The Shepherd's Monument has been the centre of confusion for two hundred and fifty years. The complex mystery of the monument lies in the puzzle of its dating and origins, and in the meaning of its undeciphered inscription.
David Watkin, in his 'Athenian Stuart' calls it 'one of the most romantic of English garden buildings', and it unites in one place the romantic and classical aspects of 18th century art. (1)
Thomas Pennant gives a description that suggests that the monument had a particular significance for Thomas Anson:
"The beautiful monument in the lower end of the garden, does honour to the present age. It was the work of Mr Schemecher, under the direction of the late Mr Anson. The scene is laid in Arcadia. Two lovers, expressed in elegant pastoral figures, appear attentive to an ancient shepherd, who reads to them an inscription on a tomb,
ET IN ARCADIA EGO!
The moral resulting from this seems to be, that there are no situations in life so delicious, but which death must at length snatch us from. It was placed here by the amiable owner, as a memento of the certainty of that event. Perhaps, also, as a secret memorial of some loss of a tender nature in his early days; for he was wont often to hang over it in affectionate and firm meditation."
Though Pennant's description of the Scheemakers relief, based on Poussin's "Et in Arcadia ego" is not necessarily accurate there is no reason to doubt the latter part of Pennant's interpretation. His description of Thomas listening to a harp before his death proves to be true.
Clifford's "Historical Description of the Parish of Tixall" quotes Pennant's description and points out that he has "overlooked" the mysterious inscription, saying :
"The meaning of these letters Mr Anson would never explain and they still remain an enigma to posterity." (2)
The monument has been dated by various writers to almost any year between 1748 to 1767. The most frequently quoted explanation of the monument is that it is a work by Thomas Wright, from 1748-50 with additions by James Stuart from about 1763.
The true dating of the monument is absolutely critical for any understanding of its meaning, and may affect our understanding of Shugborough's significance as a whole.
It is a strange hybrid, hard to explain architecturally if it is the work of one person.
The monument could be seen as having three distinct parts, each of which may have a separate designer and may date from separate times. There is a rustic arch in stone carved to look wild and natural. Within this arch is a white marble frame supporting a relief based on Poussin's painting "Et in Arcadia Ego". Shepherds look at a tomb on which is carved the Latin phrase, which is usually interpreted as "I (death) am also in Arcadia." Even in an idyllic pastoral world Death cannot be escaped.
Beneath the relief is a plaque with a cryptic inscription:
In front of this, as if to give it further protection, is an outer ach of two rustic columns and what is described as a "Doric entablature". There is no doubt that the relief is by Scheemakers, a leading sculptor of the time (working from as early as 1740). A drawing in the British Museum by James "Athenian" Stuart exactly matches the rustic columns. This may have been a sketch of a ruin found in his trip to Greece or it may be a design for this monument. It is evidence that at least this part of the monument is the work of Stuart. (3)
It has been suggested that the monument was built in separate stages. A simple alcove, a typical Thomas Wright design, may have been built first, and the outer columns and pediment added later by Stuart. The Scheemakers relief may not have been part of the original structure. There is, however, no physical sign that the monument was built at two different times
Eileen Harris based her identification of Thomas Wright as the architect of the first phase of developments at Shugborough on the similarity of the Shepherds Monument to one of Wright's own published drawings.
Wright published a book of designs for arbours, the first of an intended series of three volumes of "Universal Architecture" in 1755. The first of these resembles the shape of the rough stone arch in which the relief is placed. (4)
There is also a drawing of an arbour on a general plan for a garden in his 1750 designs for Badminton which is even more similar to the inner rustic arch of the Shepherds Monument.(5)
Both these designs are for wooden structures, not "rustic" stone, so the actual resemblance is completely superficial.
A close look at Wright's 1755 print does show however, what appears to be a "frame" rather similar in shape to the frame which supports the Scheemakers relief.
This might support the idea that the relief was originally fixed in a simple Wright alcove which later had the outer columns and roofing added to give better protection to the precious marble.
There is no documentary evidence of the monument's origin and it does not appear in any of the many drawings and paintings that exist of the grounds from Thomas Anson's lifetime, even though every other structure is illustrated- and yet it is the most talked about of all the Shugborough features in 18thc written sources.
As with many other historical puzzles, the facts are complicated by errors made by one writer which are then repeated over and over again by later researchers who put too much faith in the first writer's work, or who try to force the facts to fit a preconceived theory.
The greatest source of confusion stems from an article in a 1954 Country Life by Christopher Hussey. The author states that the poet Anna Seward wrote a poem inspired by the Shepherds Monument which includes the phrases:
"Let not the muse inquisitive presume
With rash interpretation to disclose
The mystic ciphers that conceal her name." (6)
Hussey confused a short poem by Anna Seward, enclosed in a letter from Lady Anson, with another long anonymous poem about Shugborough. The long poem describes the estate in detail and is clearly dated 1767, seven years after Lady Anson's death. The style in no way resembles any of Seward's verse, being in Miltonic blank verse rather than rhyming couplets. As the Seward poem has presumably always been enclosed in Lady Anson's letter and as the long poem is separately bound and clearly dated it is very hard to see how Hussey made this mistake. The consequence of this fatal and inexplicable error is that the long poem is still referred to as by Anna Seward. This is a grim demonstration of home it is essential to look closely at the original documents.
The closest contender, in style, for the authorship of this poem is Richard Jago, who wrote in a ponderous Milton verse. He was a close friend of William Shenstone, whose letters include an early reference to the Shepherds Monument. Passages in Jago's "Edge Hill", published in 1767, the year of the anonymous poem, are similar, down to detailed use of language.Jago's wife came from nearby Rugeley and Jago was also a close associate of Sanderson Miller who worked at Shugborough in the 1750s and 1760s interpreting Wright's and Stuart's designs in stone and brick.
Establishing the date of the Shepherds Monument's construction turns out to be, as Holmes would say, a three pipe problem. There is, in fact, more evidence about it than any other feature of the Shugborough improvements before the series of James Stuart recreations of "The Antiquities of Athens" after 1760. And yet it is hard to arrive at a definite answer to its dating or authorship - let alone its meaning.
If Eileen Harris is correct and there are elements of Thomas Wright in the building, then the date, perhaps of an original simpler structure, has to be 1747/8. There is, however, a good reason to suppose the Shepherds Monument, as it is now, that is a monument supporting a relief of Poussin's "Et in Arcadia Ego", was not there in 1748.
Philip Yorke, Lady Anson's brother and husband of Jemima, Marchioness Grey, visited in August 1763 and wrote to his father, Lord Hardwicke describing, as he writes, the "many embellishments since I saw it (Shugborough) in 1748."
"I shd not omit to mention the Bas Relief from Poussin's Arcadian Picture, the most elegant Piece of modern sculpture I ever beheld & does great honour to Scheemaker's chisel…" (7)
This same letter mentions the foundations of the Green House, or Orangery, proving that this large but lost building was being built in 1763 and no earlier.
This clearly states that Philip Yorke was seeing the monument, or at least the relief, for the first time and that it was one of the "embellishments" made since Philip and Jemima visited in August 1748. It was not part of the first phase of the landscaping.
This then raises other questions. If the structure owes anything to Wright was he ever at Shugborough after this date? He need not have been. Both Cat's Monument and Pagoda may have been designed in 1747/8 but were certainly built later, in 1749 and1752 respectively. Wright may have provided drawings for buildings that did not materialise until years later. He certainly did this in the case of his Irish projects.
Though Philip Yorke probably saw in 1763 the monument as it appears todaythere is still the possibility that it was built in two stages, incorporating an earlier Wright structure - and also the possibility that the relief was placed in a plainer alcove some years after the original alcove had been built.
If, on the other hand, the building is not by Wright at all, and was not built in the first phase of development, could it be entirely the work of James Stuart and predate the Greek structures he is known to have built at Shugborough in the 1760s?
William Shenstone, a poet famous for his garden "The Leasowes", at Halesowen, described the monument in a letter in 1759. The Ansons are known to have been regular visitors to the Leasowes and its neighbour, Lord Lyttelton's Hagley Park . Hagley is the landscape which has the closest links to Shugborough through shared artists and the friendship of George Lyttelton and Thomas Anson.
Shenstone's letter, to Mr Graves, is dated October 3rd 1759 and it particularly deals with inscriptions and mottos.
"Now you speak of our Arcadias , pray, did you ever see a print or drawing of Poussin's Arcadia ? The idea of it is so very pleasing to me, that I had no peace till I had used the inscription on one side of Miss Dolman's urn, " Et in Arcadia Ego." Mr. Mr Anson has the two shepherds with the monument and inscription in alto relievo at Shugborough.
"Mr. Dodsley will borrow me a drawing of it from Mr. Spence. See it described, vol. I. page 53. of the Abbe du Bos, " sur la poesie et la peinture."(8)
Curiously there is no mention of the Latin phrase in published descriptions of "Miss Dolman's Urn", a feature at The Leasowes, in Shenstone's own works or in later guidebooks to his garden. The Leasowes remained a tourist attraction long after its creator's death. It is possible that Shenstone decided that an extra inscription was superfluous.
"Mr Dodsley will borrow me a drawing of it", referring to the Poussin picture, proves that copies of the painting were easily available. These would be of the second version of the subject that Poussin painted, now in the Louvre, and often reproduced. The far less known "Chatsworth" version was first catalogued at Chatsworth in 1761 and its history before that date is unknown. There is evidence that it was in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire eleven years earlier.
Shenstone mentions Abbe du Bos's description of the Poussin picture. This is quoted in John Gilbert Cooper's "Letters concerning Taste", published by Shenstone's friend John Dodsley in 1755. It is hard to understand why but du Bos's description is inaccurate. On the face of it, it is a description of the Louvre version but it wrongly claims that the tomb in the painting is of a Shepherdess whose body can be seen lying upon it.
The tomb in the painting is a plain stone box. The Shugborough relief adds an urn as the plain tomb would not be clearly visible on a white marble carving and to make it more clearly funereal.
Perhaps du Bos based his description on a copy or drawing of Poussin's picture which had added the detail of a corpse on the tomb.
The reference from Du Bos, the idea that it is a Shepherdess's tomb, may explain why the author of the 1767 poem assumes that to be the subject, as does William Bagot of Blithfield Hall in a poem dated April 25th 1772. There is nothing at all in either of Poussin's paintings to imply that the tomb is that of a shepherdess, nor anything in the possible literary influences. Virgil's Eclogues, which anyone with a taste for Arcadian matters would have known mention a tomb of a shepherd called Daphnis. If Thomas associated Virgil with Poussin's Arcadia he is more likely to have imagined it as a tomb of a shepherd than a shepherdess.
"O! co'd you see how Nature pours
Profuse her verdure & her flowers,
Her earliest, freshest bloom,
Embroidering all the hallow'd ground
With blue-bells, daisies , violets, round
Your shepherdesses tomb!" (9)
Though these poems refer to a Shepherdess there is no reason to suppose that Thomas Anson ever thought of it as "The Shepherdesses Tomb." We can accept Clifford's statement that Mr Anson would never explain the meaning of the cipher inscription and take it that he would be secretive about the monument as a whole. It is always referred to these days as "The Shepherd's Monument", but this title is not used in any of the eighteenth century sources. The earliest use of the name so far discovered is in Art Index, 1932. (Google Books)
In 1772 George Hardinge (1743-1816), later a judge, then newly called to the bar, gave Thomas Anson a copy of Dr Sneyd Davies's ponderous elegy for Lord Anson which also refers to the Shepherd's Monument. This was presumably written shortly after Lord Anson's death in 1762.
"Upon that storied marble cast thine eye,
The scene commands a moralizing sigh ;
Ev'n in Arcadia's bless'd Elysian plains,
Amidst the laughing Nymphs, and sportive swains,
See festal joy subside, with melting grace,
And pity visit the half-smiling face ;
Where now the dance, the lute, the nuptial feast,
The passion throbbing in the lover's breast?
Life's emblem here, in youth and vernal bloom,
But Reason's finger pointing at the tomb!" (10)
Hardinge tells the story in his "Biographical memoirs of the Rev Sneyd Davies D D Canon Residentiary of Lichfield."
"These lines, elegant, ingenious, and appropriate as they are, come with a disadvantage against them to me; for I was presented by Mr. Anson himself at the time of my visit with a Poem on the same topic, written by his neighbour and friend, the father of this Lord Bagot, which I cannot enough lament that I either mislaid, or gave or lent away, especially as I never could obtain a copy of them.—I am pretty sure they exist; but where they are now deposited, I have reason to fear that it is under the hermetical seal of his request, that no copy of them should be taken. I recollect in particular the affecting Episode of his Muse upon the "Et in Arcadia ego" to which DAVIES alludes."
Fortunately the copy of the poem by Bagot does survive, deposited in the Staffordshire Record Office with the manuscript of Sneyd Davies's poem.
Nothing else at Shugborough had such a rich poetic life in the 18th century as the Shepherds Monument.
It is important to establish the date of the earliest reference. This proves to be the letter from Lady Anson which enclosed a poem by Anna Seward.
The letter is dated: "Coleshill, September 20th, Monday."
There are two copies of the letter in the Staffordshire Record Office. The first is a draft and does not give the day of the week. This has led to the letter being misdated. Lady Anson often omits the year, but it is simple to calculate which year this must be. September 20th fell on a Monday in 1756. Other clues in the letter confirm this to be the correct year.
She writes back to Shugborough from Coleshill, which she explains is the place where she expected to take lunch on her journey back to Wimpole, her father's estate in Cambridge. She explains to Thomas, in a section not included in the draft, that she may have to sleep at Coleshill as she was expecting to meet "Mr Dean and his poor daughter" there. They may have miscalculated the length of their own journey.
In the letter Lady Anson writes to Thomas that she had been going through Lichfield , returning to London from Shugborough, when "Mr Seward, with a smiling bow, stopped the coach and civilly excused himself for not having made a visit to Shugborough since the races." (11)
Dr Seward had lived in the cathedral close at Lichfield since 1754. He is referred to in one of the only two letters from Thomas to George Anson in the Staffordshire Record Office. They are now bound with Lady Anson's letters to her husband and they may only have survived a purge of Thomas's manuscripts because they are unsigned. One of the two is a brief but fascinating letter referring to a journey to Monmouthshire. The other is dated Wednesday October 9th, the year is therefore 1754. It begins by assuring Lord Anson that his wife has safely returned from a ghastly stay at Buxton, and then goes on to slightly incoherent details of electioneering. (Thomas's trip to Monmouthshire and Lady Anson's experiences of Buxton will be discussed in the next chapter.)
Granville Leveson-Gower, who had held one of the two Lichfield seats, had succeeded to the title of Lord Trentham in April, which necessitated a by-election. His successor was Henry Vernon of Hilton Park . The letter mentions various people involved with the campaign including Captain Porter, who may have been Dr Johnson's step son, and Mr Mence, possibly Rev Benjamin Mence, whom Lady Anson mentions in a letter to Catherine Talbot. He had been, purely by the way, the best counter-tenor in England and had sung for Handel and as a vicar choral at Lichfield Cathedral.
"By a letter from Dr Seward I find that he and some of our friends intend to come over tomorrow. " (12)
This establishes that Dr Seward was a political supporter and knew Shugborough at least as early as 1754. His daughter may have visited with him, or at any time after.
Lady Anson's letter of September 20th 1756 says that Seward presented Lady Anson with a packet containing some verses.
"Imagining it to be a copy of those I had been before favoured with a sight of I was in no great haste to open it."
When Lady Anson did read the verses she took them to be in the writing of Dr Seward's daughter, Anna, though she wonders if they are actually by her or her father.
The short poem is headed:
"On an Emblematical Basso Relievo after a famous picture of Nicholas Poussin Representing Shepherds pointing to the following Inscription on a Monument in Arcadia :
Et in Arcadia Ego"
'The silent Monk, in lonely cell immured,
From every folly, vice, and care secured,
Should inward turn calm Meditations Eye,
And Life imploy in studying how to Die. '
The very dull poem is a meditation on death and has no particular connection with the Poussin picture. Lady Anson writes that the performance must be "greatly inferior to its subject, as that requires a much more masterly hand to do it justice."
Anna Seward was born in 1742. She would have been 14 in 1756.
This letter does not make any reference to the cipher inscription that sits under the Poussin relief.
From Coleshill Lady Anson continued on to Wimpole. There is a letter to Thomas dated "Wimpole 24th September", without a weekday or year, which almost certainly comes from the same year. (Staffordshire Record Office D615/P (S)/ 1/3/26 )
"You laugh at Eucharistic epistles my dear Mr Anson & I am not able to write them, it is therefore certainly best not to attempt any: not but that I might endeavour to prove my Taste by stringing together all, both the ancient & the modern phrases that express Beauty and Enjoyableness in a Place; and to shew how much I had enjoyed it & do still in continual Happiness in being there." (13)
She had left Thomas's old friend Mr Mytton at Shugborough:
"I shall abridge what remains, & only desire my compliments to Mr Mytton & hope his cold is better."
She ends with a PS:
"I hope the chaise returned safe & carried back my thanks for it and the Peaches."
So, the Shepherds Monument, certainly including the Poussin relief, existed by September 1756. Was the monument seen by Anna Seward the same as it is now, with its rustic columns by Stuart?
This is still a very difficult question, and there is no certain proof. For a long time it has been accepted by many people that the monument as it stands is a mixture of elements by Thomas Wright and James "Athenian" Stuart, as well as the relief itself, by Scheemakers.
Did Anna Seward see a simpler structure by Wright that Stuart altered later?
Though the idea that it is a mixture of Wright and Stuart is attractive it may be an unnecessarily complicated explanation - and there are no obvious signs on the structure itself that it was built in two separate stages. There is no apparent join.
Until recently the idea that Stuart could have supplied a design in 1756 would have seemed unlikely as all the documentation of Stuart's relationship with Thomas Anson came from the 1760s, but in the last few years there has been a great deal of new research and this has produced some surprises. It appears now that it is perfectly possible that the building Anna Seward saw in 1756 had been built by Stuart. If this is could be proved to be the case the monument would have another significance - as the earliest surviving building, or even the first architectural work, by the first great designer of the Greek Revival - in fact as the symbolic gateway to the Greek Revival itself.
This chapter has tried to amass all the evidence concerning the dating of the structure and the puzzle of its architect. An equally complex question, of course, is what does the multi-layered mix of architecture, art and cryptic inscription actually mean? The next chapter will attempt to bring together the ideas floating around in the Anson circle, the mood of the time, and, in particular, Lady Anson's unusual interest in Poussin and his Arcadian Shepherds.
1) David Watkin: Athenian Stuart (George Allen & Unwin, 1982)
2) Thomas Clifford and Arthur Clifford: A Topographical and historical description of the Parish of Tixall (1817)
3) BM/MSAdd 22-153, illustrated in Dora Wieberson: Sources of Greek Revival Architecture (Zwemmer, 1969) and in Watkin: Athenian Stuart (George Allen & Unwin, 1982)
4) Thomas Wright: Arbours and Grottoes …with a catalogue of Wright's work by Eileen Harris (Scolar Press, 1979)
5) Illustrated in Wright/Harris (1979). I also have a larger copy from Badminton House.
6) Staffordshire Records Office. Anson Papers. D615/P (S)/2/5
7) Philip Yorke's Journal?
8) The Works in prose and verse of William Shenstone Esq., Vol. 3 (Dodsley, 1769) Available on Google Books.
9) Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers. D615/P (S)/2/5
10) George Hardinge: Biographical memoirs of the Rev Sneyd Davies DD canon residentiary of Lichfield (Nichols and Bentley, no date) Available on Google Books.
11) Staffordshire Record Office, Anson Papers. D615/P (S)/ 1/3/25
12) Bound in Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers. D615/P(S)/1/1/
13) Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers. D615/P (S)/ 1/3/26