The Wilton House Collection
The well known collection of marbles at Wilton House was formed by Thomas, 8th Earl of Pembroke (1654-1732), in the late 17th - early 18th centuries. It was one of the oldest in the country (after Lord Arundel and King Charles I), formed at the time of the Stuarts, through the acquisition of pieces from four famous collections: busts, and a few other marbles, from the gallery of Arundel House when it was broken up in 1678; a second large portion came from the sale of the Giustiniani collection in Rome in 1720, where Pembroke, alongside Cardinal Alessandro Albani, was the principle purchaser; a large number of marbles of all kinds from the Duc de Mazarin collection in Paris in the 1720s, much of which had been collected in Rome; and finally from the Valletta collection in Naples, which was bought by an English doctor and then sold again, with the Earl buying part. When Michaelis published Ancient Marbles in 1882, he was only able to identify a number from Mazarin (including 23 statues for certain) and very few marbles from the other three collections.
In the 17th Century the sculptures were distributed over the halls, galleries, saloons and rooms of Wilton and "provided the favourite amusement of the owner" however, Michaleis goes on to add "unfortunately the Earl was not satisfied with christening and re-christening the statues and busts on labels placed on the pedestals, on in catalogues, but often the newly formed names were chiselled into the monuments themselves, sometimes in Latin, sometimes in extemely questionable Greek....it was another ingenuous development of this taste to ascribes pieces of middling decorative sculpture to artists of high renown, as for instance Kleonomes, or to assign to a work the most fabulous origin without having found any palpable support for it" (Ancient Marbles, p. 47). Thus the fame of the Wilton collection spread far and wide, with these fanciful attributions repeated by some of the early publications of the collection. It was not until Winckelmann that some of these suggestions were questioned and corrected.
When Waagen visited Wilton in 1835, he noted that the fourth side of the new sculpture gallery had been completed by Robert Henry, the twelfth Earl, and that he saw all the sculptures including the Venus: "from this hall you enter a stately and very light corridor, which runs round all the four sides of the courtyard, so that the doors of the apartments open into it. The visitor may fancy himself at once transported to Italy, for the large collection of antique sculpture, amounting to 179 specimens, is arranged in this gallery with great attention to picturesque effect. This whole arrangement was not completed till the fourth side was added by the present Earl, of whose improvements the Countess spoke with great praise. Sir Richard Westmacott directed the arrangment of the whole".
The Venus or "Nymphe"
When Kennedy published New Description at Wilton in 1769, he viewed her standing in the Third Window of the Billiard Room "in a very genteel easy posture, holding a vase which she has emptied, resting her elbow of that arm on a pillar". Listed here as Venus and by Cary in 1731, it seems that Clarac first doubted her attribution as the goddess of love when he titled her "Venus ou nymphe" in 1781. Michaelis again listed her as a Nymphe but at the end of her entry suggested that "this pleasing statue may perhaps represent an Aphrodite". When the multitude of different types and attitudes of Venus are examined, it seems that this example, leaning on a pillar and holding a small vase, would fit comfortably within the genre of Venus bathing sculptures - with vases as attributes by her side or being held. Statues of Venus leaning voluptuously on a pillar also exist. See R. Fleischer, "Aphrodite", Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, II, Zurich, 1984, pp.66-67. In the present example, the majority of the goddess's body is nude with a loose mantle around her right leg and up and over her left arm, beautifully accentuating the sinuous curve of her body. The drapery has some dramatic and deep folds falling between her legs and her hand is delicately placed on her hip. Her other arm rests on the still complete pillar. The Roman examples of this type would most likely have been used as a fitting decoration for a bath or a gymnasium.
Thomas Herbert, the 8th Earl of Pembroke (1654-1732)
Born in 1654, Thomas Herbert was a politician and government official for England and Britain under the reigns of William III and Anne. He became First Lord of the Admiralty from 1690-1692 and served as Lord Privy Seal until 1699. He was appointed Lord High Admiral from March 1701 to January 1702, being replaced by Prince George upon the accession of Queen Anne. He returned to the post when George died in November 1708, holding it for a year - he was the last commoner to do so. President of the Royal Society between 1689-1690, Herbert was a great collector, employing agents to buy pictures, sculpture, books and coins and hiring French Huguenot weavers to found the Wilton Carpet Factory.