Thanks to a Larger Research Grant from the British Academy (2005-7) the Centre was able to retain a senior researcher whose work has subsequently won a Major Curatorial Grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2007- 9). Among the many research activities carried out over the years of the grant is the provision on line of important data and pictures (www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/gems), especially the compendia of impressions made by 18th–century scholars such as James Tassie and P.D. Lippert.
The carving of gemstones, in intaglio or cameo, is one of the oldest arts, practised continuously from antiquity to the present day. Since the stones were precious, and their working laborious, they attracted the attention of the best artists. Collections were being formed by Hellenistic Greek princes and rich Romans as early as the 1st century BC. The Beazley Archive, the University of Oxford’s Classical Art Research Centre, is well equipped for research in gems, their collection and reception. The Centre has a rich library and a collection of impressions and casts of gems and cameos, many unique, that is widely considered to be one of the most comprehensive in the world. The Centre is heir to a tradition of scholarship in the subject that began with Sir John Beazley himself (1885-1970), and is continued today by Sir John Boardman and his team.
Dr Claudia Wagner, the Centre’s Gem Researcher, has been studying the series of neo-classical gems carved for Prince Poniatowski , dispersed in the mid-19th century (www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/gems/poniatowski). These remarkable original studies in a classicising style are based more on knowledge of classical texts than on copying ancient originals. They are, therefore, an important source for assessing other Neo-classical works of the 19th century, particularly, but not exclusively in Britain.The resources of the Centre have also contributed to the study of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle; Sir John Boardman, Emeritus Professor at the Archive, was a joint author of Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen in 2008.
THE MARLBOROUGH COLLECTION
The Marlborough Collection of gems made by the Fourth Duke at Blenheim Palace in the later 18th century was dispersed at sale in 1899, but the Centre has a complete set of impressions and casts, acquired by Sir John Beazley from the family of Nevile Story-Maskelyne, who made them from the originals. This has enabled our research team to assemble a fully illustrated account of the whole collection, its origins and later history, which will be published by the Oxford University Press. Interest in gems and cameos extends from the objects to their collectors; they tell us about knowledge and taste. The collection and reception of engraved gems and cameos is a story that runs from antiquity to the present. It reflects on the reception of classical art in Britain, revealing the models for much of the most famous classicising arts from the Renaissance to the present day. Part of the Marlborough Collection was one owned by Lord Arundel in the 17th century, derived from the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua, as important a source as the Medici at Florence. Arundel’s was one of the major collections in northern Europe. Other parts of the Marlborough Collection included works collected by foremost Italian and British scholars and collectors.
By following the fortunes of the gems to the present we can see how the interests and influence of collectors have influenced our scholarship and appreciation. This illustration (Fig. 2) shows a detail of Reynolds’ portrait of the family of the Fourth Duke of Marlborough. The Duke sits holding in his hand a cameo, while his son stands beside him holding one of the red boxes in which the gems were kept. The cameo itself had been acquired after the 1899 sale by Lord Astor, later by the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, where it is now. We recognise it from a cast in the Archive and 19th- century photographs. It is an original Roman work showing a portrait of the Emperor Augustus, and its mount is Italian, of the later 16th century.
Our continuing study is devoted to other collections in Britain and elsewhere. We are also preparing for the web antiquarian publications of gems from the 16th century on, such as that by 17th –century antiquarian Gorlaeus.
The art of engraving gems and cameos has been long neglected, in both Classics and History of Art, yet it was one of the prime arts of antiquity, with a tradition that continues through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and down to the 19th century. Our research makes it more accessible to students and scholars because we exploit the potential of the web; gems are small and ‘zooming’ reveals the quality of the carving. These objects are a prime resource for the understanding of ancient art, the Renaissance, and of collecting.
Professor Donna Kurtz
Professor Donna Kurtz is Beazley Archivist, Professor of Classical Art in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Wolfson College. She has published numerous books and articles on classical Greek archaeology and art, information technology, communications, and visual arts. Here she describes the research carried out on gem carving at the Beazley Archive, which has received long-term support from the British AcademyPrince Poniatowski collection
|Zeus and Kapaneus before the walls of Thebes (1816-17)|
1400sPIETRO BARBO collection
The collector Pietro Barbò, who became Pope Paul II in 1464, possessed one of the largest and most completely recorded assemblages of art in 15th-century Italy. The inventory of his collection, written in Latin and divided into 32 sections, catalogues over 3,300 objects, ranging from Byzantine textiles to liturgical silver. Each item was accompanied by a description of its monetary value, iconography, and aesthetic and historical significance. Barbò's 827 ancient gems were organized under four categories: cameos, intaglios with heads of men, intaglios with heads of women, and intaglios with full-length figures. His gems, which he often mounted on rings, fascinated his contemporaries—who asserted after his death that he kept spirits in his rings and had been strangled by one of them. Although he possessed a massive number of gems, Barbò was most interested in numismatics; it was claimed that upon seeing a coin, he could instantaneously identify the emperor or empress represented.
1500s and 1600sPeter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640)
A prolific artist famous for his Baroque altarpieces, portraits, and paintings of mythological scenes, Peter Paul Rubens was also a humanist scholar and a collector of antiquities. Born in Westphalia (a region of West Germany), Rubens moved to Antwerp, Belgium, after his father's death in 1589 and became a master in the Antwerp painter's guild in 1598. Two years later he departed for Italy, where he spent eight formative years working in Mantua and Rome and studying Renaissance frescoes and classical antiquities.
While abroad, Rubens began to collect ancient gems and marbles, and when he returned to Antwerp, he continued to expand his holdings through agents and friends. The commercial side of collecting appealed to the painter, and he sometimes resold parts of his collection or exchanged objects for others. One noted sale took place in 1626, when Rubens sold 196 of his gems to the first Duke of Buckingham. He was careful to withhold some of his favorites, such as the famed gem of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche by Tryphon, which he bequeathed to his son Alfred. In general, Rubens was extremely secretive about his gems and was unwilling to show them to visitors, fearing that they would be counterfeited. Read more about the life of Peter Paul Rubens.
Thomas Howard (British, 1585–1646), Second Earl of Arundel
A consummate collector, Thomas Howard acquired a wide variety of objects, ranging from paintings by Italian Renaissance masters to animal pelts and butterflies. Traveling extensively, Arundel came into contact with artists and scholars who helped him build his collections. During a 1613 visit to Rome, a leading art patron arranged for him to visit the Forum, where he "discovered" ancient statues planted there beforehand. These sculptures formed the basis of the antiquities collection at Arundel House. The earl was also keen to obtain ancient gems. In 1637 he purchased 263 cameos that had reportedly belonged to the dukes of Mantua for ten thousand pounds. The group included the famous Felix Gem displayed in this exhibition. Learn more about the Felix Gem on the Web site of the Ashmolean Museum.
At the time of his death, the quantity of Arundel's acquisitions was astonishing. He owned, for example, 40 paintings by Holbein, 37 by Titian, 13 by Raphael, and over 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Although the earl's collection appears exceedingly complete, he failed to obtain one coveted object: an ancient Roman obelisk. Arundel's agent, William Petty, could not get an export license for it, and the granite monolith was eventually used by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini as the center of his Four Rivers Fountain in Rome.
William Cavendish (British, 1672–1729), Second Duke of Devonshire
William George Spencer Cavendish (British, 1790–1858), Sixth Duke of Devonshire
The Devonshire collection, which numbers over 500 gems and is still at the family estate at Chatsworth, was begun by William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire, in the late 1600s. He commissioned drawings of his ancient gems to make them more generally available—a rare objective for collectors of his era. One of the duke's most treasured acquisitions was a fragment of a carnelian intaglio depicting a cow and signed by Apollonides, a Greek carver mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder, for which he paid the hefty sum of one thousand pounds.
The second Duke's extravagance was surpassed by William George Spencer Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, who spent so much on his collections and the construction of his gallery that he fell into debt and was forced to sell off some of his estates. Although the sixth Duke did not add many new pieces to the gem collection, preferring to acquire libraries, coins, and medals, he commissioned a suite of jewelry that framed 88 ancient gems with garnets, sapphires, emeralds, amethysts, and many of the family diamonds. Known as the Devonshire Parure, the jewels were fashioned for the Countess Granville, wife of the duke's nephew, to wear to the coronation of Czar Alexander II.
1700s and 1800sBaron Philipp von Stosch (German, 1691–1757)
A prominent antiquarian and art dealer, Baron Philipp von Stosch authored a seminal publication on ancient gemstones. Born in Brandenburg, he settled in Rome in 1717, where he collected gems, books, manuscripts, and drawings. His holdings included over ten thousand ancient intaglios, cameos, and glass pastes. Von Stosch financed his collection through rather unorthodox means, working as a spy for the British government of Robert Walpole on the Jacobite Court in Rome. In 1724 he published Pierres antiques gravées, sur lesquelles les graveurs ont mis leurs noms... (Ancient Engraved Gems, on which Carvers Have Inscribed Their Names...) a catalogue of gems he considered genuine, inscribed with proper names he claimed as artists' signatures. From that moment on, there was a great demand from aristocratic collectors for signed gems. When von Stosch's cover as a spy was blown in 1731, he fled the Papal States and took up residence in Florence, living on a pension from the British. He devoted the rest of his life to connoisseurship and to supporting young German artists, such as the gem engraver Johann Lorenz Natter.
George Spencer (British, 1739–1817), Fourth Duke of Marlborough
A learned aristocrat whose interests ranged from civil law to astronomy, George Spencer was also a distinguished art collector. After the second Earl of Arundel died in 1646, his gem collection was sold and eventually ended up, through inheritance, in the hands of Lady Diana Beauclerk, Marlborough's sister-in-law. She then transferred Arundel's gems to Marlborough, who incorporated them into his existing holdings of 300 specimens.
The duke purchased his gems at auctions and through contacts in Rome and Venice, who reserved their best items for him. His methods of acquisition aroused resentment among other collectors, particularly the French, who accused him of bribing and bullying art dealers to obtain the highest-quality works. Marlborough was extremely proud of his gems, which he enhanced with lavish jeweled settings and stored in red Moroccan leather boxes. At the time of his death, he possessed nearly 800 pieces. When the family finances became troubled several decades later, the collection was sold, and in 1899 it was dispersed through separate auctions at Christie's.
Edward Perry Warren (British, 1860–1928)
The collector Edward Perry Warren was born in Massachusetts to a family that made its fortune from a paper mill. After graduating from Harvard, Warren vowed to spend the rest of his life abroad and pursued an advanced degree at Oxford. There he met men similarly interested in studying and collecting antiquities, including his life partner, John Marshall. In 1890 Warren began to lease Lewes House, a historic Georgian estate in Sussex, where he lived with Marshall and six other men in pursuit of scholarship and collecting. Visitors observed that Lewes House was rather odd, "a monkish establishment" where everything was shared and little interest was taken in the affairs of the outside world. Despite the closeness between members, the brotherhood broke up after 12 years. Marshall married Warren's cousin Mary Bliss in 1907—a great blow to Warren—but after her death in 1925, the two men reunited for the remaining years of their lives.