Exiled from St Paul's Cathedral: Marble cherub panels at the centre of religious struggle come to auction at Bonhams

Fine English Furniture
21 Nov 2012
London, New Bond Street

An extraordinary set of three 19th Century marble cherub panels from St Paul's Cathedral are set to go under the hammer at Bonhams Fine English Furniture sale on 21st November at New Bond Street. Estimated at £10,000 – 15,000, the marbles formed part of the altar and its surroundings, which has been steeped in controversy for over a century.

The marbles have been in the same hands since they were rescued by the current vendor, Sir Donald Insall, among the architects engaged in the restoration of Windsor Castle following the fire in 1992.

The panels were key elements of the "Bodley Reredos" a new altar and surrounds designed for St Paul's by George Frederick Bodley, and were heralded as "the most important work of the kind ever erected in England in the Italian style". Although the marbles were exquisitely designed and beautifully sculpted, they became the centre of a fierce struggle between Protestants and Catholics.

In 1883, when Bodley was invited to submit designs for a new altar and surrounds, the re-design of the Cathedral's interior was already well underway. Every stage of the process was subject to scrutiny and debate, but the appearance of the altar and its reredos was the most contentious issue, and was one which had caused arguments since the Cathedral was built.

The marbles would have appealed to Sir Christopher Wren's desires for the altarpiece, but the inclusion of the cherubs was not to everyone's taste. A group of Protestant churchmen launched a campaign against the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral for erecting a superstitious symbol. While the drive to have the altarpiece removed was unsuccessful at the time, the works were eventually dismantled in the 1970s.

Sir Donald Insall commented, ""It was extraordinary good fortune that our Caretaker at the time spotted these exquisite pieces among the debris outside the Cathedral. It has been a delight to have them on display for the last 40 years, but now it is time to let someone else have that enjoyment. After so much controversy over their production, these lovely marbles have truly earned their place in the history of English ecclesiastical design."

Fergus Lyons, Director of the Furniture department commented, "The Bodley Reredos marbles form part of our national heritage and therefore can be considered as objects of some historical importance. It is fitting that Bonhams will be handling the sale of these magnificent carvings, having previously sold part of the same reredos in New York, during 2005. We anticipate this rare opportunity to acquire objects formerly housed in one of London's most iconic buildings, will generate strong interest."


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

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