St Thomas à Becket sculpture


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
St Paul's Cathedral Churchyard, City of London, EC4M 8AD


Ordnance survey map of St Thomas à Becket sculpture
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Statutory Address:
St Paul's Cathedral Churchyard, City of London, EC4M 8AD

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
City and County of the City of London (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
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'St Thomas à Becket', a fibreglass resin statue of 1970-71, by E Bainbridge Copnall, installed in St Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard in 1973.

Reasons for Designation

'St Thomas à Becket', a fibreglass resin statue of 1970-71 by E Bainbridge Copnall, installed in the precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1973, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Artistic interest: a sculpture of high artistic quality, powerfully modelled and well composed, and representative of Copnall’s late work; * Historic interest: Copnall pioneered fibreglass resin, coloured with bronze pigments, as an inexpensive and durable substitute for bronze; * Historic association: commemorating the origins of St Thomas à Becket in the City of London; * Group value: with the Grade I St Paul’s Cathedral.


The period after 1945 saw a shift from commemorative sculpture and architectural enrichment to the idea of public sculpture as a primarily aesthetic contribution to the public realm. Sculpture was commissioned for new housing, schools, universities and civic set pieces, with the counties of Hertfordshire, London and Leicestershire and the new towns leading the way in public patronage. Thus public sculpture could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. By the late C20 however, patronage was more diverse and included corporate commissions and Arts Council-funded community art. The ideology of enhancing the public realm through art continued, but with divergent means and motivation.

Visual languages ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Phillip King to the figurative approach of Elisabeth Frink and Peter Laszlo Peri, via those such as Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth who bridged the abstract/representational divide. The post-war decades are characterised by the exploitation of new – often industrial – materials and techniques including new welding and casting techniques, plastics and concrete, while kinetic sculpture and ‘ready mades’ (using found objects) demonstrate an interest in composite forms.

Edward Bainbridge Copnall (1903-73) was born in South Africa and received his art training at Goldsmiths College and the Royal Academy Schools in London. After a period painting portraits, he turned to direct carving after encountering the work of Eric Kennington. In the 1930s Copnall established his reputation with a series of commissions for relief sculptures, including the Royal Institute of British Architects (1932-34, Grade II*) and the Adelphi (1936-38, Grade II), both in London. After serving as a camouflage officer in the Second World War, Copnall became principal of the Sir John Cass School of Art, London (1945-53). He was elected president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors from 1961-66. The Church of All Saints, Hanworth, Middlesex (1951, Grade II) also contains an example of his work while his tombstone for Sir Percy Harris MP, an early work, is also listed at Grade II. Copnall turned to fibreglass after he was asked by R Seifert & Partners, the architects of ICT House, Putney, to make a large figure in a cheaper material than bronze. This work, entitled ‘Swan Man’, was formed from a plaster armature coated with fibreglass resin coloured with a green-bronze pigment to resemble bronze. Later works, such as ‘St Thomas à Becket’, were built up directly on wire netting.

'St Thomas à Becket' (1970-71), one of Copnall’s last works, was created to mark the 800th anniversary of the Saint’s martyrdom. Copnall projected a standing figure of Becket at Canterbury Cathedral to coincide with the 800th anniversary of his assassination in 1970, but this was not commissioned. The present sculpture was purchased by the City of London Corporation at a cost of £2,000 to commemorate Thomas à Becket’s origins in nearby Cheapside, and was inaugurated in March 1973 by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. The sculpture was originally mounted on architectural fragments of the C14 Chapter House in the south-west churchyard. After sustaining damage in the storm of 1987, the sculpture was restored by Copnall’s former student Patrick Crouch and re-mounted on a low plinth. The sculpture was again restored in 2001 after being vandalised and moved to the south-east corner of St Paul's Churchyard. It was again restored in 2013.


'St Thomas à Becket', a fibreglass resin statue of 1970-71, by E Bainbridge Copnall, installed in St Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard in 1973.

The statue is of fibreglass resin with a bronzed finish, and at 2.45m long and 1.3m high is over life size. It is mounted on a stepped stone base 22cm in height; at the foot of the base is a plaque reading ‘BECKET / BY/ BAINBRIDGE COPNALL / ACQUIRED BY THE CORPORATION OF LONDON /1973’. The figurative sculpture depicts the prostrate figure of St Thomas à Becket at the moment of his martyrdom in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral. The posture has been compared to still photographs from the production of TS Eliot’s play 'Murder in the Cathedral', staged in Canterbury Cathedral in 1970 (Ward-Jackson 2003, 388). The head is thrown back and the hands are extended as if to ward off the blows of his assassins, and the face is vigorously rendered with an elongated chin, pointed nose and lentoid eyes with heavy eyelids. To the flowing drapery of the gown, Patrick Crouch added a hood in his restoration to increase the stability of the sculpture.


Books and journals
Copnall, E.B., A Sculptor’s Manual, (1971)
Ward-Jackson, P, Public Sculpture in the City of London, (2003), pp.487-9
Description of conservation restoration of the sculpture, accessed 5 November 2015 from


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed structure is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed structure (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed structure for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

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