Thursday, 13 September 2007

St Peter, Racton

The Racton estate was owned for centuries by the Gunter family, which found fame when Colonel Gunter masterminded Charles II’s escape to France after the Worcester disaster.
Despite their long rule, the village shows little trace of the Gunters. Their house, Racton Manor, has disappeared and the famous folly tower is actually part of the neighbouring Stansted Park. But they left a fascinating series of monuments in the church that form an illustrated guide to how tastes in tombs changed from medieval to modern times.
The oldest monument is a magnificent stone table tomb with a fancy canopy above, erected in about 1520 in memory of either Hugh or John Gunter.
It is entirely medieval in style, covered in panels carved with formalised plants, heraldic beasts and shields. At the back, the Gunter family kneels before the Risen Christ, women on the left, men on the right. It is a deeply religious monument.
By the time Sir George Gunter and his wife Ursula put up their memorial in 1624, architecture had become more classical and tastes more secular.
The design is based on a Roman triumphal arch, with flat columns called pilasters on either side of a round arch under which the couple kneel in prayer. The stone figures above are of Justice and Charity flanking a gigantic stone carving of the Gunter arms. Christian ideas of the second coming have given way to a celebration of civic virtues.
By the time Sir Charles Gounter Nicoll died in 1733, the age of the heroic individual had arrived. Sir Charles himself is the centre of the composition, in the form of a superb bust in white marble on a black marble tomb chest, all brilliantly carved in the best style.
The bust stands inside an aedicule, Greek for ‘little house’, a sort of window-frame with urns and the Gunter arms on top. Sir Charles’s knightly accoutrements – helmet, shield and gauntlets – hang from the roof above.
The inscription is in language of lavish, almost toe-curling adulation:
He had all the Qualifications
Of a compleat and accomplish’d Gentleman,
Amiable in his person,
Graceful in his Address.
And so on. He was only 30.