London Art@Site Joseph Edgar Boehm William Tyndale

Joseph Edgar Boehm


William Tyndale

Victoria Embankment
The bronze statue, that is about 125% life-size, shows Tyndale standing wearing robes and a soft cap. His right arm is hanging straight down and his hand is resting on an open book that itself is laying on a very early press. He is holding and unidentifiable object in his left hand and his left arm is across his chest. The statue is sat atop a stone plinth that has carved decoration. There is a bronze plaque on both the front an rear sides of the plinth (see photos). The plaque at the front tells of Tyndale and the one at the rear lists the contributors, who each contributed £100, for the statue. The Tyndale Society website (visit link) tells us:
"London has hosts of statues which generally become duller and more obscure to both the eye and the mind as the events and figures they commemorate become increasingly distant; unless, that is, they have the anarchic drama of Boadicea or the formal familiarity of Nelson's Column or Eros. The rest are the retired po-faced worthies of the past suffering the unwanted affection of pigeons.

Tyndale has a statue too. It might seem rather tucked-away in the Victoria Embankment Gardens now, but in the 1880s the Embankment was a plush site following Bazalgette's massive reclamation works along the Thames finished in 1870. The sculptor was Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm who was considered"virtually the keystone of establishment sculpture during Victoria's reign."

This bronze statue was unveiled on May 7th 1884 in token of the 80th anniversary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and also being the 400th anniversary of 1484, the date that the bronze plaque beneath claims for Tyndale's birth.

The statue is a fine one. Boehm's background in Vienna and the Continent brought to his work rather more vivid articulation"than the standard broad anodyne treatment that was the general rule in England, undercutting marble and modelling deeper for bronze thus producing a more varied effect of light and shadow..."' The stance is quite lively with some movement in Tyndale's frozen gesture towards his books that manages to be dignified without being pompous. There is a kind of how implied in the graceful turn and sweep of the body which in no way compromises the vertical accent necessary to this kind of monument.

The portrait is not entirely fanciful; it is based on the painting at Hertford College Oxford, but whereas that shows the writer interrupted from his work, this is in academic garb and with his attributes of books and printing press. I rather think that a seated, writing Tyndale might have made a good composition but it wouldn't have complemented its standing companion pieces, Outram and Bartle-Frere, in the garden layout. Certainly Boehm's most successful figure' is a seated one, the wonderfully restless Carlyle on Chelsea Embankment.

Blackwood comments that Boehm has"augmented the beard and softened the line of strain about the eyes"' that is apparent in the painting. Qualities of any face are hard to read, much less with such a healthy heard, but Boehm's attempt to convey Tyndale is very credible. He has maintained some of the evidence of the ravages of heavy study together with a convincing strength and mildness. Others might read it differently but I think they would agree that this lacks the complacency of the faces of so many Victorian statues.

Even the printing press beside him is a careful portrait of a sixteenth century one in the Antwerp Museum. Within the haphazard arrangement of leaning books, it might suggest the sort of picturesque scenery that a gun carriage might lend to a posing general, but Tyndale's right hand binds it all into the composition and therefore into himself. You could easily imagine a child there or a beloved dog in its place. Simultaneously his left hand catches up the folds of robe to stop them brushing the delicately balanced book. Boehm's Tyndale with his books and press is in the tradition of church iconography; that of showing a saint in his or her full dress uniform, be it camels-hair apron or cope and mitre, with their appropriate accessories of sword, spiked wheel, grid-iron, or else a weighty tome, a hand-held cathedral or candle. Tyndale is shown in this tradition unlike his neighbours, the politician or soldier. John Blackwood is right when he says that the"statue is exceptionally skilful and impressive" but speaks little"about the pioneering courage of William Tyndale"; however, if I'm right about the tradition evoked, personified heroism and fortitude (adored by the Victorians) is always silenced in the representation of saints who in altarpieces"cast their crowns" at the feet of the Saviour. Tyndale like the altar saints stands proudly by his books and press that were both his charge and the death of him. Even his gesture to the open hook cannot be read as the self-congratulation of a heroic thinker or writer but as a tender devotion to a text one could die for.

This statue is a successful work of art and faithfully does honour to Tyndale. I feel it ought to be better known and appreciated, especially as it also acts as a memorial, with the implication of remembering both the man and his work as a National treasure. This must have been the intention of The British and Foreign Bible Society who have shared the same zeal and energy, and I hope that they were pleased with it. I also hope that with a 200th anniversary approaching in 2004, they will find as good a way of celebrating. There is probably still some mileage in memorials to Tyndale." The Spartacus website (visit link) gives a brief biography of Tyndale:
"William Tyndale was born in Slymbridge in about 1496. After being educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, he became a chaplain. While studying at Oxford he became very interested in the ideas of John Wycliffe and the Lollards. Tyndale became convinced that the church had become corrupt and selfish.

Like Wycliffe, Tyndale thought it was important that people had the opportunity to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into English but at that time Henry VIII and the English church were very much against the idea.

In 1524 Tyndale went to Hamburg where he met Martin Luther and the following year moved to Cologne where he managed to arrange for his translation of the Bible to be printed in English. He argued:"All the prophets wrote in the mother tongue... Why then might they (the scriptures) not be written in the mother tongue... They say, the scripture is so hard, that thou could never understand it... They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue... they are false liars." The translation owed much to the work of Desiderius Erasmus. During the next few years 18,000 copies of this bible were printed and smuggled into England.

In 1530 Henry VIII gave orders that all English Bibles were to be destroyed. People caught distributing the Tyndale Bible in England were burnt at the stake. This attempt to destroy Tyndale's Bible was very successful as only two copies have survived.

In 1535 William Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips and arrested in Antwerp and imprisoned in a castle near Brussels. He was found guilty of heresy and on 6th October, 1536, he was strangled and burnt at the stake.

Tyndale did not die in vain. Two years later Henry VIII gave permission for the publication of the English Bible. However, people were not allowed to read it aloud to another person; nor were people below the rank of gentleman allowed to own a copy of the English Bible."