The Chapel at Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, above, has long been considered to have been Jane Austen’s inspiration for the chapel at Sotherton in Mansfield Park. She visited the great mansion in 1806, which was inherited by her cousin, the Reverend Thomas Leigh, and I have written about her visit and the grounds before, here and here.
The Chapel and its communion table were featured in Friday’s edition of Bargain Hunt on BBC One and I thought you might like to see some pictures of both the Chapel and the table, taken from that programme.
The Chapel is a most beautiful, austere double height room, with very little ornament, as you can see. This is the view from the family gallery. It is all very similar to the way Mr Rushworth’s Sotherton’s chapel was described in Mansfield Park:
Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above.
No wonder then that Fanny, who had been imagining something more Gothic and dark, full of banners and ancient tombs, was rather disappointed in the cool elegance of the Chapel at Sotherton:
“This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”
“You forget, Fanny, how lately all this has been built, and for how confined a purpose, compared with the old chapels of castles and monasteries. It was only for the private use of the family. They have been buried, I suppose, in the parish church. There you must look for the banners and the achievements.”
“It was foolish of me not to think of all that; but I am disappointed.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 9
In 1763 Stoneleigh’s owner, the 5th Lord Leigh, decided to refurbish his mansion and engaged William Gomm, the cabinet maker of Clerkenwell in London, to provide 150 new pieces of furniture. The finest piece he made for the house was the communion, or altar table designed to stand below the beautiful reredos in the chapel, which can be seen below.
The table, which was created and delivered to Stoneligh in 1764, is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but is now on long term loan to Stoneleigh so that it can be seen and appreciated in its original setting:
The table is made of mahogany, thickly veneered over an oak carcass: you can see the underside of the table, below
It is beautifully carved…
in the rococo style…
The legs are festooned with garlands of flowers…
and all four legs are carved form a solid block of mahogany which would originally have been 15 inches wide, 15 inches deep and 32 inches high.
The central section of the table’s apron, which hangs below its top surface, is dominated by a beautiful carving of a cherub, which very cleverly echoes the plaster-work cherubs
that decorate the Chapel. These are set around the organ which can be seen in the first floor family gallery. which over looks the main body of the chapel. There were made by the Worcester stuccoist, John Wright when the chapel was first built.
The intricate decoration on the legs and apron of the table was very calculatedly done: it was meant to be seen below, from the level of the floor, as people would have been kneeling before it, in order to take the sacrament. The table would have been elevated on the slight dias as it stood before the reredos. The view the congregation would have had therefore was considered very carefully by Gomm.
The bill for all the items of furniture made by Gomm is still in existence.
The total cost of the 150 pieces of furniture was an astounding £818 and 9 shillings…
and we know that the table cost £31, 10 shillings. This is an astounding amount, especially when you consider that in 1806 Jane Austen inherited £50 from a friend of the Leigh Perrots, and was consequently able to live well on that amount all through 1807, even being able to afford the luxury of hiring a piano for her use when she lived in Castle Square, Southampton. Taking all this into consideration, you can begin to gauge just how expensive that table was.
But it is virtually certain that Jane Austen would have seen this table and may even have taken communion from it, as the family used the chapel during the time they stayed there. The evidence from Mrs Austen’s letter to her daughter-in-law, Mary dated August 13th, 1806 and which gives a great detail about their visit, tells us that:
At nine in the morning we meet and say our prayers in a handsome chapel, the pulpit &c now hung with black…
If you would like to see the original programme you can do so via the link on this page, if the BBC iPlayer is available to you. The programme is available to view for the next five days.