The Shepherd’s Monument, located in the gardens of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, has attracted many a writer in recent decades, all putting forward theories and trying to crack the ‘code’. It was erected by Thomas Anson sometime between 1748 and 1763, and was funded by his brother George Anson. It was worked on by Peter Scheemakers, the renowned Flemish sculptor, who is more famous for his work on the Shakespeare monument that is located at Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. The relief on the monument is a mirror-image copy of Nicholas Poussin’s second version of the Shepherds of Arcadia, showing three shepherds examining a tomb. An inscription is situated under the relief, revealing O U O S V A V V set above and between the letters D and M. This ‘code’ has never been solved, and has been discussed in books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the monument being referred to in an almost pseudo-Masonic context. Various Latin phrases have been attributed to the mysterious letters, but, according to the staff at the Hall, they ‘get five or six people a week who believe they have solved the code…’
However, it is Thomas Anson that interests me most in this story. Anson was deeply interested in classical architecture; he formed the Dilettanti Society with the Earl of Sandwich – a drinking club that also discussed architecture, he joined the Egyptian Society, the Divan Society, and was also close to Sir Francis Dashwood of Hell Fire Club fame. In all, Thomas loved architecture and loved his clubs and societies, and like Dashwood, he liked his intellectual jokes. The gardens of Shugborough became a blank canvas for Anson’s love of architecture, and he built temples and follies. The Shepherd’s monument became the most infamous, but his interest in follies can be reflected in the Hell Fire Caves of Sir Francis Dashwood, the constructions of John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller and even the tunnels of Joseph Williamson.
This brings us back to the ‘code’ that has never been cracked; personally I fall into the category who believe that the Shepherd’s Monument is a folly, and like some of Dashwood’s designs in West Wycomb, it conveys that 18th century English humour, an puzzle that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but enjoyed for what it is – an eccentric but beautifully constructed monument that celebrates a mysterious mind.