The Tomb of Sir Clowdisley Shovell

Target of Critics

The Tomb of Sir Clowdisley Shovell in Westminster Abbey, with its highly controversial monument.

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Within years of its being erected, the memorial to Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell over his tomb in Westminster Abbey had become the target of savage criticism. Even those sympathetic to his memory have called it "in extremely questionable taste." Those who disliked him have called it "indescribably ugly."

It seems as though, in the attempt to preserve his memory, the creators of this memorial have ended up doing him a disservice. Certainly it was done in an artistic style that was very specific to the period in which it was created. Within a matter of years that particular Baroque aesthetic had passed by, and succeeding generations are apt to find it excessively ornate, to the point of absurdity.

We can see a similar problem of changing tastes not far away at St. Paul's Cathedral, where Britain's two great heros of the Napoleonic Wars were buried. Lord Nelson was far more fortunate to have died during a period of classical revival, and the clean lines of his tomb have a timelessness that speaks to all generations and artistic tastes. By contrast, the Duke of Wellington had the misfortune to have survived long enough to be memorialized as the Victorian taste was moving toward a more ornate style, which later generations have described as gaudy and inappropriate to the austere man buried beneath.

However, an even harsher criticism can be leveled against this particular memorial -- that it is inappropriate to the man whose memory is supposed to be preserved by it. Sir Clowdisley was a naval officer who came up through the ranks by merit and seamanship, a rough and hearty old sea dog, yet he is portrayed in a manner more suitable to a prince or a courtier. In fact, when I first saw a photograph of it, I had an absurd sense that I was looking at a sculpture of Louis XIV -- an image that is particularly absurd when one considers that Sir Clowdisley spent his entire naval career fighting the Sun King's forces. But it is true -- the man reclining on that couch and gazing serenely out at passers-by bears only the most passing and notional resemblance to the energetic admiral whose tenacity in battle was known to friend and foe alike.

Last updated January 9, 2014.