At the recent Death, Art and Anatomy conference, a paper given by Jude Jones from the University of Southampton introduced us to the unique funerary statue of Lady Mary May (1640–1681). Lady May’s statue is of particular interest to us because it has allegedly been marked with smallpox scars on the face to evoke the disease that she died from. So this week we set out on an excursion to St Nicholas’ Church, Mid Lavant (West Sussex) to see the statue ourselves.
The statue is attributed to John Bushnell (1636-1701), and was commissioned by Lady May when she was a widow in her mid-thirties. An explanatory sign in the church tells us that the statue was moved several times, including down to hide in the vault in the nineteenth century. In 1987 it was brought up during renovations and placed in its current position.The inscription on the statue reads: “H[ere] Lies the Body of Dame Mary May second Wife to Sr Iohn May of Ra[ugh]mere, the onely surviving Sister & sole Heiress to Sr Iohn Morley of Brooms, & Daughter to Sr Iohn Morley of Chichester, Son to Sr Edward Morley a second Brother of the Family of HalnaKer Place. Piously contemplating ye uncertainty of this life, among other solemn Preparations for her Funerall Obsequies, Shee erected this Monument in ye time of her Life, in ye year of Our LORD 1676. Shee departed this life in ye year of Our LORD 1681 in ye 41st year of her Age.”
The Reverend T.D.S. Bayley provides a useful introduction to the statue and its movements, although he wrote in 1975 and does not appear to have seen the statue (then down in the vault) himself. He expressed skepticism about the rumours that Lady May or her family commissioned smallpox scars to be added, speculating instead that “It could well be that faults in the marble developed, which may even have been ‘improved’ by a youth’s penknife during a dull sermon, and that a tale was devised to account for the disfigurement.” (6). He also suggested that Lady May had been reported to be ‘vain’, and would subsequently be very unlikely to “wish to have her facial blemishes immortalised in marble” (6). David Shuttleton expresses similar disbelief about the marks, given the customarily idealised nature and thus scarcity of facial disfigurements in other portraits of the period: “when the sculptor John Bushnell added pock marks to her effigy it came to be seen as evidence of his encroaching madness” (Smallpox and the Literary Imagination 1660-1780, 210). Katharine Gibson in the ODNB remarks that Bushnell suffered from dementia, and that his “skills were variable, and his quirky style often difficult to accept”
Jude Jones had presented the marks as deliberate, and we are inclined to believe her after seeing the regularity of the marking for ourselves, which is also entirely restricted to the face. Whether Lady May or her family had commissioned them, at what stage of her illness, how 17thC and 18thC churchgoers responded to seeing the statue, and what this all can tell us about facial difference in this period will be some fascinating material for further study.