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Helen of Troy

Antonio Canova (Possagno 1757 - Venice 1822)

Category

Art / Sculpture

Date

1816 - 1817

Materials

Marble

Measurements

660 x 300 x 330 mm

Place of origin

Italy

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Collection

Mount Stewart, County Down (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Mount Stewart, County Down, Northern Ireland, National Trust

NT 1542436

Caption

Notorious for aristocratic pillaging of continental European works of art through the Grand Tour and imperial conquests, Britain has at least one example of art traffic in the other direction. This is it. The marble bust of Helen of Troy by Antonio Canova was sent as a ‘thank you’ gift to Viscount Castlereagh for his help in persuading the British government to return Vatican works of art pilfered by that light-fingered connoisseur, Napoleon Bonaparte. Canova, the most celebrated sculptor of his day, had been hired by Pope Pius VII to represent the Holy See in a diplomatic mission to repatriate the spoils of Napoleon's campaigns. The British even provided a frigate and 200,000 francs to ship the art back to Rome. The Duke of Wellington, a close collaborator with Castlereagh in this enterprise, was also rewarded with a bust – Head of a Dancer, now in the Wellington Collection, Apsley House. But it was the Irish Viscount who was thought to have done best out of the deal with Helen – appropriate in that she herself was a beautiful thing, stolen by foreigners and eventually, after years of war, returned home.

Summary

White marble sculpture bust on a circular marble socle, Helen of Troy by Antonio Canova (Possagno 1757 - Venice 1822), 1816/17. Inscribed on reverse: 'VICECOMITI. CASTELREGHIO. VIRO. PRESTANTISSIMO/ ANTONIVS CANOVA/ FECIT. AC.D.D.' [‘To Viscount Castlereagh a most prominent man/ Antonio Canova/ made it. Year of Creation of the Lord God’]. This beautiful marble head was presented to Viscount Castlereagh by Canova in thanks for helping to organise the return of art works looted by Napoleon from the Vatican.

Provenance

Presented by the artist to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, later 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822), in thanks for helping to organise the return of art works looted by Napoleon from the Vatican; thence by descent and on loan from the Estate of the Marquess of Londonderry

Marks and inscriptions

Reverse: 'VICECOMITI. CASTELREGHIO. VIRO. PRESTANTISSIMO/ ANTONIVS CANOVA/ FECIT. AC.D.D.' ‘To Viscount Castlereagh a most prominent man/ Antonio Canova/ made it. Year of Creation of the Lord God’

Makers and roles

Antonio Canova (Possagno 1757 - Venice 1822), sculptor

References

Kenworthy-Browne 1978 John A. Kenworthy-Browne, “Sculptor and revolutionary. British portraits by Bartolini.” Country Life 8 June 1978, pp.1655-6

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