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Details
A ROMAN SARDONYX CAMEO OF ISIS
CIRCA 1ST CENTURY B.C.-1ST CENTURY A.D.
Cameo: 1 5/8 in. (4.2 cm.) long; Mount: 3 ½ in. (8.8 cm.) long
Provenance
Richard Mead (1673-1754), London.
William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough (1704-1793), Parkstead House, Roehampton, acquired by 1761.
George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817), Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, acquired from the above, circa 1765; thence by descent to his son, George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough (1766-1840), Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire; thence by descent to his son, George Spencer-Churchill, 6th Duke of Marlborough (1793–1857), Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire; thence by descent to his son, John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822-1883), Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
The Marlborough Gems: Being a Collection of Works in Cameo and Intaglio Formed by George, Third Duke of Marlborough, Christie's, London, 28 June-1 July 1875, lot 366.
David Bromilow (1809-1898), Bitteswell Hall, Leicestershire, acquired from the above; thence by descent to his daughter, Julia Harriet Mary Jary, Bitteswell Hall, Leicestershire, 1898.
The Marlborough Gems: A Collection of Works in Cameo and Intaglio Formed by George, Third Duke of Marlborough, Purchased by the Late David Bromilow, Esq., of Bitteswell Hall, Lutterworth, the Property of Mrs. Jary, Christie's, London, 26-29 June 1899, lot 366.
with Francis E. Whelan (1848-1907), London, acquired from the above (according to the auctioneer's book).
Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965), Rome, acquired and brought to Switzerland, late 1930s; thence by continuous descent to the current owners.
Literature
L. Natter, Catalogue des pierres gravées, tant en relief, qu'en creux de Mylord Comte de Bessborough, London, 1761, pp. 1-2, no. 2.
Gemmarum antiquarum delectus ex præstantioribus desumptus, quæ in dactyliothecus ducis Marlburiensis conservantur. Choix de pierres antiques grave´es du cabinet du Duc de Marlborough, vol. 2, London, 1783, no. 17.
M.H. Story-Maskelyne, The Marlborough Gems: Being a Collection of Works in Cameo and Intaglio Formed by George, Third Duke of Marlborough, 1870, p. 65, no. 366.
The Marlborough Gems, manuscript album and photographs, 1875, pl. 2.2.
S. Reinach, Pierres gravées des collections Marlborough et d'Orléans, Paris, 1895, p. 117, no. 17, pl. 114.
J. Kagan and O. Neverov, "Lorenz Natter's Museum Britannicum: Gem Collecting in mid-Eighteenth-Century England," Apollo, August 1984, pp. 114-121, fig. 7.5.
D. Plantzos, "Ptolemaic Cameos of the Second and First Centuries BC," Oxford Journal of Archaeology 15, 1996, pp. 54-58, no. B7, fig. 23.
J. Boardman, et al., The Marlborough Gems, Formerly at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, London, 2009, p. 164, no. 358.
J. Boardman and C. Wagner, Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present, London, 2018, p. 229, no. 214.
Beazley Archive Gem Database no. 358.

Lot Essay

This fine two-layered sardonyx cameo is sculpted with a profile bust of the goddess Isis. The artist reserved his subject to the brown layer, which stands out against the white ground. The goddess wears a broad collar overlapped by a long wig and a vulture headdress topped with a diminutive Isis crown formed of horns and a solar disc. It may be that the subject was intended to be a Ptolemaic Queen in the guise of Isis.

The carving of cameos was invented in Ptolemaic Alexandria during the 3rd century B.C. Cameos and a large number of garnet intaglios with similar subjects were popular in the later Ptolemaic period and were associated with the royal cult (see p. 194 in J. Spier, et al., Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World). The type continued in popularity in the Roman period and it has been suggested by Plantzos (op. cit., p. 57) that the present cameo is Egyptianizing Roman.

The 18th century jeweled mount is set with peridot, amethyst and garnet and is typical of gems from the Bessborough Collection. William Ponsonby, the 2nd Earl of Bessborough, was a dedicated antiquarian who amassed an impressive collection of cameos and intaglios. His travels throughout Italy in 1736-1738 with painter J. E. Liotard acquainted the Englishman with a number of dealers in ancient art. The Earl's collection was displayed at his Roehampton house before the gems were sold to the Fourth Duke of Marlborough soon after his acquisition of the Arundel gems (see Boardman et al., op. cit., pp. 125-127).
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