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Transcript of Moor Park mantlepiece podcast

Well, I'm standing in front of the object that I'm talking about today, this wonderful chimneypiece and the reason I'm doing this talk is because Lauren's predecessor asked me to talk about this object. I protested that I knew absolutely nothing about it and I suspected that neither did anybody else.

I then had to find out about it. This is quite normal for curators. You come along and you know absolutely nothing about an object and you just have to jump in and do your best.

I started with an article that I found in Country Life for January 13 1912. Country homes and gardens old and new, Moor Park, Hertfordshire, the seat of Lord Ebury - I knew it came from Moor Park. That article says 'soon after Dundas entered into possession of Moor Park in 1763, considerable attention was given to the internal decorations. He employed Chiprianii to decorate what is now the dining room and the ceiling is from his brush.

The magnificent chimneypiece there was put in at the same time. It came from a Borghese palace and is white marble, with little dancing figures on the frieze on a background of lapis lazuli. This is the fireplace so how did it end up here in the gallery?

Lever bought it of course, like the rest of the collections here. But lever did not just buy the fireplace, he bought the whole country house it was in as an investment.

Lever removed this chimneypiece, an act that would now be considered the worst form of vandalism, but which was quite normal at that time when many country houses were being demolished altogether. So Lever brought the chimneypiece here to the art gallery he was creating.

Back to Moor Park. Who was the Dundas who owned the place? He was Lawrence Dundas, a businessman who made a fortune out of contracts to supply the army during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. Supplying boots, pork, all that sort of thing.

When the war ended in 1763, the Government made him a baronet and he looked around for a country house to make himself respectable. He'd made a fortune out of the government but they made him a baronet as well, as you see nothing changes.

Now he had to become a respectable aristocrat. Lord Anson who owned Moor Park had just died with no children and the house was on the market, so Dundas bought it. The house probably needed a lot of decorating and furnishing. Horace Walpole visited it before Dundas came along and wrote 'nothing is done to the house. There are not even chairs in the Great Apartment. My Lord Anson is more slatterly than the devil'.

A 19th century book on the house by Robert Baines says as soon as Dundas bought the house 'he began at once to embellish it at vast expense with the finest furniture and tapestries and the most beautiful Italian marbles. He fitted up the drawing room, making it a superb apartment, adding 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. The remainder of the mantelpiece consists of white marble of the most brilliant and spotless kind'.

This is just a bit confusing because the Country Life article said that the mantelpiece was in the dining room, not the drawing room. The answer is that the use of that room changed. It started off as the drawing room and was changed into the dining room in the 19th century.

The book is also quite right about the posh furniture that Dundas ordered. He got no less a designer than the great Robert Adam to design furniture for the room. Money was clearly no object.

So, what about the chimneypiece? Remember we heard this story that it came out of a Borghese palace. When the contents of the Lady Lever Art Gallery were first catalogued and published in the 1920s, it also says, in that book, that it was brought from one of the palaces of the Borghese family in Italy.

Rather strangely it says it was made about the year 1642 and that it's French. Why French? The catalogue quotes the catalogue of another museum collection, the catalogue of the Wallace Collection. When you look at that it says 'concerning a bronze cast similar to the frieze of the mantelpiece. A ceremonial dance of maidens. This bronze is a free copy or adaptation from the celebrated late Greek or Graeco-Roman relief in the Louvre, known as the Borghese dancers. The general design is identical. Casts were taken in 1641 for King Louis XIII of France of various antique reliefs then in Rome and among them that of the Borghese dancers then in the Villa Borghese. The relief of the Wallace collection is the bronze copy of the Borghese dancers made for Louis XIII'.

So the one in the Wallace Collection is French. But that doesn't really help us with the Lady Lever one. If this is French, why did Dundas bring it from Italy? It seemed to me that someone didn't know and was hedging their bets. Is it French/Italian?

What are the celebrated Borghese dancers? They are an ancient Roman stone relief carved with five figures. And the five figures they are carved with are the same figures as the middle five on here. In other words, if you take off the two each end then the five in the middle.

Figures in exactly the same positions as those five and with the same columns behind them. They are the three heading left and the two heading right. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was one of the most famous and popular bits of sculpture in Europe. It was one of the must-see sights for tourists in Rome.

People nowadays often find it a bit of a shock that most of the must-see works of art that 18th century tourists in Italy went to see are now almost unknown. Nobody looks at them anymore. Whereas most of the works of art that modern tourists go to see were not considered important.

Nobody in the 18th century thought the Cistene Chapel was up to much. Tastes really do change.

Illustrations of this famous sculplture were published in the 17th and 18th centuries. Louis XIII of France wasn't even the first person to have it copied, he was just one of many.

In the 1750s these five figures turn up in the background of a portrait by the British artist Francis Hayman. He used them as a bit of imaginary decoration on a vase in the background to give a bit of classical tone.

At this time the original sculpture was still in Rome, but it didn't stay there. In 1807, Napoleon bought it. 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 because it has nine. Whoever carved it has cleverly added extra figures to make the design the right long and narrow shape to go all the way across the top of the fireplace. What about the Victorian story that these actual figures came from 'a Borghese Palace'? I don't trust that at all.

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 about 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.

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 may be 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? What on earth does that mean? It certainly has nothing to do with Sir Lawrence Dundas, he was not connected with the sea at all. 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 and make lots of money 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.