Are Victorian-era neo-medieval effigy tombs the stuff of your dreams or the stuff of your nightmares? I flip repeatedly on this point. In fact, I think the reality is they are both simultaneously. I find them grotesque and terrifying yet compelling and beautiful. The true horror is the Victorian vision of a never-was medieval fantasy: they are all these things and both better and worse. Even more disturbing is when one realises some of them are not just generic evocations of ‘the medieval’, but take their specific inspiration from particular medieval tombs that remain extant today as they were in the 19th century.
To illustrate this point, I give to you Theodore Mansel Talbot’s tomb. Centrally positioned in the Talbot chapel of Margam Abbey church, it is hyper-medieval, in form, ornament and context. I say this because it is set within the nave of a medieval Cisterican abbey adapted for parish use, with the ruins of the monastery all around, and adjacent to the mock-medieval Margam Castle where Theodore had lived. This immersion in a fantasy faux medieval past of a Welsh gentry family is not generic, however, but very specific for this Talbot tomb. The design is a specific inspiration of a tomb that can still be seen in York Minster: the mid-13th-century canopied effigial monument to Archbishop Walter de Gray.
Its Victorian gentry counterpart to an ecclesiastical monument of unsurpassed fame (for English, at least) was completed in 1881 and takes the representation of the deceased to a new level of hyper-realism, cross on his chest, eyes closed, head to side. Theodore is in a faux-medieval setting, but he is shown with his Victorian sideburns in an attempt to represent as he was in life, or at least at the moment of death. Therefore, the effigy is almost akin to contemporary Victorian death photography, but rendered white marble, and without graffiti and the wear of centuries that medieval effigies come down to us bearing. Talbot ‘sleeps’ beneath a canopy the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the region ever and c. 625 years after de Gray’s tomb was installed at York. The tomb is signed by H.H. Armstead.
Offsetting the Mansel monuments in the south aisle. this monument evokes the episcopal medieval monument, but takes it to a new location and a private chapel. If that wasn’t enough, it bears a faux-Gothic brass inscription at the head end, making sure that, unlike some medieval effigies, the specific identity of the deceased doesn’t fall from memory.
Is it beautiful? Yes! Is it horrific? Yes! It haunts my dreams in both regards.
Adams, D.J. nd. Margam Abbey. The Mansel-Talbots & their Tombs. Friends of Margam Abbey.