Roman emperors make triumphant return to Wimpole Hall after 60 year absence

They were the most powerful men of their day – some known for their strong leadership and military adventures, some for their cruelty and wild debauchery. Now, after an absence of more than sixty years, four 17th Century Italian busts of Roman emperors have returned to Wimpole Hall.

National Trust curator, Wendy Monkhouse, talked to us about the significance of their return…

Wimpole NT Caesars 2014 (20)

All photos: Catherine Hayburn

As of Saturday 10 May, visitors will be able to see the four magnificent Caesars back on display in Wimpole’s grand entrance hall. The spectacular marble busts will be on show in a room they last graced in the time of Elsie Bambridge, Wimpole’s last private owner, who sold them. The four returning busts will re-join a fifth bust of a young Marcus Aurelius already at Wimpole.

The first two busts, those of Caracalla and a ‘Philosopher’ emperor, have been accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and permanently allocated to the National Trust through the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme, which is managed by the Arts Council. A generous grant from the Art Fund has enabled the National Trust to part fund the purchase of the second two marble busts of Trajan and another, as yet unidentified emperor.

Wimpole NT Caesars 2014 (16)

It is wonderful to repatriate the four 17th century Italian marble busts of Caesars to Wimpole, where they will be reunited with that of Marcus Aurelius. Their redisplay in the Entrance Hall will transform its character, and help visitors to enjoy some of Wimpole’s original 18th century grandeur and glamour. We can trace the provenance of the busts with Wimpole’s collection to at least the 1770s but they may have been among the great collector Edward Harley’s possessions, who loved Roman coins and antiquities as well as enlarging his famous library.

Stone conservators Cliveden Conservation have been preparing the busts for display, the busts will be placed in their final position, secured to elaborate carved wooden plinths dating from about 1860. The plinths were custom made by the Cambridge firm of masons and joiners, Rattee and Kett. They have been used to display other items in the collection, but will now be returned to their original purpose.

Wimpole NT Caesars 2014 (7)

Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England said:

“The Arts Council is thrilled that the AIL scheme has helped to return two of the 17th century Italian busts to their former home at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. It is fitting that they have been returned to the same place where they stood together so many years ago, and are now available for the general public to see. This is the third time that an offer in lieu has been allocated to Wimpole Hall, and the Arts Council is proud that the scheme continues to benefit cultural institutions such as the National Trust, and more importantly, the visiting public.”

In 1983-84 an ivory bust of Lords Somers by David Le Marchand was accepted and in 2002-03 a pair of George I walnut and seaweed-marquetry side chairs was also allocated.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund said:

“These important busts were once an integral part of the decorative scheme at Wimpole Hall, and we are so pleased to be supporting their return.  The public will gain real insight to the importance of the classical past for Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the quality of the busts makes them highly desirable acquisitions in their own right.”

Marble busts of Roman emperors were popular with the owners of wealthy, grand houses because of their powerful evocation of classical history. No doubt they also found great intrigue in the characters whose personalities lived on within the stone.

The emperor Trajan (ruled 98 – 117 AD) is considered one of Rome’s ‘good’ emperors, credited with expanding the Roman Empire to its widest reach and leaving Hadrian as his heir. It was the start of Rome’s golden age, which lasted until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD.

Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161 – 180 AD) is best known for his philosophical work Meditations, in which he largely addresses himself on how to live life as a good man. The influence of the scholarly years of his youth can be seen in the book, which was written when he was much older, as he was when famously portrayed by Richard Harris in the film Gladiator. The bust at Wimpole shows him as a young scholar.

While certainly not the worst emperor to grace history, Caracalla (ruled 211 – 217 AD) is mostly remembered for his cruelty and violence. His bust was very popular in eighteenth century England, perhaps because he came to power while in York and perhaps because the carving captured so well the nature of a brooding, angry countenance. Given the nickname Caracalla after the type of hooded cloak he wore, he is perhaps best known for the bitter murder of his younger brother Geta, who was co-emperor with him at the start of his reign, and wiping out all trace of his sibling’s memory from statues and monuments. It was not Caracalla’s first attempt at murder, having tried and failed to see off his father Septimius Severus towards the end of his reign. Caracalla came to an unfortunate end, possibly the most humiliating of any emperor – killed by his own imperial bodyguard, run through with a sword from behind while squatting at the side of the road, relieving his upset tummy.

The identity of the remaining two busts is still unclear, with different identities having been ascribed to them over the centuries, and this is the subject of ongoing research by the National Trust. Do look out for them on your next visit.

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