Unassuming Church in Tiny Village Shelters Magnificent Monuments
The entry to Exton Church, up a narrow lane from the village of Exton, brings you to a small circular driveway within the grounds of Exton Hall, seat of the Earls of Gainsborough. For centuries members of the family have been interred in this church, set in a picturesque landscape.
I was worried, however, that I wouldn't get in. I approached the door to find it locked. Locking rural parish churches is a relatively recent phenomenon. Time was when you could wander the countryside and find even the most remote church open to the visitor. But now that theft is common in rural locales—with everything from objects within the church to the lead on the roof vulnerable to burglars—many small parish churches are now locked unless a steward is in attendance.
When I found the door locked, I decided to walk around the exterior. To my tremendous luck, as I came around the west side of the church to approach the main door once more, one of the stewards of the church was walking up the path. She hadn't seen me and didn't know I was coming. It just happened to work out perfectly.
What I was after was the chance to see the monuments inside the church, great works of sculpture dating from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. The prized monument in the church is the marble memorial to Baptist Noel, third Viscount Campden, carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), one of the greatest ever English sculptors and woodcarvers. Known more for his work in the medium of wood, this memorial in Exton is thus doubly significant. It is not only a masterpiece by a master craftsman, but it is also a fairly unusual example of his work.
The steward explained a bit about its restoration, which WMF supported. When workers started disassembling the monument, apparently the pediment toppled right off (though it was caught before it smashed) because the nails used to secure it to the wall were the wrong type. So the restorers got to it just in time. Now it is secured to the wall properly and looks magnificent in the north transept. There are other exemplary monuments in the church, including an amazing late Elizabethan piece, but Gibbons's masterwork outshines them all.