St. Mary's church, Totnes Altar Piece

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VII, (1912-1913), Exeter: James G. Commin. 1913, pp. 129-130.


Charles R. Baker King

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Note’s author describes and discusses an unusual altar piece in ancient St Mary’s Church that seems to have been removed without trace in the restorations of 1879. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 105. ST. MARY'S CHURCH, TOTNES, ALTAR PIECE. - In my paper on St. Mary's Church. Totnes, which was read at the meeting of the Devonshire Association held at Teignmouth in 1904, and printed in volume 36 of the Transactions for that year, I mentioned the plaster Baldacchino or Altar piece which formerly stood at the east end of the Chancel, but which was removed in the year 1879, during the alterations and refitting of the Church then being carried out.

The design of the structure was of the "Corinthian" order of classic architecture with mouldings and ornaments of a rich and refined character, and the work seemed to show that the design had been made by an architect who had studied in Italy.

I stated that I could not learn anything of its history, its date, or the circumstance of its erection, but judged that it must have been placed in the Church towards the end of the 18th century. Mr. Edward Windeatt had carefully examined all the records belonging to the Church and Corporation, but had been unable to find any mention of it. He has lately informed me that his father had made a note in his copy of Cotton's Totnes, stating that the altar-piece was the gift of a native of Totnes, and had been put up by permission of the Corporation who at that time kept the Church in repair.

Recently on examining some old drawings in the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects, I came across one representing the altar-piece formerly in the Church of St. Paul, Covent Garden, London, which church was destroyed by fire in the year 1790. The design is almost identical with that of the Totnes structure, although the latter seems to have been of larger dimensions. The drawing I refer to does not bear any date, or the name of the draughtsman, but a note on it states that the altar-piece was said to have been brought from Italy by Inigo Jones. Jones was the architect of the church - which for a long period was regarded as a fine example of a church in the classic style. This altar piece seems to have been taken as the model for the embellishment for the far away church at Totnes, and the copy was no doubt erected before the fire had destroyed the original.

The drawing, which is tinted, represents the altar-piece as though constructed of various coloured and veined marbles, but the work at Totnes was of white plaster only. An illustration of this from my drawing is given in the 1904 volume of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association

                    CHAS. R. BAKER KING, A.R.I.B.A.