The magnificent' swan-headed' marble vase evokes Ovid's Metamorphoses or 'Loves of the Gods', and the History of Leda and the swan-disguised Zeus/Jupiter, whose union lead to the birth of the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux. The festive Bacchic vase, is of Grecian wine-krater form with triumphal laurel-wrapped thyrsic finial; and displays swan-heads issuing from the palm-wrapped volutes of its handles, which are bolted by Zeus/Jupiter's vivifying 'fulcrum' lightning. Its reed-wrapped bowl is wreathed by a ribbon-guilloche, while pearl-strings and 'echinous' egg-and-dart enrich its moulded rim. Swan-wing trophies appear on its tripod-altar pedestal, whose palm-flowered trusses terminate in bacchic lion-paws. Its antique prototype, formerly in Rome's Barabarini Palace and now in Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale, was celebrated by its inclusion amongst the antique marble vases in the Italian architect G.B.Piranesi's Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcofagi, Tripodi, etc, Rome, 1778. The engraving was dedicated to Thomas Mansel Talbot (d.1813) of Margam Park and Penrice Castle, Glamorgan, following his visit to Rome in early 1770s.
This vase may have been acquired by Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, Viscount Castlereagh (d.1822) for his St. James's Square mansion which he acquired in 1803. It would have been sculpted at the same period as the pair of related bacchic 'Barbarini' marble vases, commissioned by the connoisseur Thomas Hope (d.1831) for his Duchess Street mansion/museum following his visit to Naples in 1802 and illustrated in his guide, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1807, pl.48, no.3. The 'Hope Vasi-Cippi', which differ in their finials and pedestals as featured in Piranesi, were sold Christie's London, 16 November 1989, lot 14 (£93,500). The introduction of Roman vases as appropriate ornament for banqueting halls and rooms-of-entertainment accompanied eighteenth century enthusiasm for decorating in the antique or Roman manner. The most celebrated antique vase was the monumental Medici marble 'krater' vase, with its sculpted frieze celebrating the wine-deity Bacchus. In antiquity, such 'krater' vases held the spring-water with which the wine was mixed at the festivals or symposiae associated with Dyonysus/Bacchus, the Greek and Roman harvest deities and gods of wine.
The vase would have descended to the 3rd Marquess who purchased Londonderry House, then called Holderness House (designed by James 'Athenian' Stuart), upon his succession in 1822. The 3rd Marquess and his young bride, Frances Anne Vane Tempest, had great ambitions and a staggering fortune, she being the greatest heiress of her generation. They employed the fashionable architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt and his brother Philip to create a showcase commensurate with their political and social position. Their impressive sculpture gallery included a series of marble statues by Canova that appear in a photograph of the room in J. Cornforth, London Interiors from the Archives of Country Life, London, 2000, pp.118-119. These figures were sold by Christie's, 16 November 1962, lots 25-38.
The vase would have been removed to the family's country seat at Wynyard Park, Cleveland, County Durham as Londonderry House was demolished in 1964. An inventory of Wynyard Park prepared upon the death of the 7th Marquess in 1949 lists 'a carved urn and cover, on a triangular granite pedestal' among the sculpture in the Statue Hall (H.C. Smith, Inventory and valuation of the contents of Wynyard Park, co. Durham, the property of the...Marquess of Londonderry [C.S.H. Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th.Marquess], deceased..., p.34). While the description of the urn is less than detailed, the triangular shape of the pedestal (now lost) indicates that the shape of the base is also triangular, a further clue that this could be the present piece.