Westminster Abbey has a sizeable collection of life-size funeral effigies of kings, queens and other nobility made of wax and wood. As they are restored for a new exhibition gallery opening in 2018 the Abbey’s Eleanor Lovegrove shares some of their secrets
High above the floor of Westminster Abbey, in a gallery unseen for 700 years, work is nearing completion on a brand new museum: The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Opening next summer, the Galleries will display treasures from the Abbey’s thousand-year history, many of which have never been shown before. The Galleries will also offer spectacular views out to the Palace of Westminster, and across the Abbey church – a view described by the poet John Betjeman as the ‘finest in Europe’. .
Among the most intriguing objects on display will be the Abbey’s collection of funeral effigies.
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The effigies – life-sized figures made of wax and wood, and lavishly dressed in robes and jewels – were often carried during funeral processions. The Abbey has an unsurpassed collection of these remarkable yet little known treasures, the oldest of which date back to the 14th century.
Textile conservator Zenzie Tinker is leading the team assessing and conserving the clothing worn by the effigies, and explains what the work has involved: “We carefully undressed each effigy, slowly peeling back layers of clothing which have been hidden from view for years.
“It felt a little ghoulish and quite personal to be removing waistcoats, robes, corsets, petticoats, stockings and shoes – some were wearing as many as 18 items of clothing. Time has taken its toll on some of the garments, but many are still in remarkably good condition.”
While most of the effigies in the Abbey collection are of royal figures, others depict members of great aristocratic families. Among them are the effigies of the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham, and their sons, Edmund Sheffield and Robert, Marquis of Normanby. Edmund’s brightly coloured and richly embroidered waistcoat, though faded from exposure to light, shows glimpses of its former glory in the hidden folds of a pocket flap.
Edmund – or perhaps his mother – was obviously a keen follower of fashion: the embroidery technique used on his waistcoat shows a French method of shading coloured silks, which was only introduced by the Lyon designer, Jean Revel, in the year the young Duke died.
Perhaps more poignant though is the effigy of Edmund’s elder brother, Robert, Marquis of Normanby, who died in 1715 – the year before Edmund’s birth – aged only three. His effigy, 3 feet 3 inches tall, is wearing the finest clothes money could buy in the early 18th century. He is dressed with a real hair wig and an elaborate cap. These were removed to reveal his lifelike wax head, which may have been based on a death mask of the little boy.
Robert wears a full length cerise velvet robe trimmed with silver braid and lined with pink silk, under which Zenzie and her team found a rich silk and gold thread brocade long-sleeved waistcoat tied with a brocade sash. Beneath these two garments were tiny lace trimmed linen cuffs, a linen chemise and cravat, a little corset and square-toed brown leather boots.
Zenzie explains: “All of Robert’s clothes were in extremely good shape and needed little conservation except for the tiny linen cravat, which has unfortunately been nibbled by silverfish. One of the charming details we noticed were specially designed slits in the back of the robe where his leading reins would have been attached – a reminder of just how young little Robert was when he died.”
There is evidence that the multi-layers of clothing from the effigies have been repaired, restored and conserved many times over the years. Indeed, the history of repair is almost as fascinating as the garments themselves.
The Abbey’s archive contains tantalising snippets of information about past work, including notes about sums paid for their repair in the 18th century, and later letters and conservation reports outlining the work in greater detail.
A surprising find among the layers of fabric was a number of dry cleaning labels relating to work carried out on the effigies by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1930s. In those days, many of the clothes were sent to Sketchley Dye Works for cleaning. The Abbey has letters from one Sketchley premises in nearby Brompton Road, Kensington, assuring them of the very special attention and utmost care that would be paid to the cleaning of these historic textiles.
The labels are made from cream or blue cotton tape, hand written in black ink and sewn onto the seam allowances or edges of the garments. They appear to have been marked with an identifying number, possibly the Sketchley job number used to identify which of the effigies the garments belonged to. There is also a series of letters that seem to relate to the condition of the garment and possibly the dry cleaning solvent used to clean them. Many also carry a date, presumably of when they were cleaned.
Work to examine and conserve the clothes of Robert Normanby and the costumes of the Abbey’s 20 other effigies will continue over the coming months. The effigies will then be re-dressed and moved into their new home in the Galleries, which are giving the Abbey the opportunity to improve their display conditions, providing them with an environment that will assist in their survival for many years to come.
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries open at Westminster Abbey, London, in summer 2018.
London, Greater London
Westminster Abbey is one of the world's great churches, with a history stretching back over a thousand years. A royal church from its first beginnings, it still has the shrine of its principal founder, the Anglo-Saxon king and saint, Edward the Confessor, at the heart of the building. Since Edward's…