This striking pen-and-ink drawing shows the memorial statue of John Donne (1572–1631) in St Paul’s Cathedral. It depicts the poet rising out of a funeral urn, enveloped in his death shroud.
The statue of Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral
The white marble statue was carved in 1631–32 by the master mason, Nicholas Stone. It still stands in the South Quire Aisle of St Paul’s, where John Donne served as Dean in the last ten years of his life. This was one of the few monuments to survive the Great Fire which destroyed the old St Paul’s in 1666. If you visit the Cathedral today, you can see telltale scorch marks at the base of the statue.
How did Donne plan his own funeral monument?
Knowing that he was dying, Donne planned his own monument, and asked an artist to sketch him wearing a shroud. His biographer, Izaac Walton, describes how Donne wrapped his naked body in a ‘winding-sheet’ knotted at the ‘head and feet’, and posed on the urn ‘with his eyes shut’ (Life of John Donne, second edn, 1658, pp. 112–13). That lost sketch formed the basis of Nicholas Stone’s effigy and an engraving by Martin Droeshout.
Walton also claims that Donne left instructions for his own Latin epitaph, which appears at the top of the statue. The poet seems to have gone to great lengths to stage-manage his own death and shape how he was remembered.
Sir William Dugdale’s ‘Book of Monuments’
This early drawing of the statue was produced in 1641 by the draughtsman William Sedgwick (1605–1686). It is part of Sir William Dugdale’s ‘Book of Monuments’ (1640–41, f. 164) – a beautiful manuscript record of religious monuments from London, the Midlands and Yorkshire. Dugdale (1605–1686) travelled England scouring churches for tombs which he feared might be destroyed in the impending Civil War, and he noted down all their details.