A tale of two tables
When Lacock Abbey became a private home after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, its Tudor owner was keen to show off his wealth and sophistication. As part of his extensive remodelling of the former nunnery, he commissioned two distinctive stone tables to fit his new octagonal tower. But the two have seen very different treatment in the past 600 years.
Sir William Sharington was a man on the make. A courtier to Henry VIII and knighted by Edward VI, he was a wool trader, moneylender and bought substantial land holdings in the 1540s. Among those purchases was Lacock Abbey, a former Augustinian nunnery, which he set about converting into the residence of a gentlemen of fashion and taste.
As part of his renovations he built an octagonal tower, designed as a strong room to safeguard his treasured collections and curiosities on the first floor, and a luxurious banqueting room on to entertain (and overawe) guests on the second. The three-storey tower was built in the fashionable Italian style, and Sharington commissioned two stone tables on which he could lay out his treasures for display or study.
The design of the monumental tables is extraordinary. On the first floor (pictured above) the top is supported by four crouching, grinning satyrs (half man, half goat), which wear acanthus-leaf skirts and hold baskets of fruit above their heads. On the top floor, it is four caryatids, two bearded and two partly veiled, that support the top, with further carvings in-between.
We don’t know for certain who sculpted these tables – it may not have been only one person – but the most likely is John Chapman, a stone carver who worked for leading aristocrats of the day. The high quality work is heavily influenced by fashionable Italian and French Renaissance ornamental designs.
But while the first floor table remains in fine condition, the one on the top floor has suffered over the years. Carvings have been damaged – one has lost its lower half completely – the top is split and the table has been graffitied.
We know the room, which is only accessible from the roof, was used during the Civil War as a look out post; it’s tempting to imagine bored soldiers damaging the table top by jumping on it! The graffiti spans the centuries and feature initials, dates, and ancient apotropaic protection symbols such as daisy pin wheels.
And Sir William Sharington? In 1549 he was found guilty of embezzling the Bristol Mint. Though he forfeited his lands as a result, he was later pardoned, bought back his lands and died in 1553 as a respected Sheriff of Wiltshire and MP.