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Maddalena Giacente(Recumbent Magdalene)Executed in 1819-22

Maddalena Giacente
(Recumbent Magdalene)
Executed in 1819-22

29 1⁄2 x 69 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄4 in. (75 x 176 x 84.5 cm.)
Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828) for Fife House, Whitehall, commissioned from the artist for £1,200.
By descent to his brother
Charles Cecil Cope Jenkinson, 3rd Earl of Liverpool (1784-1851), Fife House, Whitehall.
Christie’s, Auction at Fife House, Whitehall, 23 April 1852, where the Magdalene appeared as lot 120.
Christie's, London, 2 June 1856, lot 57.
Purchased at the above sale by
William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley (1817-1885), Witley Court, Worcestershire, for £1,000.
By descent to his son
William Humble Ward, 2nd Earl of Dudley (1867-1932).
Purchased from the above along with Witley Court and its contents in 1920 by
Sir Herbert Smith, Bt. (1872-1943).
Jackson Stops & Staff auctioneers, sale on the premises at Witley Court, Worcestershire, sold under the direction of Sir Herbert Smith, Bt., 27-30 September and 3-5 October 1938, lot 804.
Purchased at the above sale by
Mrs Violet Van der Elst, Harlaxton Manor, for 40 guineas.
Sold by the above with her house 80 Addison Rd, London, in May 1959 to
Jonathan Manasseh, London.
Sotheby’s, Summer’s Place Auctions, Billingshurst, ‘Garden Statuary and Architectural Items’, 21 and 22 May 2002, lot 712,
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
I. Teotochi Albrizzi, Opere di scultura e plastica di Antonio Canova descritte da Isabella Teotochi nata Albrizzi, I-IV, Pisa, 1823 (and subsequent editions).
Memoria, in Biblioteca canoviana ossia Raccolta delle migliori prose, e de’ più scelti componimenti poetici, sulla vita, sulle opere ed in morte di Antonio Canova, I-IV, Venice, 1823, pp. 149-150.
M. Missirini, Vita di Antonio Canova libri quattro compilati da Melchior Missirini, Prato, 1824.
G. Rosini, Saggio sulla vita e sulle opere di Antonio Canova, Pisa, 1825, p. 101.
L. Cicognara, Biografia di Antonio Canova scritta dal cav. Leopoldo Cicognara. Aggiuntivi. I. Il Catalogo completo delle opere del Canova. II. Un saggio delle sue lettere familiari. III. La storia della sua ultima malattia scritta dal dott. Paolo Zannini, Venice, 1823, pp. 37, 67.
A.C. Quatremère de Quincy, Canova et ses ouvrages ou Mémoires historiques sur la vie et les travaux d ce célèbre artiste par M. Quatremère de Quincy, Paris, 1834.
J. Russell (ed.) MemoirsJournal and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, III, Boston, 1853, pp. 126, 144 and 152.
Catalogue of the Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, exhibition catalogue, Manchester, 1857, p.135.
W. J. Linton, H. Linton, F.J. Smyth, eds., The Art Treasures Examiner, Manchester, 1857, p. 110.
T. Morris, An historical, descriptive and biographical hand-book to the Exhibition of the United Kingdom's Art Treasures, at Manchester, 1857, London, p.30.
G. Scharf, On the Manchester Art-Treasures Exhibition, 1857, transcript of paper given at The Royal Institution on 15th April, 1858.
A. D’Este, Memorie di Antonio Canova scritte da Antonio DEste e pubblicate per cura di Alessandro DEste, con note e documenti, Florence, 1864.
N. Hawthorne, Passages from the English Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Boston, 1880, p. 117.
A. Jameson with E. Hurll, ed., The Writings on Art of Anna Jameson in Five Volumes. Sacred and legendary art, I, Boston and New York, 1899, p 370.
V. Malamani, Canova, Milano, 1911, p. 81.
E. Bassi, La Gipsoteca di Possagno. Sculture e dipinti di Antonio Canova, Venice, 1957.
E. Bassi, ed., Il Museo Civico di Bassano. I disegni di Antonio Canova, Venice 1959.
W. Shubart, Eros e religione. Lamor sacro e lamor profano, Milan, 1966.
C. Neilson Gattey, The Incredible Mrs Van der Elst, London, 1972, pp. 229-230.
G. Pavanello, ed., Lopera completa del Canova, presentation by M. Praz, critical and philological apparatus by G. Pavanello, Milan, 1976.
N. Gash, Lord Liverpool - the Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl Liverpool, London, 1984, p. 209.
G. Testori and G. Ravasi, Maddalena, con una ghirlanda di testi e di immagini, Milano, 1989.
C. Costanzi, M. Massa and S. Papetti, eds., Il Tempo del bello. Leopardi e il Neoclassico tra le Marche e Roma, Venice, 1998.
O. Stefani, Antonio Canova. La statuaria, Milan, 1999, pp. 246-247, fig. 284.
A. Canova, Pensieri di Antonio Canova sulle belle arti, collected by Melchior Missirini, edited by M. Brusatin, Milano, 2005, p. 16.
G. Pavanello, ed., Il Carteggio Canova-Quatremère de Quincy 1785-1822 nelledizione di Francesco Paolo Luiso, Ponzano, Treviso, 2005.
A. Canova, Scritti, edited by H. Honour and P. Mariuz, Rome, 2007.
S. Androsov, F. Mazzocca, A. Paolucci, S. Grandesso and F. Leone, Forlì, eds., Canova. Lideale classico tra scultura e pittura, exhibition catalogue, Musei San Domenico, 2009.
A. Malinverni, in S. Androsov, F. Mazzocca and A. Paolucci, eds., Canova. Lideale classico tra scultura e pittura, exhibition catalogue, Musei San Domenico, Forlì, 2009, pp. 195-196.
G. Solana, Lagrimas de Eros, exhibition catalogue, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisz, Madrid, 2009-10, 2009, pp. 248-249, no. 106.
G. Böhme in Atmosfere, estasi, messe in scena. Lestetica come teoria generale della percezione, edited by T. Griffero, Milano, 2010.
M. Guderzo, ed., Il Museo e la Gipsoteca di Antonio Canova di Possagno, Possagno, 2012.
J. Kenworthy-Brown, ‘Canova and the Bachelor Duke’, in Studi neoclassici: Rivista internazionale, no. 1, 2013, pp. 147-156.
F. Leone, ‘Un inedito di Antonio Canova: la Maddalena giacente, il modelletto di un marmo disperso’, in Storia dellArte, no. 135, 2013, pp. 101-115.
A. Canova, Scritti, edited by P. Mariuz, Bassano del Grappa, 2014.
A.G. Meyer, Canova (Bielefeld-Leipzig, Velhagen & Klasing 1898), introduction and italian translation edited by Alexander Auf der Heyde, Bassano del Grappa, Istituto di ricerca per gli studi su Canova e il Neoclassicismo 2014, p. 34, 97.
M. Guderzo, ‘The classical Conception of Antonio Canova’, in X.F. Salomon, G. Beltramini and M. Guderzo, eds., Canovas George Washington, The Frick Collection, New York, 2018, pp. 89-111.
V. Sgarbi and S. Pallavicini, eds., La Maddalena. Caravaggio e Canova, exhibition catalogue, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, 2021.
F. Bosi, in Maddalena. Il mistero e limmagine, exhibition catalogue, curated by C. Acidini, F. Mazzocca, P. Refice, Musei di San Domenico, Forlì, 2022, pp. 357, 491-492.
A. Costarelli, Antonio Canova e gli Inglesi, Cinisello Balsamo, 2022, pp. 215-218
F. Leone, Antonio Canova. La vita lopera, Roma, 2022, pp. 337, 388, 484, 486-489, 556. 

The British Library, The Liverpool Papers: Correspondence and papers, official and private, of the first three Earls of Liverpool, Add MS 38475 (1823-1863)
f. 45 (Fr.), 55 Abbate Giovanni Battista Sartori Canova, stepbrother of Antonio Canova: Correspondence with the 2nd Earl of Liverpool: 1823.
f. 79 Elizabeth Cavendish, widow of William, 5th Duke of Devonshire: Correspondence with the 2nd Earl of Liverpool: 1822, 1823.

Biblioteca Civica di Bassano del Grappa, Mss. Canoviani: 4.96.1167, 4.96.1169, IV.334.3088., IV.96.1170., 4.384.3090., I.53.1462., IV.111.1294, IV.111.1295., IV.111.1296.

The Morning Post, Monday, March 29, 1852, p. 8.
The Worcester Herald, Saturday, February 28th, 1857, Lord Ward’s Gallery.
The Daily Post, Saturday, May 2, 1857, The Manchester Palace of Art.
The Dublin Daily Express, Tuesday May 5, 1857, The Art Treasures Exhibition.
The Daily News, Monday, May 25, 1857, Fine Arts, The Art Treasures Exhibition Manchester, p.2.
The Bath Chronicle, Thursday, April 24, 1890, Marriage of Lord Weymouth, M.P. and Miss Mordaunt,
London, Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, 1856.
Manchester, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, 1857.
Special notice
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Further details
We would like to thank Francis Outred Ltd. for their extensive research on the sculpture and the discovery of its history.

Please note that the present lot has been requested for the exhibition 'Canova and Europe', to be held in the autumn of 2022 at the Musei Civici, Bassano del Grappa.

Brought to you by

Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Senior Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay


Antonio Canova’s Recumbent Magdalene is a tour de force in marble, and represents the culmination of decades of the artist’s study of the human form and human condition. Recognised as a genius for his ability to transform marble into delicate flesh and flowing drapery, the Recumbent Magdalene reveals Canova’s technical virtuosity but also his insight into the complexities of longing, ecstasy and loss. It was carved for Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828) and Prime Minister of Great Britain, between 1819 and 1822, and completed only weeks before the artist’s death. Celebrated as a unique masterpiece throughout the 19th century, in the 20th century its chequered history of ownership meant that its authorship was forgotten and it has only recently re-gained its position as one of Canova’s last great marbles.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) is widely regarded as the most important neo-classical artist in any discipline. Born into a family of stone-cutters in the Venetian Republic town of Possagno, his grandfather introduced him to the art of sculpture, and by the age of ten he was modelling in clay and carving marble. After early apprenticeships in Venice, he travelled to Rome where he established himself as the pre-eminent sculptor of his generation. His reputation was further enhanced by the publication of engravings of his compositions which were widely disseminated. Courted by royalty, the aristocracy and the papacy, Canova was admired for his artistic abilities, as well as for his diplomatic skills in the tumultuous era of Napoleonic Europe. At the time of his death on 13 October 1822 he was considered a celebrity.

Today Canova is perhaps best known for his depictions of classical subjects and idealised portraits. Among these may be counted his two versions of The Three Graces (Hermitage Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum/Scottish National Gallery) as well as his Venus Italica (Palatine Gallery, Florence). However, an important motif running through his oeuvre is his ability to communicate a human sense of loss, as evidenced by the figures included in his monument to Maria Christina of Austria in the Augustinerkirche, Vienna (1789-1805). One of his important early works on this theme is his marble figure of a kneeling Mary Magdalene, of which two examples exist today, in the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, in Genoa, and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Although both depicting the same subject, Canova’s two compositions of Mary Magdalene are very different in their intention and dramatic appeal. With the kneeling Magdalene, Canova created a more introspective narrative. She contemplates the cross which she holds over her knees, and a skull on the ground beside her silently recalls the death of Christ. Alternatively, the Recumbent Magdalene depicts the saint in a more outward-looking posture. She falls against a rocky outcrop, her abdomen sunken and vulnerable. She throws her head back with her neck further exposed, and a tear falls on her cheek. Her left hand is turned with the palm facing up, a further invitation to divine, or societal, intervention. Her chest remains bare, and her hair falls in disarray across her shoulders and breasts. The drapery reveals the form of her legs beneath, and the hem falls in delicate s-shaped folds around her.

The convention of a saint caught in a moment of ecstasy was not new to Canova. In fact, there was a very obvious precedent in Rome: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble figure of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, executed between 1671 and 1674 for the Altieri Chapel, S. Francesco a Ripa. Canova would certainly have known Bernini’s creation and the Recumbent Magdalene is, in many ways, a homage to the earlier sculptor who was, like Canova, revered for his talent as a marble carver. Both depict the female saint lying, with the upper body to the left and the head thrown back. The difference is that Bernini has chosen to envelop his figure in a confection of highly worked drapery that is intended to create an interplay of shadow and light. It is a conceit that serves to emphasise the drama of the moment. Alternatively, Canova has exposed the body of the Magdalene in a way that emphasises her frailty but also the classical beauty of the human form.

Although emphasising the sinuous lines of the Magdalene’s body, Canova’s marble remains a complex interplay of flesh and drapery, form and negative space. His genius is revealed in details such as the delicacy of the saint’s right foot, nestled among the drapery behind her left ankle, or in the slender gap carved out beneath her right wrist. The sensuous folds of cloth falling from her hips contrast with the smooth passages of skin, and the slender tendrils of her hair lie against the hard forms of the rock against which Mary Magdalene reclines. Two hundred years after the completion of the marble and the sculptor’s own death, Antonio Canova’s Recumbent Magdalene remains a testament to his spectacular artistic talent.


Dr. Mario Guderzo
Translated from the Italian by Plicca Watt


“Twice Canova had to sculpt the famous Penitent [Magdalene] kneeling; everyone believed that he had exhausted his own imagination in the way he was able to express her great pain, her visible repentance, her exhausted expression – difficult to know if [this suffering] is greater in the person or in the soul. Instead with this [Recumbent Magdalene], he not only creates a new Magdalene different from the first but also portrays her full of those same feelings of repentance for which she became known to the world as a great example of edification rather than for any of her previous scandals […]. This stupendous figure, with her lower half covered, is lying supine, on a rough stone, forming in its marvelous position a very sweet, enchanting winding of lines. She turns her eyes full of tears, already beading on her cheeks, towards Heaven, so that you are well aware that now she no longer belongs to anything earthly. Her hair falls loosely over her shoulders and chest; her left arm is lying at her side with her palm open in prayer. Her other arm likewise extends on her opposite side, and her hand is placed on a Cross which rests on her right humerus. Her right leg, which is partially folded under her right one [sic: left] has a particularly beautiful foot. In her Venus-like limbs, we see such abandonment, such listlessness, that while it softens your soul with pity, it’s difficult to understand how the hard marble could allow so much affliction.”

This precise description by Teotochi immerses us in the vision of this sculpture depicting a Recumbent Magdalene, one of the last works created by Canova and rediscovered only 200 years after its acquisition, which took place in the last period of the famous sculptor's life, by Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool and Prime Minister of the English Government (7 June 1770 – 4 December 1828).

Completed in September 1819, the model of the plaster sculpture itself made a fine show in the following month in Canova's studio, as he himself wrote on 25 November from Rome to Antoine Quatremère de Quincy:

Right after returning from Venice in the past month of August, I made the model of a nude Endymion, with a chlamys and two javelins that seem to come out of his hand, according to what Luciano describes in his dialogue on Astronomy. This figure had a great effect on the soul of everyone who saw it and was judged as one of my best productions. I try to do this for each new work, and to receive feedback immediately, like in the month of the b[beginning] f[first] of October, when I exhibited another model of a second Magdalene, lying on the ground and almost fainting from the excessive grief of her penitence, a subject that is very pleasing, and that has earned me a lot of empathy and very flattering praise.”
In the Catalogo cronologico delle opere di Antonio Canova, redacted by Cicognara, this "Model of a Magdalene lying and abandoned to her pain, finished in marble in 1822 for the Count of Liverpool," is listed under the date 1819. The list drawn up by Cicognara, a faithful friend of the sculptor, includes the whole history of the sculptural production of the Recumbent Magdalene (which can also be entitled Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene) sculpted by Canova according to tradition and his sculptural practice.

Two drawings anticipate this creation: one kept in the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa and a second in the Municipal Library of Cagli in the province of Pesaro and Urbino. The first is a sketch made along with other drawings on the same sheet of white paper. These are Sketch with two warriors, Magdalene unconscious with a weeping angel beside her, and a Sketch for a statue with Venus standing holding Love. With quick strokes in black pencil, the sculptor had traced on the paper of one of his notebooks the essence of the rendering of a reclining figure. The same shape is found shortly after, in a second drawing, in which the Fainted Magdalene is surrounded by other sketches with the figures of Hercules and a Venus.The Invention

The invention is unprecedented. Canova starts from the usual representation of the figure of Mary Magdalene, described both in the New Testament and in the Apocryphal Gospels, as one of the most important and devoted disciples of Jesus, and imagines her initially [in the Penitent Magdalene], penitent and in meditation, kneeling with a metal cross across her knees, next to a carved skull; her body is partly covered with white drapery, her hair loosely cast on her shoulders, her face is streaked with copious tears.

This representation of her face served as a model and, probably, Canova used the same mold for the second version of the Magdalene. The composition, on the other hand, shows the evident influence of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in its formal and substantial references to his ecstatic figures. In fact, although Canova had also painted the image of the Penitent Magdalene, it is evident how, for this second version, he got closer to the excellence of the Roman Baroque, considering his commitment to the study and deepening of all aspects of the history of art: “Try, first of all, to become worthy in your art, that is: know design, anatomy and dignity; feel the grace, understand and taste the beauty, be moved by your affection. In short own all the parts of art in an eminent way, and you will have found the shortcut to what I am talking to you about.”

Aware of having dealt with a theme more suited to painting, the Sculptor does not stop to think about a figure linked to religious mysticism, but wants to interpret it in a personal way: “he saw in it an attractive theme full of expression, abandonment, and truth; in a few days the theme became a model, and that model, having pleased him, was then transformed into a statue […]. ”

The two drawings, dating from 1805-1806 and intended for a new representation of the figure of Magdalene, renew his creative process, planned to capture in the female figure an identifying element which highlights that inner agony not well recognizable in the first Penitent Magdalene: an ecstatic rapture, in fact.

The reclining figures

The next step can be found in a small terracotta model, Recumbent Magdalene, which the Sculptor produced to give an idea for a potential client.

A second clay model can also relate to this new idea for a Magdalene: it is a reclining figure that can be easily compared to the sculpture of the Sleeping Nymph, useful for further perfecting the original idea.

Canova, in fact, had already experimented with the creation of reclining figures that can be considered prototypes for this exceptional interpretation of the figure of Magdalene. These include Paolina Borghese as Venus Victorious, Reclining Naiad with Cupid, Dirce,and a Sleeping Nymph. Finally, Canova sculpted the figure of the Sleeping Endymion, a spectacular creation, whose closest inspiration can be identified in the Barberini Faun.

The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene

Another step forward can be found in the terracotta model that leads us to the discovery of the Recumbent Magdalene. A terracotta in which the sculptor demonstrates a remarkable ability to express himself with immediacy, manifesting an unusual plastic strength. An ecstasy, in fact, interpreted in his own way, with intense pathos and with such a languor seen in his careful attention to her posture, showing her embracing the cross in a mystical ecstasy capable of canceling all forms of vitality.

Ecstasy, in fact, is represented as one of the most pertinent manifestations of mysticism, it is a mystical communion lit by a fire of love, an experience of supreme bliss: “it is a death and a rebirth; in the soul, the Ego shatters and the Eternal is freed. 'Die to become!' This is and remains the most essential formula of the mystical process. It can only be compared, according to Böhme, with that point where 'life is generated in death, and is comparable to the resurrection of the dead.'”

These terracotta models and a plaster model recently discovered, allow us not only to define more precisely the Sculptor's interpretation of a particular manifestation of mystical piety, but also Canova's executive immediacy. The rapid strokes with the stylus and the traces of clay and liquid plaster reveal a quick manipulation, during which the fingers have modeled the shapes with strength and immediacy, leaving their prints, in the exercise of a new iconographic hypothesis. This plaster model represents a precious example of the dimensional relationship and the creative process of the brilliant Sculptor. This methodology, coincidentally, was also used for the Endymion and the Naiad: two 'intermediate' models preserved in Possagno.

The results of an idea will later develop into the practice of life-size clay sculpture on which it would have been possible to produce the mold. The latter is of fundamental importance precisely because it could be used for other plasters. The mold is listed in the Nota delle forme; statue, bassorilievi, e busti, tutti in gesso, formati sopra le opere originali di Canova. The plaster model of the Recumbent Magdalene, today preserved at the Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova in Possagno, was produced this way.

Antonio D’Este describes it in the Catalog of Canova's works: “1819 - Model of Mary Magdalene lying down and abandoned in grief, completed for the Earl of Liverpool. – Canova portrayed once again Maddalena, as we have noted in this catalog. This second is of a severe style; singularly, her head has a wonderful strength and expression, and the abandonment of the whole body of this figure is both daring and true, and as a result, artists recognize in it much greater value, in the rigid principles of the profession.” The plaster model is inscribed on the front of the sculpture: “1819 in the month of September.”“Recumbent” Magdalene

The enthusiastic appreciation by the Duke of Liverpool, Robert Banks Jenkinson, is evident and remains in a sequence of letters that, starting in 1819 accompanied step by step the arrival of the marble in London, until the autumn of 1823.

The cost of the work had been quantified by Canova at 1,200 pounds.

Thus, it was that “Robert Banks Jenkinson, Earl of Liverpool, prime minister of the United Kingdom (1812-1827) and great patron, became part of Canova's prestigious circle of English collectors, which included, among others, King George IV and William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. With these, Lord Liverpool shared the enthusiasm for the recumbent Canova figures (linked to the fascination exercised on contemporaries by the sculptures lying at the end of the tympanums of Greek temples): the monarch in fact possessed the Dirce, the Duke of Devonshire the Sleeping Endymion, and a couple of years later, in 1824, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Londonderry would obtain two versions of the Sleeping Nymph, hewn in marble from Canova's studio.”

The Recumbent Magdalene marble

The drawing by Giovanni Tognoli (Bieno Valsugana, Trento 1786 – Rome 1862), engraved on a copper plate by Giovanni Battista Balestra (Bassano, Vicenza 1774 – Rome 1842) reveals how the marble of the lying Magdalene would turn out. The final engraving lets you perceive the beauty of the marble and reaffirms the elements inspired by the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. The engraving used for the production was intended for the creation of the Catalog of Canova's works.


Dr. David Ekserdjian

The reappearance of any major work of art can hardly fail to provoke wonderment. Our delight at its return to the body of its creator’s works is bound to be mixed with a sense of curiosity about when and how it came to be forgotten. This is an area where there are no general rules, and each individual rediscovery is therefore something of a law unto itself. Having said that, in the case of Canova’s Mary Magdalene, the twists and turns of its afterlife, which have witnessed extraordinary highs and lows, prove to have been peculiarly dramatic.

It is no secret that such disturbances of the status quo often provoke a goodly measure of resistance from experts who did not personally discover the works in question. In the case of Canova’s Mary Magdalene, however, there can be no serious doubts about its status, for a whole variety of different reasons. The first is that the work is documented in contemporary sources and that its subsequent tortuous pilgrimages from owner to owner may be tracked from the time of its creation and delivery to its first patron, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1827), all the way down to today. The second is that Canova’s original plaster of 1819, which formed the model for its translation into marble, survives in the Gipsoteca at Possagno, and that they correspond perfectly.1

Amusingly enough, Canova himself was responsible for a brilliant rediscovery of a magnificent renaissance altarpiece. In 1820, he came across Lorenzo Lotto’s Virgin in Glory with Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse, a signed and dated work of 1506, in a secluded room off the cathedral in Asolo, recognised its importance, and recommended it should be moved somewhere else and properly honoured.2 Even if he spotted the signature, Lotto was not exactly a household name in the early nineteenth century, so it is tempting to presume that it was the work’s arresting beauty rather than its creator’s reputation that struck him.

The history of the sculpture’s commission and delivery to the Earl of Liverpool has already been examined by Dr. Mario Guderzo, who points out that at the time the patron had been Prime Minister since 1812 and was to remain in office until 1827. During his time in office, Liverpool was instrumental in purchasing the collection of John Julius Angerstein, which became the nucleus of the fledgling National Gallery, opening its doors at 100 Pall Mall in 1824. Liverpool was also a trustee from 1824-1828. However, the Magdalene was always destined for his London residence, Fife House, Whitehall, and was inherited in 1828 by his brother, the 3rd Earl (1784-1851). It was only after the latter's own death that it was put up for sale by order of his executors. The 2nd Earl was a noted collector, but correspondence from 1822-23 between him and the Duchess of Devonshire, who was one of his wife’s sisters, and was based in Italy at the time, makes it plain that she played a crucial role in securing the Magdalene for him and Canova’s Sleeping Endymion for her stepson. As she puts it in a letter addressed from Naples on 11 November 1822, ‘you and Duke of Devonshire have the last strokes of his chisel’, and she further describes the two statues as ‘these last and best of Canova’s works’.

Upon the death of the 3rd Earl in 1851 there were auctions held at Christie's from his collection. The Magdalene was included in a sale held on the premises at Fife House on Friday 23 April 1852 (lot 120), where she was described as ‘THE VERY CELEBRATED STATUE OF THE RECLINING MAGDALENE, ONE OF THE FINEST AND MOST HIGHLY FINISHED WORKS OF CANOVA. Selected by the Duchess of Devonshire, from the Studio of the great Sculptor, for the Earl of Liverpool'. However it was in a later sale, also held at Christie's, that the Recumbent Magdalene was acquired by William, Lord Ward (1817-1885), later created 1st Earl of Dudley, for his palatial country home, Witley Court in Worcestershire. This sale was held in the Great Room on Monday 2 June 1856, and consisted of – to quote the catalogue – ‘The Very Choice Collection of Pictures, by Italian, Flemish, Dutch, and French Masters, of the Highest Class, Formed about Sixty Years ago, with Great Taste and Judgment, by an Amateur, And Removed from a Mansion in the Country’. The ‘Amateur’ was one Thomas Kibble, but the copy of the catalogue in Christie’s archives has two handwritten additions which reveal the fact that the auction of the 55 lots listed was followed by the sale of two additions – lot 56, an ‘Interior’ by Jan Steen, and lot 57, ‘The reclining Magdalene’ by Canova. A marginal note next to the latter reads: ‘Liverpool Execs’ (presumably an abbreviation of ‘Executors’), and the work in question was sold to Lord Ward for 1000 pounds.

In that same year, the great American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), recorded in a diary entry for 7 August that: ‘Yesterday we took the rail for London, it being a fine, sunny day…We went along Piccadilly as far as the Egyptian Hall…At the Egyptian Hall, or in the same edifice, there is a gallery of pictures, the property of Lord Ward, who allows the public to see them, five days of the week, without any trouble or restriction, a great kindness on his Lordship’s part, it must be owned. It is a very valuable collection, I presume, containing specimens of many famous old masters…There is likewise a dead Magdalene by Canova, and a Venus by the same, very pretty, and with a vivid light of joyous expression in her face…’

Only a year later, Lord Ward was one of the major lenders to the celebrated Art Treasures of the United Kingdom exhibition held at Manchester from 5 May to 17 October 1857. The Worcester Herald for Saturday 28 February of that year anticipated the contents of what it described as ‘Lord Ward’s Gallery’, where the Magdalene would be joined among the sculptures by the Canova Venus previously singled out by Hawthorne, but also by a version of Hiram Powers’s celebrated Greek Slave. The Magdalene appears clearly in a photograph taken of the exhibition, where she can be seen taking pride of place in one transept of the exhibition hall. Predictably enough, Lord Ward’s loans of paintings were more numerous, and included such highlights as Raphael’s early altarpiece of the Crucifixion (National Gallery), which until the end of July forms part of the Gallery’s current exhibition dedicated to the artist.3 Ward was an important figure in the art world, serving as a trustee of the National Gallery from 1877-1884. Items from his celebrated collection - dispersed In a sale also held at Christie's - can be found today in museums around the world. His loans to the Manchester exhibition alone were reported to have included masterpieces by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Perugino, Van Eyck, Holbein and Rembrandt.

After the death of the 1st Earl in 1885, the piece was inherited by his son and heir (1867-1932), who was to serve as the fourth Governor-General of Australia, and remained at Witley Court. It was only the tragic death by drowning in 1920 of Rachel Anne Gurney, the wife of the 2nd Earl, that led to the authorship and the importance of Canova’s Magdalene being entirely forgotten. Unable to contemplate staying on there, Dudley sold the house, together with all its fixtures and fittings, to Sir Herbert Smith, 1st Baronet (1872-1943), a self-made carpet manufacturer from Kidderminster, who had moved in by the next year. Under the circumstances, the fact that he was leaving behind the Magdalene was no doubt the last thing on the Earl’s mind, and it seems clear that the new owner of Witley Court did not appreciate the significance of the marble Magdalene, as is confirmed by the sculpture’s subsequent fate.

In 1937, a fire devastated the house: Smith could not afford to repair all the damage, and therefore decided to sell the estate and its contents, a great deal of which had evidently survived intact. The auction was conducted on the premises on 27-30 September and 3-5 October 1938 by Jackson Stops & Staff, and lot 804 of the Catalogue of the remaining Contents of the Mansion including the finest Collection of Antique Carpets and Rugs in existence, Fine Specimens of French and English Furniture, Costly Upholstery, Paintings, Decorative China, Statuary and Miscellaneous Effects was simply listed as ‘A classical figure of a dying woman, holding a cross, also the black marble pedestal.’ Ironically enough, the Berrow Journal for 1 October reported that ‘exceptionally good prices were realised for the sculptured marble statues’, with ‘a classical figure of a dying woman, holding a cross’, which made 40 guineas, being one of the pieces singled out. No doubt 40 guineas seemed like a considerable price to pay for an anonymous marble in 1938, but it was a far cry from the 1,200 pounds it had cost the Earl of Liverpool just over a century earlier in 1822.

Its new owner was Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966), who is best known as a formidable and ultimately successful campaigner against capital punishment and the author of a book on the subject, On the Gallows (1937), in which connection she features in the film Pierrepoint (2005). Like Smith before her, she was heroically self-made. Born the daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman, she worked as a scullery maid before making her fortune, not least through Shavex, the first brushless shaving-cream. Like Smith, she was evidently equally unaware of the value of her new acquisition. In 1937, she had bought Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, and no doubt purchased the statue for her new home. In the event, by the late 1950s she had spent much of her fortune campaigning, and had moved from house to house until, in 1959 she sold 80 Addison Road in West London to an antique dealer called Jonathan Manasseh. Despite her reduced circumstances, she had always kept the Magdalene with her and it was sold with the house on Addison Road.

The Magdalene was in the front garden, but over time the discoloration of its surface would have made it harder and harder to recognise its significance. Be that as it may, it did make a brief cameo appearance in Ken Russell’s 1962 television film, Pop Goes the Easel, with no less a figure than the distinguished pop artist, Sir Peter Blake (1932-), famously known, among his other achievements, as the co-creator of the sleeve design of the Beatles’ 1967 album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, casually sitting on it. In fact, during these years, the Magdalene was witness to London's burgeoning Pop Art scene, with the artist Pauline Boty, and designer Celia Birtwell both lodging at Addison Road. The artist Derek Boshier also had a studio in the house for a time. Decades later, the Magdalene was offered at auction at Sotheby’s, Billingshurst, in May 2002 where It made only £4400. Its purchaser, who has now consigned it to Christie’s, did not at that time know what it was. That was only worked out considerably more recently.

In conclusion, it seems worth recalling that it is not only the authorship and whereabouts of great works of art that can get lost along the way, but also their precise subject-matter. As a matter of fact, in a letter of 25 November 1819 addressed to his great friend and future biographer, Antoine Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849), Canova himself explained what he had in mind, writing that the previous October he had exhibited ‘another model of a second Magdalene lying on the ground, who has almost fainted as a result of the extremes of agony caused by her penitence, a subject which has been very well received, and has won me many compliments and much very flattering praise.’4 Moreover, in the English translation of The Works of Antonio Canova in Sculpture and Modelling…with Descriptions from the Italian of the Countess Albrizzi, and a Biographical Memoir by Count Cicognara (1824), we read that ‘This lovely and pathetic figure is wholly the offspring of Canova’s imagination; no where else could he have found a model of such sorrow, such piety, such sincere and deep repentance.’5

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