Shield of Achilles
Philip Rundell (Norton St Philip 1746 -London 1827)
The exploits of the ancient Greeks were a source of fascination and inspiration in the early 19th century. The goldsmith Philip Rundell (1746–1827) commissioned the artist and sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) to design the shield of Achilles as described in Homer’s Iliad (9th century BC). In the myth, Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, formed ‘an immense and solid shield’ for Achilles, who was half-man, half-god and instrumental in the victory over the Trojans. Flaxman relied upon Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715–20), and at the centre of the shield we see the radiant sun god, Apollo, surrounded by the constellations. Five of these shields were made in silver gilt between 1819 and 1824, all of them considered masterpieces of Regency silver. One was made for King George IV (1762–1830), and this example, made of solid silver and then gilded, was produced in 1822. It was purchased in the mid- 20th century by the collector Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven (1896–1966), for his home, Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire.
The Shield of Achilles, sterling silver, gilded, marked by Philip Rundell of Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, London, 1822/3 and designed and modelled by John Flaxman. The convex-shaped shield is cast and chased and has a central scene of Apollo driving the chariot of the sun on a rayed background surrounded by symbolic representations of constellations and enclosed in a border of burnished stars. Surrounding this is a broad frieze with a series of scenes from the Iliad, bordered by a narrow band of waves representing the ocean.
Described as ‘that Divine Work, unequalled in the combination of beauty, variety and grandeur’ by the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence, the spectacular Shield of Achilles has long been recognised as one of the masterpieces of Regency silver. It was designed and modelled by the great British sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman RA (1755–1826), and was commissioned as a ‘reconstruction’ of the mythological shield from the eighteenth book of Homer’s Iliad. Flaxman’s prowess at interpreting the classical in sculpted form made him an obvious choice as designer and as early as 1792 he had turned his attention to the appearance of the shield for a series of illustrations commissioned for the Iliad and the Odyssey (Royal Academy of Arts, ref. 18/305). In 1810 Flaxman received the first of several handsome payments for the design of the shield from the London firm of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, Royal Goldsmiths to George III and George IV. Flaxman laboured over the shield’s design for seven years, completing the composition in 1817. Copious drawings were produced, and many survive including those in the collections of the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Huntington Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum. The finalised design was modelled by Flaxman in clay and then cast in plaster, with the detail carved in afterwards. The plaster cast may be that surviving in the Soane Museum (Museum no. SC35) although others were made for presentation by Rundells including that given to Sir Thomas Lawrence and one of 1827 in the Royal Academy (obj. no. 03/1717). The design process culminated in 1818 when Flaxman was paid £525 for a bronze cast, finished by the chaser William Pitts. Three bronze versions of the shield are known to survive; in the Royal Collection (subsequently silver-plated, RCIN 31606), the Ashmolean Museum (acc. no. WA1908.254) and the Fitzwilliam Museum (acc. no. M.1-1842). The Shield of Achilles, as subsequently cast also in silver-gilt, is particularly significant in Flaxman’s oeuvre as it represents a rare and well recorded example of a commission that the artist (and not his studio) modelled himself. The decoration and iconography of the shield relate to the legendary targe or shield wrought for Achilles by Hephaestus, Greek god of metalworking, which formed part of the armour produced to replace that lost when Hector killed and stripped naked Achilles’ companion, Patroclus, during the Trojan War. In the centre, the Sun God Apollo is cast in high-relief, surrounded by a lyrical representation of the constellations and the moon. The broad frieze surrounding the central roundel features seven different scenes based on the description of the shield in the Iliad: the marriage procession and banquet, the quarrel and judicial appeal, the siege and ambush, the harvest field, the vintage, the shepherds and the Cretan dance. Beyond, and enclosing the overall design, is a border of waves representing the ocean. Although Flaxman was a keen Greek scholar, it is likely that his chief source of inspiration for the design was the description of the shield in Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad from 1715–20, commencing with the lines: ‘Then first he formed the immense and solid shield; / Rich various artifice emblazed the field’ [Pope 1909, p. 344]. The forging and composition of each section of the shield is described at length in an early example of what is known as an ekphrasis - ‘a literary device in which a painting, sculpture, or other work of visual art is described in detail’ (OED). Villing and Fitton (Villing and Fitton 2019, p. 274) provide a useful summary: ‘Having set the scene by fashioning the earth, the sky, the moon, the sun and the constellations of the stars ([lines] 483-89) as decoration on the shield, Hephaestus proceeds to make images of ‘two noble cities filled with mortal men’. One is a city at peace, with scenes of weddings, dancing and a lawsuit in a market place, representing a well-ordered urban community and its joyful celebrations. The other is at war, besieged by an army and characterized by strife, treachery and violent suffering. This is followed by scenes of the cultivation of fertile land; a king’s domain with fields being harvested while a meal is prepared for the workers; young men and women joyfully harvesting in a lush vineyard; a herd of cattle being attacked by a lion; a peaceful sheep pasture and a circle of dancing boys and girls. The shield’s outer rim, finally, is formed by the great stream of Ocean, which encompasses all within (607-8).’ The concluding words, in Pope’s translation, are as follows: ‘Thus the broad shield complete the artist crown’d / With his last hand, and pour’d the ocean round: / In living silver seem’d the waves to roll, / And beat the buckler’s verge, and bound the whole’ [Pope 1909, p. 347]. Such a vivid description by Homer (or another Homeric writer) led to fascination from classical times with the actual appearance of the shield and attempts to interpret it in visually were numerous, culminating in the physical form produced by Flaxman. Its association with martial glory fitted well with the Prince Regent’s perception of himself as the great victor over the tyrant Napoleon - through the Duke of Wellington - and the timing of the production of the final model could not have been better, with the prince’s succession as King George IV in 1820. A version in silver gilt (1821/2, RCIN 51266) was purchased by him and produced in time to be in pride of place on the buffet behind the King at his coronation banquet in July, 1821. Four other casts in silver-gilt were produced by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell over the succeeding three years and they were acquired by the Duke of York (1821/2, Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino), the 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1822/3, private collection), the 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (1822/3, NT, Anglesey Abbey) and the Duke of Cumberland (1823/4, Koopman Rare Art). All four men were major patrons of silversmiths, reflecting a trend for conspicuous and colossal consumption led by George IV as Prince Regent and King. William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1757-1844) was one of the richest men in the country, having in 1802 inherited the family’s vast, mineral-rich estates in Cumberland and Westmorland which brought an annual income estimated at £100,000. He was amongst the group of major silver patrons who acquired pieces of antique royal plate from Rundell, Bridge and Rundell following its turning in by the Crown in 1808. Substantial contemporary silver was also amassed by him, including a full dinner service in the latest fashion, lighting equipment and display pieces foremost amongst which was The Shield of Achilles now at Anglesey Abbey. It was the extravagance of his descendant, Hugh Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale (1857-1944) - the infamous ‘Yellow Earl’ - that brought about the abandonment of Lowther Castle, the huge neo-gothic family seat, and in 1947 its contents were sold at auction, the silver being dispatched at Christie’s in London on the 19th and 20th February. Lot 136 was the shield which was sold to Lord Fairhaven for £520. Its association with several members of the royal family as well as its standing as a major work of Regency art would undoubtedly have appealed to him. Four bottle coolers of 1802/3 by William Fountain (NT 516459) were acquired at the same sale.
Acquired by William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1757-1844). It passed by descent with Lowther Castle, Westmorland to Lancelot Lowther, 6th Earl of Lonsdale by whom it was sold at Christie’s, London, 20th February 1947, lot 136, for £520 to Urban Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven. Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1966 by Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven (1896-1966) with the house and the rest of the contents.
Anglesey Abbey, the Fairhaven Collection (National Trust)
Makers and roles
Philip Rundell (Norton St Philip 1746 -London 1827)
The Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA, 1985 - 1986, no.529
Hartop 2005: Christopher Hartop, Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell and Bridge 1797-1843, (John Adamson, Cambridge, 2005), pp. 105-12 Pasanisi dei Foscarini 2018: Chiara Scotto Pasanisi dei Foscarini, The Shield of Achilles, (Koopman Rare Art catalogue, 2018) Villing and Fitton 2019: Alexandra Villing and J. Lesley Fitton, ‘Epilogue: The Shield of Achilles’, in Alexandra Villing, J. Lesley Fitton, Victoria Donnellan and Andrew Shapland, Troy: Myth and Reality, Thames and Hudson, London, 2019, pp. 274-80. Pope 1909: Alexander Pope, The Iliad of Homer, Translated by Alexander Pope, Cassell & Company, London, 1909, pp. 333-48 Owen 2008: Owen, C. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-17113 Retrieved 4 Mar. 2021