Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plate III: Baptismal Font, in St. James' Church, Westminster


Vas marmorem sacro baptismati dicatum acroterio deaurato coronatum in ecclesia Divi Jacobi Westmonasterii.  Opus Grinlini Gibbons aere jam perennieri sculpsit Georgius Vertue 1718.

Translation [EB]

A marble vessel dedicated to the holy baptism, topped with a golden ornament.  It is in the Church of St. James, Westminster.  The work of Grinling Gibbons.  Now engraved in everlasting copper by George Vertue, 1718.


Engraved by George Vertue after a drawing by Car. [Charles] Woodfield in the collection of S.G. [Samuel Gale].  Dated 1718.


Marble baptismal font of St. James’s, Piccadilly, presumed to be by the famous Restoration wood and stoneworker Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) although according to Green this engraving is the strongest evidence that the font is actually the work of Gibbons (Green 1964: 64).  Beard points out that since the engraving was issued three years before Gibbons died, there is little reason to doubt the attribution (Beard 1989: 33).  Horace Walpole also attributes the font to Gibbons in his collection Anecdotes of Painting in England . . . Collected by the Late Mr. George Vertue (Walpole 1763: 3.86).

Provenance and Location: 

According to the church vestry book, the font was given to the church in 1685 by “an unknown person piously inclined” (Green 1964: 64).  The font remains in St. James’s, Picadilly, to the present day.

Commentary [AM]

The engraving gives details of the three scenes on the sides of the font: Noah’s Ark, the baptism of Christ, and the baptism of the eunuch of Candace by St. Philip.  The plate also shows the flying angel cover, which no longer survives, and was probably sold in 1822, when the font was moved.  It was described by Hatton as “a spacious Angel Descending from a Celestial Choir of Cherubims, all gilt with Gold.” (qtd. in Green 1964: 64).  The engraving seems to indicate the presence of some sort of pulley structure for lifting the cover up and down.  The Adam and Eve pedestal, carved in the form of the trunk of an apple tree, reflects contemporary belief that babies were tainted with original sin.

One question that arises with respect to this engraving is why such a recent object would be included in a book of antiquities.  Indeed, the church itself was not even constructed until 1685, and at least one antiquary found nothing of interest there for that reason (Bailey 1734: xx).  But Gibbons’s contributions to his arts apparently established him as a figure of historical and aesthetic importance throughout the eighteenth century, and his name appears in many tourist guidebooks, not only of London, where he erected a famous statue of Charles II in the Royal Exchange, much praised by contemporary viewers (Philipps 1684), but of such great houses as Chatsworth, Derbyshire and Burghley House, Lincolnshire.

The diarist and connoisseur John Evelyn claims to have discovered Gibbons by accident and introduced him to the King, and his entry for January 18, 1671 presents us with a picturesque tale:

I this day first acquainted his Majestie with that incomparable young man, Gibson, whom I had lately found in an Obscure place, & that by mere accident, as I was walking neere a poor solitary thatched house in a field in in our parish neere Says-Court: I found him shut in, but looking into the Window, I perceiv’d him carving that large Cartoone or Crucifix of Tintorets, a Copy of which I had also my selfe brought from Venice. . . . he opned the doore civily to me, & I saw about him such a work, as for the curiosity of handling, drawing, & studious exactnesse, I never in my life had seene before in all my travells. (Evelyn 1955: 3.567).

In this account, Gibbons himself becomes a kind of collectible object, available to Evelyn to be snatched up, taken away, and presented with pride to a wider audience.  In fact, he is nearly paralleled to Evelyn’s own copy of Tintoretto’s crucifix.  In this way, Gibbons resembles many of the other curiosities and antiquarian objects presented in the volume.

Moreover, it seems that Vertue conducted considerable research into the life and work of Gibbons, so the inclusion of the font in Vetusta Monumenta may have been an expression of his own interest.  Walpole mentions Vertue’s inquiries into the place of Gibbons’s birth (Holland by one account, Spur Alley in the Strand by another), as well as Vertue’s consultation of certain manuscripts to prove Gibbons’s responsibility for a “brazen statue of James II.  in the Privy-garden” (Walpole 1763: 3.84). Anecdotes of Painting in England includes a fine engraved portrait of Gibbons.

Vertue’s engraving of the font is clearly meant to represent the delicacy of Gibbons’s art and the intricacy of his skill.  The foliage, in particular, that winds around the base of the font, appears almost too fragile and sinuous to be carved of marble, and indeed the pictures of the font now featured on the church’s website reveal the engraving to be somewhat of an exaggeration, fine though the carving actually is.

In fact, this delicacy and verisimilitude were the qualities for which Gibbons was best known in the eighteenth century.  Walpole called Gibbons “An original genius, a citizen of nature” and claims that “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species” (Walpole 1763: 3.82).  He also notes at Chatsworth, “over a closet door, a pen not distinguishable from a real feather” (3.85).  Hogarth indicates Gibbons’s status as a recognizable standard for excellence and realism in The Analysis of Beauty when he describes a certain leaf-like figure as one that “would have been above the power of a Gibbons to have equalled” Hogarth 1753: 68).  In 1766, John Gwynn described him thus: “Gibbons, the admired Gibbons! the touches of whose chisel are inconceivably delicate, arose the wonder of an admiring people; his productions of the vegetable and animal creations are above description.  St. Paul’s, Windsor, Petworth, Chatsworth, and the whole united kingdom, conspire to make his character equal to any age or country, and statue of James the Second in Privy-Garden, may rank with the productions of the Roman school” (Gwynn 1766: 30).   Gwynn’s comparison of Gibbons’s statue to the classical is interesting when we consider it alongside Gibbons’s inclusion in a book purporting to focus on antiquities.  Gibbons is rendered here as producer of modern antiquities, an eighteenth-century counterpart to the ancients.

Of the font itself, eighteenth-century commentators say little, but this is not surprising given the sheer volume of Gibbons’s work.  Modern art historians consider the font somewhat inferior to Gibbons’s other work (Green 1964: 64; Beard 1989: 33).  Nonetheless, Vertue clearly admired it.  Esterly points out that while Gibbons’s name is now often associated with Christopher Wren’s, Gibbons had little to do with Wren’s post-fire redesigning of London churches until his reputation was well established.  This font of 1685, along with Gibbons’s work on the church’s reredos, may in fact been his earliest contribution to a Wren church (Esterly 1998: 22-23). 

Works Cited

Bailey, N.  1734.  The Antiquities of London and Westminster. London.

Beard, Geoffrey.  1989.  The Work of Grinling Gibbons. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Esterly, David.  1998.  Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Evelyn, John.  1955.  The Diary of John Evelyn. 6 vols., edited by E. S. de Beer.  Oxford: Clarendon.
Green, David.  1964.  Grinling Gibbons: His Work as Carver and Statuary, 1648-1721.  London: Country Life Limited.
Gwynn, John.  1766.  London and Westminster Improved, Illustrated by Plans. London.
Hogarth, William.  1753.  The Analysis of Beauty. London.
Philipps, Samuel.  1684.  To the Learned and Worthy Artist Mr. Grinsted Gibbons. London.
Walpole, Horace.  1763.  Anecdotes of Painting in England; with Some Account of the Principal Artists; and Incidental Notes on Other Arts; Collected by the Late Mr. George Vertue. 4 vols. London. 

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