In 1702 eight-year-old Richard Francis was the only son and heir of Sir Nicholas Shireburne, head of a wealthy Roman Catholic family that harboured long-standing religious and dynastic ambitions. They live at Stonyhurst Hall in Lancashire, an Elizabethan mansion with many chapels, grand staircases, corridors wide enough to drive down and a recently planted maze in which Richard played.
Showered with presents, from valuable books to vast numbers of bows and arrows, Richard once received a Valentine’s Day card from his father inscribed ‘To a Child very Extraordinary in all Respects, both beautiful and forward’. However, on 6 June, this golden child went out into the gardens, ate some poisonous berries and died. The family, noted for the strange and narrative style of their tombs, erected a large Italianate memorial to him in Great Mitton Church.
The dynastic importance of Richard’s sister Mary changed overnight. By May 1709 Sir Nicholas had negotiated Mary’s marriage to the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, spending £350 on her wedding dress, £668 on gilt plate, £128 on food and large fortune over the new few years supporting the Norfolk estates.
However, the couple disliked each other and, by 1717, they were leading separate lives. There were no children.
In 1732, when Norfolk died, Mary lived openly with her long-term lover and kinsman Peregrine Widdrington. He was good company but the Duchess deemed him socially inferior and refused to marry him. With her brother’s death and having no children of her own, the Shireburne dynasty was over.
Self-willed and opinionated, the Dowager Duchess was now free to do as she wished. The famous architect Gibbs was commissioned to build her a London townhouse, now part of Over-Seas House, and Michael Rysbrack, the most celebrated sculptor of the day, was chosen to design her main fireplace.
Rysbrack was Flemish. Born into a family of artists in 1693, he moved to London in 1720 with his brother Piter, who was a painter. Michael was hard working, versatile and still sculpting at 70. He died in 1770 aged 77 – a good innings considering the average life expectancy in England was then 36 and, in London, 25. His major works include the monument to Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey (1733), the Duke of Marlborough’s tomb in the chapel at Blenheim Palace (1733), the equestrian statue of William III of Bristol (1735) and a vast fireplace with draped figures for the India Office.
Until this research, the possibility of Rysbrack’s surround being both fireplace and child memorial had not occurred to me. Previously it has simply seemed faintly mysterious. Carved in Carrera marble, the front panel of leaves is delicate but the over mantel is strangely massive. On the sides, where one might expect a long draped figure, there is a bust of a child set at an angle – one gazes out of the window, the other looks into the room. Behind each head is a large flower. Or is it a halo? The busts are constrained by husking, attached to a scroll. From the front the scrolls look like wings…
Perhaps as the Duchess stared into the flames she saw something quite comforting about the death of the Shireburne heir and dynasty; her guests and succeeding generations would simply see a fireplace.