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)

The rustic charms of Beacon Street
and Stafford Road in Lichfield

Morning lights on a winter stroll along Beacon Street in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Each day during my all-too-short stay in Lichfield this week, I enjoyed the 15-minutes stroll between the Hedgehog, on the northern fringes of the city, along Stafford Road and Beacon Street to the daily services in Lichfield Cathedral.

In the light of early morning and in the late evening, with the birdsong in the trees and the lights of the winter sun, there is a semi-rural feeling in the air, enhanced by the rustic look of many of the houses along these streets.

During the December snows, when a Facebook friend posted photographs from this area, I told him if I was to live in any street in Lichfield, I would probably want to buy a house on Beacon Street.

Lickle Cottage on the west side of Beacon Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Some years ago, I wrote that it is striking how many buildings along Beacon Street have strong educational associations. But Beacon Street is a truly charming residential area in the north of Lichfield, with some timber-framed houses and cottages dating back to the 18th century or earlier.

Not all of these houses and cottages are listed buildings, but Lickle Cottage with its charming size and position typifies the charm of this part of Lichfield.

Later houses, influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Tudor-style pubs like the prize-winning Feathers and the Fountain, recently rescued from threats of closure, add to the character of the area and give it a curious ambience that is a mixture of both rural setting and late Victorian suburb.

The Fountain on the west side of Beacon Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As Beacon Street turns into Stafford Road, the rustic ambience becomes even more noticeable. The Cottage and Little Cottage are Grade II listed houses side-by-side at 24 and 24A Stafford Street.

The Cottage at 24 Stafford Road, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Cottage at No 24 is house, while Little Cottage is the converted former stable block, both dating from around 1820, with late 20th century alterations. They are built in brick (No 24) and roughcast (No 24A) and have tile roofs and brick stacks. There are modillioned brick cornices, a doorcase with a cornice, an overlight to the six-panel door, and a canted bay window. Two windows on the ground floor have 20th century bowed oriels.

The Little Cottage at 24A Stafford Road, Lichfield, is a converted former stable block (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As I continued along Stafford Road, the moles had dug their hills and holes in the open spaces, and the lawns in front of the Hedgehog were beginning to show what I imagined were the first hints of Spring growth.

Staying at the Hedgehog Vintage Inn on the northern fringes of Lichfield this week (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2018)