08.04.2015
10:53

Westminster Abbey Museum

Address:

East Cloisters, 20 Dean’s Yard, Broad Sanctuary, SW1P 3PA

Phone:

020-7222 5152

Website:

www.westminster-abbey.org

Opening times:

Daily 9:30–15:30

How to get there:

Tube: Westminster

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Shop

This small museum, situated off the east side of the cloisters, houses some of the abbey’s most precious treasures. The chief exhibits are the extraordinary and unique group of effigies, in wood and wax, used in medieval and Tudor funeral ceremonies. They include the earliest known likenesses of English monarchs, and are thus of incomparable significance. The earliest effigies date from the 14th century, when wooden images—instead of the actual corpse—were used during the funeral procedures: the effigy would have been used for the lying-in-state, would have been placed on top of the coffin for the journey to the abbey and for the duration of the funeral, and sometimes marked the place of burial in the abbey prior to the erection of the monument. The abbey has 21 effigies, which can be divided into three groups: medieval wooden effigies of monarchs and members of the royal family; later 17th-century wax figures of royal and noble persons, not used during the funeral ceremonial but placed in the abbey as reminders of the deceased, probably near to the place of burial; and later wax figures of ‘celebrities’, tourist attractions which boosted the meagre incomes of the monument guides. In 1841 the abbey authorities moved the waxworks, which they had come to see as distasteful clutter, to the upper floor of the chantry chapel of Abbot John Islip, where they joined the neglected medieval and Tudor figures, known collectively as the ‘Ragged Regiment’. It was not until the early 20th century that interest in them was revived, when the undercroft museum opened. In 1941 the wax figures were moved to safety to Piccadilly Underground station but the medieval effigies remained at the abbey—a fateful decision, for in May of that year the undercroft suffered severe water damage in an air raid. The effigies remained in this sad situation until 1949, when it was noted that many were in a hopeless condition, their stuffed bodies disintegrating and rotten. Those that survive, entire or partial, have undergone a complete restoration campaign.

 

Wooden Medieval Effigies

The earliest effigy is that of Edward III, which was used at his funeral in 1377, placed on his coffin within a magnificent hearse. The body, which would have been clothed in costly robes provided by the Great Wardrobe, is of carved wood. The head is based on a death mask and is the earliest known likeness of an English monarch. Anne of Bohemia’s carved wooden head, long and thin, is all that remains of her effigy (queen of Richard II, she died at the palace of Sheen in 1394). Also head-only is Elizabeth of York’s effigy, which contemporary accounts indicate was incredibly lifelike. Henry VII’s bust, a painted gesso death mask applied over wood, is a powerfully realistic and skilled likeness (the death mask was the source for Pietro Torrigiano’s celebrated terracotta sculpture of the king at the V&A) but his stuffed body has not survived. Mary Tudor’s effigy was made by her Sergeant Painter Nicholas Lizarde, while Anne of Denmark’s was carved by the skilled sculptor Maximilian Colt, and painted by the artist John de Critz.

 

Wax Effigies

After the Restoration in 1660 wax effigies were introduced, wax being a medium which offered a more startling likeness. The effigies have wax heads and hands, with painted complexions, wigs of real hair and eyelashes of bristle or canine hair. Their bodies are of stuffed canvas, clothed in contemporary or near contemporary dress and jewels, sometimes in garments which had belonged to them. Charles II stands tall and realistic, in his own Garter Robes and monogrammed undergarments. Frances Theresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, ‘La Belle Stuart’, a court beauty who in the 1660s resisted the advances of Charles II, is the best and most compelling waxwork. Commissioned in her will, to be made in wax and to be set up in the abbey in a glass-fronted case, it was made by the professional wax modeller Mrs Goldsmith, who had her own waxworks museum. Installed in the abbey in 1703, the duchess wears her own Coronation robes and has by her side her pet of 40 years, her African parrot, which died a few days after her. If original, it is one of the earliest examples of taxidermy in the country. Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham (d. 1743), a proud stickler for protocol, ordered her effigy before her death and stored it at her house. She wears the robes she wore for the Coronation of Queen Anne in 1704. William III and Mary II’s likenesses were not commissioned by the abbey but were purchased, possibly from Mrs Goldsmith, in 1725. Queen Anne, seated and cumbrous, is based on a death mask but—further evidence of the declining effigy tradition—she was not clothed until 1740.

 

Later Waxworks

Later wax effigies of national figures arrived at the abbey purely as tourist attractions. William Pitt was made by Mrs Patience Wright from a life sitting in 1775 and set up in the abbey after his burial there. Nelson’s effigy, however, arrived at the abbey in 1806, despite the fact that he was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. Made by Catherine Andras, Queen Charlotte’s official modeller in wax, it is based on a portrait by Hoppner. Nelson wears his own clothes and the shoe buckles he wore at Trafalgar.

 

Other Exhibits

Among the other exhibits in the museum are a bronze relief portrait of Sir Thomas Lovell by Pietro Torrigiano (c. 1516–20); and stained glass panels (c. 1250–70), almost all that remains of the glass which once adorned Henry III’s abbey. There are also two carved alabaster reliefs by Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellin from the high altar of James II’s Roman Catholic chapel at Whitehall Palace, smartly dismantled on the accession of the Protestant William and Mary in 1688. Other sculptures from the altarpiece, also by Quellin, now forlorn and much weathered, are in the nearby College Garden (open Tues–Thur 10–4 in winter; 10–6 in summer).

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

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The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
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