The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Italian Sculpture

Jeremy Warren, with contributions by Seoyoung Kim and Alexandra Kosinova, 
The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, 2 vols,
London, The Trustees of the Wallace Collection 
Hardback ISBN 978 0 900785 76 4 (£250)
Publication date: 30 April 2016
Publisher: Paul Holberton, 432 & 412 pp., 800 illus.

The Italian sculpture at the Wallace Collection is the least known of the outstanding contents of this nineteenth-century palace in the heart of London. The 159 works catalogued here, including important works by Algardi, Donatello, Giambologna, and Torrigiano, stretch from about 1400 to 1910, or so the press release would have us believe. A terminus post quem as late as 1910 accounts for a number of works that are no longer what they purported to be when first acquired. Thus a pair of door knockers (cat. no. 135) is assigned to the nineteenth century by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis. The last entry, cat. no.159, a signed and dated bust of Sir John Murray Scott by Pietro Canonica, does just push the collection into the twentieth century and allows this broadest of chronologies. However, the Canonica bust and Raffaele Monti’s Circassian Slave (c.1851-5, cat. no. 153) are significant exceptions to the largely Renaissance collection of Italian sculpture at the Wallace. 

Given the wide range of chronology, medium (even ceramic is included), function and subject matter, the index is particularly necessary, while the appendices, which are numerous, are an added bonus. One now expects the inclusion of evidential documentation in a work such as this, but Warren’s exceptional knowledge of collections and their contents throughout Europe and America allows for an impressive collating of versions and variations of Wallace sculpture in other collections and sale references; for the writing casket type (cat. no. 24), Warren lists ninety-two examples elsewhere. 

Photography by Cassandra Parsons of the collections themselves, supported as it is by a rich supply of comparative illustrative material, is purposeful, clear and descriptive, and makes the catalogue, in two volumes, the very beautiful production it is. Serious consideration of medium and facture has been undertaken, as behoves contemporary scholarship, in collaboration with conservator colleagues at the Wallace, and Robert Hill at the Portland Hospital, London (using X-ray computed tomography (CT)). Thorough scientific analysis has included the employment of advanced metallurgical analysis using XRF spectroscopy. The metallurgical constituents for every object are here provided, but, as Seoyoung Kim’s essay demonstrates (pp. 765-7), XRF spectroscopy rarely provides clear-cut answers, there being so many variables. XRF is, nevertheless, an important new aid to add to the panoply in the establishment of attribution.

Warren’s research, conducted with such assiduity, has unearthed a number of provenances and made for some important reattributions. One of the most spectacular is the trouncing of a signature and date on the eighteenth century marble Cupid and Psyche (cat. no. 140), a piece slightly out of place in this collection, save for its ‘Frenchness’ in the context of the entire Wallace Collection. For the ‘hitherto neglected’ antique, Laughing Faun (cat. no.121), Warren posits Algardi or Boselli as restorer, and finds a well-documented provenance to Cardinal Richelieu. 

One provenance, however, that as Warren himself says ‘remains a mystery’ (p.17), is that of the great clypeate or round, shield-shaped Head of Christ by Pietro Torrigiano (cat. no.14). Warren confidently reaffirms Westminster Abbey as its original location, and accepts the museum tradition that it was found by Wallace at Sudbourne Hall, Suffolk in the Servants’ Hall. While the elements of Cluedo hang around the tradition, how bizarre is this. A further lead however is as follows: former owners of Sudbourne in the seventeenth century were the Withipoles, powerful merchants with Italian cultural and commercial connections at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and recusant Catholics thereafter. An altarpiece commissioned by Paul Withypool from Antonio da Solario in 1514 (now National Gallery and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery), has a provenance at Sudbourne in 1749, before the Hertfords bought, what was for them, a shooting estate. The altarpiece was sold at the break-up of the Hertford estates on the death of the 4th Marquess in 1870. How the Head of Christ might have gone with the Withipoles to East Anglia, if it did, does indeed remain a mystery, and the sort of further research that a catalogue like this should and does provoke. Its provenance to Sudbourne, however it came there, makes this, one of the finest works in the Wallace’s Italian sculpture collection, de iure, also the oldest.

The history of the Wallace Collection as a whole is that of the collecting instincts of a dynasty that, from 1796, took advantage of the political upheavals that characterised France in the nineteenth century. Warren makes clear that the Italian collection of sculpture, with its predilection for the work of the Renaissance, is largely the instinct of Sir Richard Wallace. The 2nd and 3rd Marquesses of Hertford appear to have acquired sculpture largely as ‘furnishings’ (p.1). Evidence of this may be gleaned from the fact that the collection of antique marbles bought by the 3rd Marquess in Italy, and displayed in his mistress’s villa, St Dunstan’s in Regents Park, designed by Decimus Burton at the height of the Greek Revival, was sold in 1855, when it had been outmoded by the Gothic Revival. The 4th Marquess collected with the competitive instinct and avidity of the true collector. There was an awe-inspiring legend in the V&A in this reviewer’s youth that, when the Bethnal Green Exhibition of the contents of Hertford House in Manchester Square was being organised (1872-1875, while Hertford House was being transformed by Richard Wallace to take the collections), the contents of entire packing cases acquired in France were discovered. These had not been opened since they had been packed for shipment after whichever auction where they had been acquired: perhaps for the 4th Marquess the passion was in the chase. His taste was essentially French, and therefore not the subject of this catalogue.

The acquisition of the superb group of Giambolognas could be described as opportunistic on the part of the Hertfords. The Hercules and Antaeusgroup (cat. no. 108) was among the hundred or so bronzes given in-lieu by the French Republican Government to state creditors in 1796, and eventually sold on. A similar provenance adheres to the equestrian Henri IV (cat. no.114), while the Nessus and Deianira (p. 3-4, cat. no.113) for which Warren has given an exciting new provenance to the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds, is one of the finest examples of the type. His research establishes an autograph group for it.

It was Richard Wallace, the putative son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, knighted for his philanthropic work during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, who made the Italian collections what they are. More than half the catalogue was acquired by Wallace, including such outstanding objects as Antonio Lombardo’s Head of a Young Woman (cat. no.53), or the boxwood Hercules by Francesco da Sant’Agata (cat. no.57), or the beautifully melancholy fragment head attributed here to Andrea Riccio (cat. no.49), effectively ascribed by Warren as a portrait of Antonio Trombetta.

This reviewer was initially disappointed to discover that the bulk of Wallace’s collection was acquired in two wholesale acquisitions, that of the Vicomte Both de Tauzia, and of Émelien, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, at their respective sales in Paris after the collapse of the Second Empire. The disappointment stemmed from the ready-made nature of such collecting: think Saatchi Collection and Russian or Chinese oligarchs. However, for Warren, and indeed the objects themselves and the history of collecting, this has become a virtue, providing as it does insights into other French collecting patterns and instincts, and assisting in the business of establishing provenance, one of the hallmarks of this catalogue.

If such research was ever intended for the ivory-towered few, it no longer is. By electronic means, it can now, and should be, out there for everyone. Indeed, the possibilities of expansion into the electronic field make the need for serious academic research-time and the publication of its findings all the more important. Such endeavour becomes more, not less, valuable in the dissemination of and access to knowledge. At the Wallace, Warren found support and encouragement to research in his area of expertise, and we should be all the more grateful for that. We should equally be grateful to the Wallace’s trustees for continuing to uphold such endeavour, as they should, in the same public-spiritedness as Sir Richard Wallace and the 4th Marquess of Hertford, whose original intention it was ‘to bequeath his Collections to the Nation’ (p.9).

Main image: Antonio Lombardo, Head of a Young Woman detail, c.1500-5, brass h.15.5cm. (cat. no. 53; photo: courtesy of Paul Holberton Publishing)

Aurora Corio