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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Phoebe Fielder

Much like my favorite hero Odysseus, I have a love-hate relationship with words. Unfortunately, I was born with severe dyslexia, dyspraxia, and visual stress. Fortunately, as much as my dyslexia has attempted to sabotage everything I write, I have still, ironically, managed to graduate with an English and Classical studies degree, and a Masters in History of Design.

As a design historian, I have studied the way in which collecting habits from the Italian Renaissance to the modern day have shaped lasting concepts of design and aesthetics. In particular neoclassicism, in sculpture and ceramics has been the key focus of my research at this programme co-run by the V&A Museum and the RCA.

I believe in making objects and art that embody the contemporaneous thoughts and feelings of our societies accessible to all, through research, curation, and communication. 

V&A Sylvia Lennie Award recipient

The Pantheon at Stourhead House painted 
S. Woodforde (1763–1817) Medium oil on canvas Measurements H 122 x W 91.5

I am delighted to be able to expand upon my research into the neoclassical plaster collecting frenzy, which took place during the eighteenth century in a few small and select collections, reaching its major boom in England in the nineteenth century.

The collecting of sculptures after the antique is something that didn’t hit Britain until the grand tour become popular among the gentlemen. England was late to the classical revival party, behind the rest of Europe. The use of Greco-Roman style interiors is a mark of the classical revival movement and departure from more religious, Christian interiors to, in my opinion, better ones!

In my research, I explore the untold story about the few well-preserved collections of Greco-Roman plaster casts England houses today, and how these collections have had a direct impact on what we perceive to be classical sculpture and still encounter in our museums today, because of the casts collected by these eighteenth-century gentlemen.

Borghese Gladiator Bronze
Whitehall BronzesBorghese Gladiator, by HUBERT LE SUEUR, Bronze cast, Royal Collection Trust, 1RCIN71436, c.1630

The first significant collection of Greco-Roman cast sculptures in England

The 18th century is a fabulous time to be alive - that is to say if you happened to be a young lordling about to be sent off on a very long gap year to buy lots of art, and come home to inherit lots of wealth and spend your days redecorating.

As with other trends, casted sculpture collecting in England all begins with a monarch. King Charles I (1600-1649) collected moulds because well, the king of France was doing it, but because he’s got wealth beyond imagination, he was able to commission his copies in bronze instead of plaster. These 'white hall’ bronzes (named after their original home in the Palace of Whitehall, England) contained sculptures like the Borghese Gladiator and the Apollo Belvedere. In particular, the Borghese gladiator had a dramatic backstory with Charles I sending his best spies over to Rome to acquire the copy and sneak it back to him. Long gone are the days when English monarchs sent their spies to sneak into the Pope's garden to copy their national treasures in the dark of the night - but wouldn't this make a fabulous James Bond movie set in the 17th century?

But this is very much the prequel to the main tale.

Borghese Gladiator,
Borghese Gladiator, Borghese Gladiator, Cast by Brucciani & Co, c.1850-1900. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographed in V&A Exhibition ‘Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear’, 19 .03.22 to 6.11.22

Case Study : John Frederick Sackville's Claiming of Italian Sculpture

Moving into the eighteenth century, country houses inherited by young lords were being overhauled and redesigned. Let me introduce you to the rogue Duke straight out of Bridgerton :

John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799), undertook his Grand Tour in 1770, upon inheriting the Knole house. Described as a colourful character, whilst he undertook the traditional and expected route of the eighteenth-century English gentleman, he did not do it in a conventional way. A favourite of the French Queen Marie Antoinette, he was a notorious womaniser and took with him a troupe of actors, singers, and a courtesan named Nancy Parsons along with his physician. Inspired by the antique marble, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (originally in the Cardinal Borghese collection, with the room it was displayed in named after the marble) in 1778 Dorset had his favourite mistress, the Italian ballerina Giovanna Baccelli eternalised in plaster. Lounging nude and displayed at the base of the Knole staircase. For decorum’s sake the sculpture was listed as ‘Venus, reclining on a couch’, in the account books, and of course, removed and hidden once the Duke was wed.

However, the sculpture of his mistress, in plaster modelled after a Greco-Roman sculpture, speaks of the transactional relationship the eighteenth-century gentlemen on the grand tour had with Greco-Roman Plaster casts. The new and reinvented men who lived in homes that symbolised the classical revival, Roman imperialism, and erudite hobbies wished to embed the Italian history and re-design their own surroundings to reflect that they too were going under a revival. At the core of this revival lay the height of good taste, beauty, and design. By re-claiming the Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the form of his own mistress, was Dorset not firmly putting his own mark in the history of this particular antique sculpture, through a humorous lens?

Sleeping Hermaphroditus
Sleeping HermaphroditusThe Sleeping Hermaphrodite (Borghese) attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples 1598 – Rome 1680) Datecirca 1700 Materials White marble Measurements 520 x 275 mm Place of origin Italy
Reclining Venus
Giovanna Francesca Antonia Guiseppe Zanerini, called L'a Baccelli'Giovanna Zanerini, an Italian dancer who performed in Paris, and mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset, immortalised in plaster