Magazine article The Spectator

Venus Jigsaw

Magazine article The Spectator

Venus Jigsaw

Article excerpt

Salerooms

When the 29-year-old William Weddell acquired a marble statue of Venus in Rome in 1764, he paid the dealer Thomas Jenkins an astronomical but undisclosed sum. The most conservative contemporary account has it at L3,500 (plus a lifetime annuity) - a figure widely held to make her the most expensive antiquity sold to any Englishman in the 18th century. On her arrival at Newby Hall in Yorkshire, Weddell commissioned Robert Adam to design a grand neo-classical sculpture gallery - he had bought back 19 chests of antiquities - its centrepiece a domed rotunda conceived for the goddess herself.

Jenkins experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining permission to export the statue, despite excellent relations with Clement XIV, and it would never have been given at all if it were not for the `fortunate Circumstances of it being a Naked female'. Last week, the Compton family of Newby Hall sold its once-prized Venus at Christie's for a world record price for any antiquity at auction - nearly L8 million -- and it remains to be seen whether the new owners will be experiencing any difficulties attempting to export her.

The sale is a sad affair, a miserable rerun of the sale of Canova's `Three Graces' from Woburn Abbey. What makes the case of the so-called Jenkins Venus far, far worse is the fact that here context is virtually all. The Venus is no straightforward piece of Roman statuary. When she was discovered in the cellars of the Barberini Palace she not only tacked the odd arm and leg but, rather critically, her head. The restorer, probably Cavaceppi (no mean sculptor in his own right), appears to have found her another one, antique of course, as well as filling in all the missing portions from limbs, toes, nose and buttocks. What we have is an extraordinary jigsaw that straddles the classical and the 18th-century worlds. As an antiquity it is of moderate importance, which is why the British Museum, which was approached before the sale (the V&A was not), had no interest in acquiring her.

As a reflection of 18th-century taste and its passion for ideal beauty, and as the apogee of one of Adam's most important conceptions, the Jenkins Venus is superlative. The loss is all the more acute because Newby's sculpture gallery is otherwise intact - and open to the public (Woburn's is used for corporate entertaining). Her place has to be taken by a cast. At Christie's meanwhile, denuded of this historical context and all its resonance, this Venus seemed less than seductive. …

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