We’ve been chatting to Wimpole’s House and Collections Manager, Iain Stewart, about the Edward and Eleanor plaster relief that has returned to Wimpole and the fascinating story behind John Deare, the man who sculpted it…
With around 18,000 objects in our care at Wimpole, it’s fair to say that my favourite things change from time to time.
Every now and again, a visitor or one of our research volunteers brings to light a new piece of information that helps draw my interest to something different in the collection.
Sometimes, it simply depends on my mood, at other times it changes with the movement of light through the house. The way different objects become highlighted by the colours washing in through the windows from the parkland, or through John Soane’s incredible lanterns can vary throughout the year. It’s this wonderful variety that makes it possible to visit Wimpole time and again, knowing you’ll always discover something new.
The object I’m most fascinated by at the moment is known as ‘Edward and Eleanor’, a plaster relief modelled by a sculptor named John Deare. I particularly like this piece for the following reasons.
Firstly, I think Deare has a great story. He enrolled at the Royal Academy School, which went onto give him a pension for a three year stay in Rome, on the condition he sent back a work to the Academy’s annual exhibition. For his exhibition piece he modelled in plaster ‘The Judgement of Jupiter’ with over 20 figures. Emulating history painting of the time, it was the largest 18th-century relief by a British artist. In fact the Academy argued with him over its size (they thought it too big) and it was not sent to London.
Edward and Eleanor was his next relief and it turned out to be Deare’s first and only Royal Academy exhibition. It was commissioned by Henry Blundell and shown in 1788. This relief depicts the legend of Queen Eleanor of Castile, risking her life to suck the poison from a wound her husband, King Edward I, sustained during the crusades. The subject matter and elements of the composition may have been suggested by Angelica Kauffman’s painting of the same subject, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776, during Deare’s time as a student.
After Deare exhibited his plaster piece, Sir Andrew Corbet commissioned a marble version for Adderley Hall, in Shropshire. We can’t be absolutely sure, but we think there’s a very good chance that our plaster might have been taken from a mould of this marble version.
Deare was said to be a hard worker, often working late into the night and rarely sleeping before 3am. To improve the accuracy of his figures, he studied anatomy, attended dissections and examined life casts at the Royal Academy.
Finally there are a number of stories surrounding his death. Some say he died of a broken heart after falling in love with the wife of a commander of French troops, which got him thrown into prison. The story I most like to imagine to be true was recorded by J T Smith, who said Deare had slept on a block of marble in the hope that he would find inspiration for his next work, but unfortunately only managed to catch a chill, which killed him in just a few days!
I also really like the story behind the subject Deare chose for this work. As was common practice in the middle ages, Edward and Eleanor had an arranged marriage. However, unlike most, theirs seems to have been a happy marriage. Most accounts show that Edward and Eleanor were devoted to each other, stating that Edward I had no known mistresses, unlike many medieval kings, and was one of the few not to have known to have had children outside of wedlock. In fact, their household records imply a comfortable, even humorous relationship.
Eleanor and the children often travelled with Edward, even on crusades. Apparently an assassination attempt was made on his life, in June 1272. He was wounded in the arm by a dagger that was thought to be poisoned. Like all good stories, this one was later embellished, claiming Eleanor sucked poison from the wound, thereby saving Edward’s life. It is this bedside scene that is portrayed in Deare’s work.
And finally, the relief has had such a long association with Wimpole. It was bought and installed here, removed, lost, and eventually returned.
This repatriation of lost objects is a major part of my work as House & Collections Manager, working with the support of my Curator, Wendy Monkhouse. Once we’d got the plaster back, we knew it was in such a poor condition that it couldn’t be displayed. So, we made the decision to send the work to Cliveden Conservation, a specialist company that repaired and conserved the piece for us.
It’s been away from the Hall for three years, so it was such a pleasure to see it return this year. We have hung it in John Soane’s staircase, using a type of bracket we researched with the help of the Soane Museum. The colour that washes down through the staircase from the skylight, shows up beautifully the remarkable work not just of Deare, but also of Cliveden in their painstaking conservation treatment.
If you haven’t seen it yet then don’t just take my word for it, I thoroughly recommend a trip to Wimpole to take a look for yourself. If you see me in the house, then please do come and say hello and find out if I’ve moved on to a new favourite object yet!