Gavin Hamilton and the history of collecting:
Until the 18th Century English collections of antiquities had consisted mainly of small, easily portable objects such as coins, intaglios and bronzes. Only a few very wealthy and powerful patrons, most notably Charles I and Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey (1585-1646), were able to acquire ancient sculpture.
This was to change dramatically by the second half of the 18th Century. As the craze for classical art and sculpture swept over Britain and the rest of Europe, Rome established itself as the centre to which English milordi flocked in pursuit of culture and Souvenirs. Adolf Michaelis, the renowned German historian of ancient art, called this period the 'Golden Age of Classic Dilettantism,' remarking: "In an unintermitting stream the ancient marbles of Rome poured into the palaces of the aristocracy in Britain whose wealth in some cases afforded the means of gratifying real artistic taste by these rare possessions, and in others enabled them at any rate to fall into the new fashion of dilettantism, the 'furore' for ancient art".
The market was largely controlled by a number of Britons residing in Rome who acted as agents between Italian families and Cardinals who wished to sell to the predominantly English clientele. These agents also undertook their own speculative excavations, which yielded vast quantities of treasures. The most enterprising and successful explorer of the day was the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton (1730-97).
In 1771, the statesman William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, visited Italy and conceived the idea of adorning his own London residence in Berkeley Square with a collection of sculpture. In so doing, Lord Shelburne was to become one of the great 18th century collectors of ancient sculpture. He was one of the many new collectors of this period inspired by the Grand Tour who were able to acquire sculptures discovered in these excavations carried out in and around Rome. In order to execute his plans, Lord Shelburne secured the help of Hamilton, who, along with Thomas Jenkins, controlled most of the supply of antiquities from Rome sold to English patrons.
According to an article by A. H. Smith in the Burlington Magazine in 1905, “The method employed was curious. Gavin Hamilton, the Scottish painter, antiquary, and excavator, who was then settled in Rome, undertook to furnish the gallery by contract. The proposed terms were that he should supply sixteen fine antique statues, twelve antique busts, twelve antique basso-relievos, eleven large historical pictures, four landscapes with figures relative to the Trojan war. The whole collection was to be delivered in four years at a cost of £6,050”.
Unsurprisingly, this contract was not adhered to and many more pieces were negotiated; the majority of the Roman marbles in Lansdowne House were acquired by the agency of Hamilton between the years 1771-1777. During this time he was in active correspondence with Lord Shelburne, and the letters which are extant give a vivid idea of the process of forming the collection.
Letter from Hamilton to Lord Shelburne, 9 August 1775:
"As to the candelabre of Piranese I grudge giving the 150 zechines for them as I think I could fill those spaces betwixt the windows with something equally good. I have therefore thought of two termine which I found in Hadrian's villa. One is a Bacchus and the other an Isis. From the middle upwards is a human figure, and down[wards] a plain termine. The Isis is very elegant. I shall venture to send them, with some other pieces of sculpture for your Lordship's garden, and which I beg you will accept as a present".
William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne (2 May 1737 – 7 May 1805)
Known as The Earl of Shelburne between 1761 and 1784, after his father's death in 1761 he inherited the title Lord Lansdowne and was elevated to the House of Lords. He was Home Secretary in 1782 and then Prime Minister in 1782–83 during the final months of the American War of Independence. Born in Dublin in 1737, after Oxford University he joined the army c. 1757 and rose through the ranks - becoming aide-de-camp to the new King, George III, with the rank of colonel, further promoted to major-general in 1765, lieutenant-general in 1772 and general in 1783. His political career had begun in 1761 and by March 1782 he had agreed to become Secretary of State in Lord Rockingham's cabinet. However only fourteen weeks later Rockingham died in an influenza epidemic and Shelburne succeeded as Prime Minister. His lasting legacy was securing the agreement of peace terms which formed the basis of the Peace of Paris bringing the American War of Independence to an end.
The sculpture at Lansdowne House
In 1771, when William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, undertook a trip to Italy, he was enthused by the thought of collecting antiquities. He had already purchased the unfinished Lansdowne House from Lord Bute in 1765. Designed by Robert Adam, it was a magnificent building, standing in its own extensive grounds on the south side of Berkeley Square.
In the 1760s Lord Lansdowne had purchased several small scale marbles from the Adams brothers to decorate his new house, but nothing of scale. After his Grand Tour and meeting with the antiquarian Thomas Jenkins, more ancient marbles were bought in bulk and shipped back to England to fill the rooms of Lansdowne House. However, it wasn’t until he was introduced to Gavin Hamilton and under the Scotsman’s strong guidance, that a discerning and well-rounded scheme was put into place for what was to become one of the best collections of Antiquities of the 18th century.
Hamilton suggested the architect and designer Francesco Panini (c. 1725-1794) to produce detailed designs for an impressive sculpture gallery. Yet the designs were not to the neo-classical taste of the time, were swept aside and the project stalled. Lansdowne’s focus turned to collecting books and manuscripts and Hamilton quickly took the initiative and instead of a sculpture gallery, suggested a library where marbles could be placed as decorative focal points amongst the books. This design was taken up by the French architect Charles-Louis Clerisseau, who had worked with both the Adams brothers and Panini. The design was certainly Adam inspired, but was lacking in the inspiration and lightness of touch of their work, didn’t fit in with the rest of the building and the proposal never got off the ground. For a staggering 45 years different architects were hired and fired, proposals and plans made, but nothing was ever approved or decided on by Lord Lansdowne. Throughout all this, the relationship between agent and patron continued sometimes precariously, but mostly on good terms; Lansdowne concentrating more on large marble statues for the garden and Hamilton avoiding the subject of the Sculpture Gallery.
In the years 1788-91 it was the architect George Dance that finally won the approval of Lord Lansdowne for the design for the library-sculpture gallery. It was to have a vaulted central gallery opening up into three-quarter domed apses at either end. Some sculptures were placed in the niches of the apses, almost as an after-thought and never the focal point like the rows and rows of beautiful book shelves.
In 1805 the 1st Marquess died and was succeeded by his eldest son, John Henry, the 2nd Marquess. He was crippled by his father’s debts and was forced to dispose of most of the moveable pieces from Lansdowne House and the country seat at Bowood – but providentially not the sculpture. He died only four years later in 1809, and was succeeded by his half-brother Lord Henry Petty, the 3rd Marquess. His interest in his father’s classical sculptures and the sale of the books to the British Museum in 1807, prompted him to employ Robert Smirke to redesign the library into an appropriate sculpture gallery. Finally the greatest 18th Century collection of marbles would have a fitting backdrop. Client and architect worked closely together to choose only the choicest pieces for the gallery where busts were set on round pedestals between the niches of the end apses.
When Waagen visited Lansdowne House in 1854 he described the Sculpture Gallery in his Treasures of Art in Great Britain as being “particularly striking, it being most richly and tastefully adorned with antique sculptures, some of which are very valuable for size and workmanship. The two ends of the apartment are formed by two large apse-like recesses, which are loftier than the centre of the apartment. In these large spaces antique marble statues, some of them larger than life, are placed at proper distances, with a crimson drapery behind them, from which they are most brilliantly relieved in the evening be a very bright gas light. This light, too, was so disposed that neither the glare nor the head was troublesome. The antique sculptures of smaller size are suitably disposed on the chimney-piece and along the walls”.
Waagen, Treasures of Art II, 1854:
"A young terminal bust of Bacchus, in Greco-duro. The good workmanship, the soft, tender ideality of the character, the peculiarity of the head-dress, a plaited bandeau, and at the sides of the neck a bunch of grapes, render this work very interesting".
While some scholars, such as Michaelis, believe that the Lansdowne Dionysus would have once been part of a standing figure of the god, others think that the piece had been restored correctly as a herm.
Herms performed an apotropaic function in Classical Greece, and were usually placed at physical boundaries such as crossroads, or doorways, as well as in gymnasia, near tombs, and in the agora. By the Roman period, they served largely a decorative purpose, and the herm evolved from being surmounted exclusively with the head of Hermes, to being topped by either janiform or singular busts of other gods, mythical heroes and historical portraits.
A large herm such as the Lansdowne sculpture probably would have been displayed in public pleasure gardens. The hortus, which could incorporate a colonnaded peristyle, fountains, and frescoes, as well as bronze and marble sculptures, reflected a ‘blending of Roman and Greek ideas and concepts’ (P. Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, London, 2013, p. 148). Herms, with their Greek origins, and ability to be easily personalized by the choice of bust or head, were popular garden and courtyard adornments.
Herms representing Dionysus are a common type. The god’s association with nature, as well as relaxation and leisure, made him a fitting choice for garden ornamentation. A youthful Dionysus with idealized features, as here, is less common, and this example, with the fillet around his forehead, is similar in type to the Woburn Abbey Type (LIMC III, p. 435, no. 120). However the double fillet that the Lansdowne herm wears is rare. The first, worn just above his forehead is commonplace, however the second twisted band just above is unusual. Angelicoussis (p. 191) suggests it could be a representation of the god as Dionysos Tauros (LIMC III, pp-440-441). In Euripedes play Bacchae, the dog is depicted with bull's horns and a garland of serpents, however by Roman times the original meaning has been lost and the sinuous serpents have been replaced by the artistic license of later Roman sculptors.
The Bergsten Collection
The Bergsten collection of Old Master pictures, European furniture, works of art and classical sculpture was formed between 1900 and 1950 by Karl Bergsten (1869-1953), known as Consul General Bergsten, and his wife Karin Dagmar (1876-1960) who furnished their palatial house in Stockholm in the manner of an 18th Century Grand Tourist. In 1930 they bought seven pieces from the Lansdowne sale through the agency of the established London antique dealer Albert Amor of 31-32 St James's Street, London. Four of these were large statues: Lot 91, (Apollo Sauroktonos), lot 98, (Artemis as a huntress), lot 107 (Apollo), now all displayed in the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, and lot 109 (Trajan), now in the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas. They also purchased lot 52 (head of Ariadne), lot 102 (a colossal female head now identified as an Apollo herm head), and lot 62 - the herm. Out of their seven purchases the Herm was the most expensive at £136 10s.