Tucked away in a quiet corner of Lichfield Cathedral is a marble monument of two sleeping children lying on a couch in each other’s arms. It represents a landmark in British sculpture and brought its creator public fame and critical attention. But above all it is a testament to maternal grief, a poignant tribute to innocent life cut short.
In 1808 the Reverend William Robinson was appointed a canon of Lichfield, no doubt assisted by his father-in-law who had become Dean of the cathedral the previous year. This preferment was an important step in what seemed a promising clerical career. But within a few short years he was dead from consumption, leaving his wife and two young daughters.
More tragedy was to follow. One of the daughters, Ellen-Jane (named after her mother) died from burns after her nightdress caught fire. Then the other, Marianne, succumbed to disease. Within two years Mrs Robinson had been faced with the death of her husband and both her children. Confronted by this grief she sought resolution in art.
She sought out Francis Chantrey, a well-regarded sculptor based in London. Although he had made some church monuments his reputation was built on his production of marble busts. Chantrey had great natural talent but being self-taught he found it hard to impress the artistic establishment. Mrs Robinson commissioned him in August 1815 to produce a black memorial tablet for her late husband (at a cost of £50). But for her daughters she wanted something more tender and personal from Chantrey, spending £600 on the project.
She described to the sculptor how she used to watch her daughters locked in each other’s arms asleep and this gave Chantrey the inspiration for the design. It is significant that the children were shown not on their death bed but restfully sleeping. The younger of the two even holds a bunch of snowdrops, a poetic allusion to the inscription (misquoted) from Milton: ‘Oh, fairest flowers! – no sooner blown than blasted!’ The contrast between the naturalism of slumber and the knowledge that the Robinson girls were indeed dead was powerful.
This emotional conceit was adored by the public. The monument appeared in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1817 and caused a sensation. Visitors crowded to see it. Tearful mothers viewed it and returned again and again. Critics also praised it. A number of poems – of varying literary merit – were inspired by it. Engravings were widely sold. Even small-scale replicas were available. It was perhaps the most famous piece of sculpture that had appeared in Britain.
After the enthusiastic reception of The Sleeping Children, as the monument was known, Chantrey went from strength to strength. He was soon accepted as a Royal Academician (RA) and later knighted. In demand for busts, monuments, and public statues, by the time he died in 1841 he left a fortune of £150,000. This money now funds a trust to purchase works by British artists for the nation.
The Sleeping Children, as the monument was known, was later installed in Lichfield Cathedral where its poignant beauty as a funeral memorial could be fully felt. It was no longer just an extraordinary example of sculptural art, but a shrine to the memory of a family known to the community.