The Church of the Benedictine Abbey of Becc, in Normandy
CAT 182. Engraved by Benjamin Thomas Pouncy. The Church of the Benedictine Abbey of Becc, in Normandy. Frontispiece in Jean Bourget, The History of the Royal Abbey of Bec, near Rouen in Normandy. London: 1779. Melville Society Archive, William Reese Collection.
The Benedictine Abbey of Bec, in Normandy, was founded by Herluin, a Norman knight, around 1034. It quickly became a celebrated center of learning under Lanfranc (1005-1089) and St. Anselm (1033-1109). The influence of Le Bec extended to the lands of England when William the Conquerer appointed Lanfranc as his Archbishop of Canterbury, in which office he was succeeded by Anselm. The Abbey of Le Bec remained a powerful influence on English life until its estates were absorbed by Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534. In France, the monastery at Bec remained active until its monks were expelled by the French Revolution in 1792. Beginning in 1809 the Abbey Church, which had been completed in 1077, was demolished stone by stone. Still standing in the town of Bec-Hellouin today, however, is St. Nicholas Tower, a late Gothic structure built next to the Abbey Church in 1467 (Kent 379).
Melville’s engraving depicts the Abbey Church and the St. Nicholas Tower as they stood side by side in the eighteenth century. It was published in London in 1779 as the frontispiece in Jean Bourget’s History of the Royal Abbey of Bec, translated from the French in the year of the Revolution that would soon result in the destruction of its Abbey Church. In its antiquarian subject and style, this print closely resembles the topographical views that Melville collected from the Antiquities of England and Wales and similar publications (CAT numbers to be assigned). His annotation "519 vol. 1" on the mounting sheet below the print would seem to refer to the page number of some such publication. “Corfe Castle,” whose name Melville appears to have written on the verso of the mounting sheet, was a popular subject in such eighteenth-century publications. So were Battle Abbey and St. Michael’s Mount Cornwall—the subjects of English prints from the early nineteenth century that Melville collected (CAT numbers to be assigned).
Thomas Benjamin Pouncy, who engraved Melville’s copy of the Church of the Benedectine Abbey in Becc, was a student of William Woollett, the celebrated engraver of Melville’s copy of Claude’s The Enchanted Castle, published in 1782 (CAT 128). After specializing in topographical views of antiquities early in his career, Pouncy, who died in 1799, became highly admired for his engravings of landscape and marine subjects. In addition to numerous plates for the second and third Voyages of Captain Cook, Pouncy was admired for his engravings after eighteenth-century British painters including Richard Wilson (Athens in its Flourishing State) and R. Cleveley (The Morning of the Glorious First of June, 1794), each of whom is represented in Melville’s collection (CAT numbers to be assigned). I am grateful to Frère Antoine Desfarges of the Abbaye du Bec for information about Pouncy’s engraving.
In Melville’s copy of Pouncy’s print, the sun shines brightly on the Church of the Abbey that was reduced to rubble in the aftermath of the French Revolution, shadowing the St. Nicholas Tower that still stands today. The Abbey Church at Bec stretched its influence all the way into the Gorge of Kedron in Melville’s Clarel, where the “young monk-servant” of the Monastery at Mar Saba is named Anselm (NN C 3.11.101 and 3.21.316).