‘Imagine finding that in your garden — it’s just completely unbelievable’: Antonio Canova’s Recumbent Magdalene

One of Canova’s last completed sculptures fell into obscurity during the 20th century, and in the 1960s was to be found in the overgrown front garden of an antique dealer’s home. Now, this discovery ‘of fundamental importance for the history of art’ is offered in London

In a scene from the 1960s cult classic documentary Pop Goes the Easel, the painter Peter Blake is seated on a statue in the garden of a house in Kensington, west London. There’s a slightly druggy ambience to the film, as if everything is a little off-kilter, principally in the odd angles the director Ken Russell uses. The shot of Blake is filmed from above, giving the audience a first-rate view of the reclining sculpture the artist is sitting on.

‘I almost jumped out of my chair when I saw it,’ says Christie’s European Sculpture specialist Donald Johnston. ‘It was our Canova, right there on camera.’

How an incomparable work of art by Italy’s greatest Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, ended up in the garden of a dilapidated house in London is a remarkable story, revealed by Johnston and the art critic Alastair Sooke in the film above. It involves a 19th-century prime minister, a carpet manufacturer, a campaigner against the death penalty and the Pop artist Pauline Boty (below), who rented a room in the Kensington house while studying at the Royal College of Art.

Pauline Boty on the steps of the house in Kensington, with Canova’s sculpture lying in the front garden. Photo Unknown photographer. © Estate of Pauline Boty  Image courtesy of Whitford Fine Art

Pauline Boty on the steps of the house in Kensington, with Canova’s sculpture lying in the front garden. Photo: Unknown photographer. © Estate of Pauline Boty / Image courtesy of Whitford Fine Art

On 7 July this long-lost masterpiece will be offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale in London. It is one of the sculptor’s last works, commissioned in 1819 and completed just weeks before his death in 1822. Johnston says the find is ‘a miracle’, adding that ‘The work has been searched for by scholars for decades, so the discovery is of fundamental importance for the history of art.’

The sculpture, depicting Christ’s follower Mary Magdalene, was commissioned by the British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and hailed during Canova’s lifetime as a work of genius, both passionate and mysteriously restrained. On seeing it, the 19th-century poet Thomas Moore wrote that it was ‘divine: she is lying recumbent in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression on her face, the beauty of her figure… are perfection’.

Canova was born in 1757 in Possagno, about 60km northwest of Venice, and his career spanned revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon. Classical in temperament and highly self-disciplined, he once explained to a young protégé that it was important ‘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.’

Canova’s first major success was in 1785, when he designed a funerary monument to Pope Clement XIV. It is an awe-inspiring work, with the pope, muscular and animated, stretching out his arm to reveal the vast power of the Catholic church. It secured Canova’s reputation as Italy’s leading Neoclassical sculptor, and he was still only 28.

Depicting Christ’s follower Mary Magdalene, the sculpture was commissioned by the British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and hailed as a work of genius during Canova’s lifetime

Depicting Christ’s follower Mary Magdalene, the sculpture was commissioned by the British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and hailed as a work of genius during Canova’s lifetime

The artist was famous for his technical virtuosity, and for his ability to contrast different textures in the marble. It is hard to get the full sense of this under electric light; in flickering candlelight, however, the surfaces shimmer with a kind of supernatural energy that can be unnerving though beautiful.

A confident and astute individual, Canova was remarkably adroit at avoiding direct political or ideological engagement. He was a man who belonged to no one but himself, and no amount of flattery could persuade him into the court of a foreign ruler — although there were several who tried, among them Catherine II of Russia.

On seeing Canova’s masterpiece, the poet Thomas Moore wrote that it was ‘divine she is lying recumbent in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression on her face, the beauty of her figure… are perfection’

On seeing Canova’s masterpiece, the poet Thomas Moore wrote that it was ‘divine: she is lying recumbent in all the abandonment of grief; and the expression on her face, the beauty of her figure… are perfection’

Nevertheless, in 1802 Canova received an order he could not refuse as the subject of an imperial power. He was summoned to Paris to create a heroic nude of Napoleon Bonaparte. The resulting 11ft colossus, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, now stands in Apsley House in London, the former residence of the Duke of Wellington.

Canova used this, his only experience of court life, to his advantage, demanding that Napoleon provide cultural support for Italy, and forming alliances that proved pivotal after the Emperor's fall in 1814.

‘He was of critical importance in the restitution of art seized by the French,’ explains the specialist, ‘negotiating the return of a number of important works plundered from Italian churches and museums.’

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On his return to Rome in 1816, Canova embarked on some of his most celebrated works, among them the Recumbent Magdalene  and Mars and Venus, sculptures that led his friend Count Leopoldo Cicognara to describe him as having created ‘a revolution in art’.

When the artist died, in 1822, he was mourned not just in Italy, but across Europe. In a letter to Lord Liverpool, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote that the loss of Canova was ‘truly irreparable, and which I cannot think of without tears’.