a group of Saint Margaret and the Dragon in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Mary Grant never married, and she died in Chelsea on 20 February 1908.

The ornate west front of Lichfield Cathedral was extensively renovated by Sir George Gilbert Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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