Cupid Pursuing Psyche

WAG 7272


This artwork has been identified as having links to a person connected with transatlantic slavery. This research is part of the Walker Art Gallery’s ongoing work to be more transparent about the collection’s relationship to Britain's colonial past. Three marble versions of this sculpture design were made. The first was for Algernon Percy (1792-1865), 4th Duke of Northumberland, in 1854 for his residence at Alnwick Castle. The Duke was a British naval commander, explorer and politician. The present relief was commissioned by Henry Robertson Sandbach (1807-1895) of Hafodunos Hall, probably in the same year. The Sandbach family were part of the Sandbach, Tinne & Co. dynasty. They were shipowners, merchants, bankers, politicians and plantation owners. They exported sugar, coffee, cotton, timber, molasses and rum from the Caribbean. The company were prominent in Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo in British Guiana, now known as Guyana. The Sandbachs became extremely wealthy through the enslavement, trafficking and forced labour of many tens of thousands of people. The family were also awarded large claims in compensation after the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). The artist John Gibson (1790 - 1866), made numerous drawings, engraved illustrations and sculptural reliefs based on Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche. This relief represents no particular episode in Apuleius’s story but is rather an abstraction on the theme of love and its struggle for the human soul. Psyche is often shown with butterfly wings because the word psyche in Ancient Greek means both soul and butterfly. She holds a grasshopper which could represent fertility. Gibson always depicted Cupid with a ‘top-knot’ hairstyle influenced by classical sculpture. It is one of Gibson’s most spirited designs and clearly influenced by Thorvaldsen’s ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ also in the Walker Art Gallery collection (WAG 7503 and WAG 7504). A third version of this work is in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Gibson described the story of Cupid and Psyche as ‘presenting so many varied pictures’. He also seemed to have been haunted by its theme of mortal suffering redeemed by heavenly happiness, one which he associated with his own life and platonic love for Margaret Sandbach (née Roscoe, 1812 - 1852). Margaret was Henry Robertson Sandbach’s wife and a close friend of the Gibson. This relief was made shortly after her untimely death at the age of 40 due to breast cancer. A memorial to Margaret Sandbach is also in the Walker Art Gallery collection (WAG 7505).