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About the artwork

In the 1920s Lord Leverhulme bought a country house as an investment. The house was Moor Park in Hertfordshire. Lever removed this chimneypiece, an act that would now be considered the worst form of vandalism.  This was quite normal at that time when many country houses were being demolished altogether.

At Moor Park, there was a story about the chimneypiece. Apparently the owner of the house, Sir Lawrence Dundas, had purchased it from a palace of the Borghese family in Italy. Dundas was a businessman who made a fortune out of contracts to supply the army during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. When the war ended in 1763, the Government made him a baronet and he looked around for a country house to make himself respectable. Lord Anson who owned Moor Park had just died with no children and the house was on the market, so Dundas bought it. Robert Adam was commissioned to design furniture for the drawing room. A 19th century book on the house says Dundas added ‘the magnificent white mantelpiece with draped female figures on each side; along the top is a row of figures of the dancing hours, relieved against a background of lapis lazuli.'

It just so happens that these dancing figures copy an ancient carving, which was in the Villa Borghese in Rome. It is carved with five figures - the three heading left and the two heading right, complete with the colonnade in the background. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was one of the most famous and popular bits of sculpture in Europe. The original sculpture did not stay in Rome. When Napoleon invaded Italy, his sister Pauline married Prince Camillo Borghese and in 1807 the Prince's brother-in-law Napoleon made him a cash offer for a number of his antiquities including the Dancers. The Prince accepted and the Dancers travelled to Paris, to the Louvre, where they have been ever since. 

This has taken us a long way from this chimneypiece and from Moor Park. The original ancient sculpture has five figures, but this is not a straight copy.  Whoever carved it has cleverly added extra figures to make the design the right long and narrow shape to go over the fireplace. What about the Victorian story that these actual figures came from 'a Borghese Palace'?  We know that the figures copy the relief that was in the Villa Borghese, but it sounds as though the details of the story got simplified in the telling over the years, which often happens with country house tales.

There are good reasons for thinking these dancing figures were carved in Italy.  If you wanted copies of famous classical sculptures in the 18th century, Rome was the place to get them made. There was a large industry for reproductions of ancient sculpture, restoring the originals, and outright faking. These activities shaded imperceptibly into each other and were mostly carried out by the same people. The results ended up all over Europe. There is something else about these figures that suggest Italy, which is the exotic blue background made of the mineral lapis lazuli. Mixing white marble with coloured marbles and minerals was something of an Italian speciality. In particular, English tourists in Rome were in the habit of ordering expensive multi-coloured chimneypieces. For example, in the State Bedroom at Burghley House is a Roman-style chimneypiece with red marble inserts put in c.1765. One of the key providers of these things was the designer and dealer Piranesi, now better known as a printmaker. In 1769 he published a book called Different Ways of Arranging Chimneypieces, and the first plate in the book has a caption saying the design was made for Lord Exeter at Burghley. A number of Piranesi's designs for chimneypieces are marked up with a scale in 'piedi inglesi' - English feet - showing that they were intended for English customers. At Badminton in Gloucestershire there is a Piranesi design which matches an actual chimneypiece in the house. On it is written 'Purchased in Rome for £160 by the 4th Duchess of Beaufort in 1773.'  The design includes the Borghese Dancers, but there are only five of them, as on the original. So it seems very likely that Sir Lawrence Dundas got his Borghese Dancers from Italy too.

An audio download of Robin Emmerson's gallery talk is available to download.

The overall design of the Moor Park chimneypiece does not look anything like Italian chimneypieces of this or any other period. Apart from the Dancers, it looks like a top-quality English chimneypiece from the earlier part of the 18th century. The top-half-only figures at the sides were particularly popular in England. One reason for their popularity is probably explained by Isaac Ware in his book on architecture in the 1750s: 'Modern sculptors are fond of nudities, but in a chimneypiece they would be abominable...let no statuary here object that the great excellence of his art is withheld...we banish anatomy from the parlour of the polite gentleman: that is all.' 

Why are our figures holding sea shells and pieces of coral? One of the previous owners of Moor Park was Benjamin Styles, a rich merchant who bought the house in 1720 and lived there until his death in 1739. He was one of the Directors of the South Sea Company and was involved in the notorious business collapse known as the South Sea Bubble. He was much too smooth an operator to be caught out and continued to thrive while others went bankrupt.

There is a sequel to this story. In 1776 Wedgwood produced a relief decoration for his jasperware pottery, based on the Borghese Dancers called the Dancing Hours. He also set the figures against a blue or green background and used them for different things including as a tablet for chimneypieces. The young sculptor John Flaxman modelled a set of the figures for him, and before that an older sculptor, John Bacon, also modelled a set. Sir Laurence Dundas was a good customer of Wedgwood's and it might be tempting to think that Wedgwood or his partner Bentley saw this chimneypiece at Moor Park. However, there is no evidence in Wedgwood's letters to suggest it. The Borghese Dancers were already a famous design and the idea of chimneypieces with white marble against a contrasting colour was a new fashion. Wedgwood was just very astute at jumping on the latest bandwagon. In a sense he was making more affordable versions for a wider market of the one-off bespoke designs that tycoons like Dundas were already buying. Both Wedgwood and Dundas were paying tribute to the same piece of sculpture, then one of the most famous in the world.

An audio download of Robin Emmerson's gallery talk is available to download.