The Agony in the Garden
The story of the West Porch ceiling
In this Eastertide issue of the magazine it is appropriate to look at the painting on the ceiling of the West Porch, which shows Christ's Agony in the Garden. After the Last Supper, Jesus is kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, while waiting to be betrayed and led to trial and crucifixion the following day. It is not easy to see properly, but it is worth the effort. The painting is by Thomas Barber(1771-1843), a well-known Nottingham artist who painted most of the notable people in the town - at the end of the North Aisle you can see his portrait of his friend the Revd. Robert White Almond, the rector of St Peter's who commissioned this painting in 1815-16 and paid most of the £50 cost.
But that is not the whole story. Pevsner's "Nottinghamshire", the standard architectural guide to the buildings of the county, mentions this painting but also refers to an altarpiece of 1720 - which several visitors to St Peter's have looked for in vain. The history of the two pictures is complicated and certainly not what I first expected!
It starts with Dr Alvery Dodsley, a local medical man. About the year 1714 he commissioned an altar-piece for St Peter's from Edward Dovey, "an artist of no mean abilities" according to William Stretton (the architect and builder who restored parts of the church around 1800 and whose daughter Salacia has a monument in the chancel). Stretton added that Edward Dovey "lived on the west side of Bridlesmith Gate, and lies buried in St Peter's Church Yard, opposite to the chancel door." Here is Stretton's description of the altar-piece, written in 1816:
Several early historians dated the painting to 1720, probably because there was a memorial tablet (now lost) below the altar-piece to Dr Dodsley's wife Hannah, who died in October 1720. However, the painting must have been commissioned and erected earlier than that, probably before August 1714 in view of the presence of Queen Anne, who died in that month.
More evidence for an earlier date comes from a very rare anonymous pamphlet I found in the Central Library in Angel Row. This has the title "An Historical Account of the Rise of Image-Worship in a Letter to the Parishioners of St Peter in Nottingham". It was printed by J. Collyer of Long Row in 1715, and complained about "your famous Alter-Piece lately set up". The pamphlet attacked the design of the new altar-piece, quoting eminent theologians on the danger of "images" in churches. The unknown author objected to two things in particular. First, there was an implication that Judas may or may not have participated in the Last Supper (he is described as "in an odd position", and another description of 1815 refers to only eleven disciples). Secondly, the inclusion of the Queen's head in a prominent position was felt to be sacrilegious, and liable to distract communicants who should "ponder nothing earthly-minded".
In 1815 John Blackner's "History of Nottingham" described the altar-piece as still in position, though "the beauty of the piece was much injured by the operation of the southern sunbeams, before the parishioners had the foresight to protect it by a window-blind". (The chancel windows were bigger then than they are today and probably had clear glass.) But by 1816 William Stretton's notes indicate that the altar-piece was no longer in its original form:
So what happened was that Thomas Barber was commissioned to paint a new picture, more in keeping with 19th-century taste, on top of the faded old altar-piece but keeping some of the borders (which have since disappeared). A later account by Joseph Bramley, one of the churchwardens and a keen local historian, was published by the Thoroton Society in 1938. It gives more details, and brings the story up to date:
And there it still is - rather cut down to fit the ceiling, but quite recognisable, and a suitably devotional entry to the church. Without X-ray analysis we can never be quite sure what Edward Dovey's controversial "Last Supper" really looked like - but it seems certain that it is still there, hidden under Thomas Barber's 1815 over-painting!