William Constable, of Burton Constable in the East Riding of Yorkshire, died in 1791. A condition of his will was that his heir should rebuild the ‘family vault’, then found at nearby Halsham church. The new building was to be more than just a repository for the remains of generations of Constables, it was also intended as a bold statement of the importance of the ancient family, and an ornament to the estate.
Constable had died without issue and his estate passed to his nephew, Edward Sheldon. In July 1791, the King granted a royal licence for Sheldon to take the ‘surname and bear the arms of Constable pursuant to the will of his uncle.’
For centuries the Constable family had been interred in the Church of All Saints at Halsham, which was the family seat before the family made Burton Constable their principal home. Initially, as stipulated in his will, William Constable would also be laid to rest at Halsham. It fell to Edward Constable to meet the further demands made in the codicil which his uncle added to his will in December 1790. His final wishes were that he be buried in a new family vault, built with a plain exterior, but decorated inside with black marble walls and floor. This very specific design detail may have been inspired by a building William had seen on the Grand Tour, but he can’t have known quite how much trouble it would cause his heir, or that it would leave him in Halsham church for around a decade until his tomb was eventually complete.
Edward Constable commissioned the York architect Thomas Atkinson (1729-1798) to design the mausoleum. Atkinson had already worked for William at Burton Constable where he remodelled some interiors and, in the late 1780s, designed the orangery. The builder chosen to execute the works was John Platt of Rotherham (1728-1810), who was a respected architect himself. He knew Atkinson well, and may have been chosen because he also owned the Derbyshire quarries from where the black marble, chosen by William, would be sourced. Work began in 1792, after a price of £3,300 had been agreed, and Atkinson had given his word that the mausoleum would be complete by January 1796.
From the start progress was slow and tensions arose between Constable and his architect. Working with Atkinson was his stonemason son John, who wrote to Constable to say how low-spirited his father was upon realising he could not fulfil his promise and complete the building on time.
The main problem seems to have been in working the hard black marble. Found only in a small area around Ashford, in Derbyshire, the stone is actually a form of limestone, but it was famed for its ability to be polished to a mirror-like sheen. It had been used for many years, but became more widely available – and fashionable – from the 1740s after Henry Watson developed water-powered technology to cut and polish the stone. This was the business that the Platt family had taken over by the 1760s. As the Halsham project progressed, the masonry for the interiors of the mausoleum proved too much for the ‘Marble Machine’, more used to turning obelisks and fancy goods, and the masons had to revert to working by hand, with inevitable delays.
By 1797 Constable was increasingly frustrated with the Atkinsons, but they continued with the project until 1798 when Atkinson senior died very suddenly, leaving his family penniless ‘beggars’. By this date accounts show that the mausoleum was almost complete, but it was not until 1802 that ‘the Bones of the Ancestors of the Family of Constable’ were removed from the church and reinterred in the new vault.
In accordance with the terms of the will, the outside is austere. The interior too is quite simple, focussing on a central stone urn mounted on a column inscribed ‘Gulielmus de Constable’. Around the walls Edward Constable hung 72 painted heraldic shields, each representing branches of the extended family and emphasising his lineage. In the basement are niches for coffins with tablets bearing the names and dates of the deceased, another instruction from William. The building is lit by a central skylight filled with coloured glass which ‘throws a chastened light throughout the whole of the interior’.
Although William Constable was very specific about the construction of the new vault, he makes no mention of a location, although he may have discussed this before his death. Usually, a family mausoleum would be constructed within the churchyard, but instead the Constable mausoleum was built on a new site, a short distance from the church and on higher ground. Once complete, a ‘plantation of beautiful trees and shrubs’ was established on the gently rising ground around the building. By 1816 it was admired as a ‘superb mausoleum’ and the ‘unadorned, but elegant style of its architecture […] at once appears striking to the eye, and appropriate to the use for which the structure is designed.’
In the 1870s the Constable family sold the Halsham estate, leaving little other than the mausoleum in their possession. The building remains a very striking landscape feature but has faced the usual challenges of damage both natural (the elements) and deliberate (vandals and thieves). Having spent some time on the Buildings at Risk register at the end of the 20th century, it has now been restored. It is possible to see the exterior but understandably the interior is strictly private.
East Riding Archives has a fascinating collection of images. Buy prints and learn more here https://picturearchives.org/eastridingphotos/constable-mausoleum-halsham-1900s-tinted/
And click here to find out about their innovative WhatWasHere app https://www.eastridingarchives.co.uk/archives-online/
Buxton Museum & Art Gallery has a fine collection of decorative pieces made of Ashford Black Marble https://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/buxton-museum/permanent-collections/tomlinson-collection/ashford-black-marble.aspx
Artist John Piper photographed the mausoleum in the mid-20th century https://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-8728-1-40-74/piper-photograph-of-the-constable-mausoleum-in-halsham-yorkshire
For Burton Constable https://www.burtonconstable.com