Three colossal feet confront the visitor at the beginning of this exhibition, and the startling difference in their condition highlights the changing attitudes to antique sculpture. The best preserved (and largest) was given to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton in 1784, but the other two were part of the famous 17th-century Arundel Collection. Lord Arundel died in exile and his house in the Strand was plundered and dismantled during and after the Commonwealth. Although some of the sculptures, like the smallest of the three feet, found their way into the Pomfret collection at Easton Neston, Northamptonshire, others literally became part of the rubble of the demolished house. The poignantly battered third example suffered
this fate and was not rediscovered until 1976.
Marble Mania is about collecting and displaying sculpture rather than about sculpture itself — an ambitious subject when the space available is the front room and entrance passage of a London terraced house. It consists mainly of designs and engravings, but every object has had to earn its place and one of the pleasures of the show is the many links between various exhibits. The variety of settings favoured by collectors — rock rooms, columbariums, exedras, halls, atriums, casinos, grottos and rotundas, often recalling ancient buildings — is spectacular. One of the earliest is the hall at HoWham in Norfolk, where William Kent first proposed an ancient temple complete with a colossal votive statue of Jupiter as the focal point. (In the event Jupiter was not required and his torso now languishes somewhat incongrously in the game larder.) Hadrian's villa provided a popular source of inspiration: Bonomi's design for a sculpture rotunda at Tovvneley, Lancashire, appears to have been based on the Scenic Triclinium, while at Chiswick Roman emperors, said to originate from the villa, were placed in an exedra of topiary.
Not all went according to plan, especially as genuine antiquities became more difficult to find. At Syon the Long Gallery was intended to represent a columbarium (nothing to do with doves, rather a sepulchral vault lined with funerary urns) for which Lord Northumberland sent a detailed shopping list, complete with measurements, to William Hamilton in Naples. This must have proved impossible even for Hamilton, since two years later replicas were installed in place of genuine antiquities.
A surprising amount of small-scale sculpture is squeezed in, with the Arundel sculptures particularly well represented. A charming Eros nestles into the fireplace, while a head that was found in the 18th century on Lambeth Embankment demonstrates the 'very ill usage' that it suffered. Most interesting is the statue of Hercules (who was coincidentally reunited with his 17th-century head earlier this year) and the Nemean lion. A drawing shows it in the hall at Easton Neston in the early 18th century, and some 40 years later it pops up again perched precariously on the edge of a ruined building in an allegorical view from the Oxford Almanack. From Charles Townley's collection comes a torso of Venus (clearly appreciated as much for its feminine qualities as its sculptural skill), and a Roman pedestal which is used to demonstrate Townley's dislike of Piranesi's made-up 'pastiecios' which he regarded as fakes.
The exhibition is also revealing about relationships between patron and sculptor. Particularly touching is the 6th Duke of Devonshire's friendship with Canova. On the latter's death the Duke purchased many of the fragments the sculptor had used as models in his studio, and also commissioned copies of the two great lions he had created for Clement XIII's tomb. A new gallery was designed in homage: the sculptor's bust faced the Duke's across the room, and there was also a glass case containing some of Canova's tools, together with a cast of his hand.
The Soane Museum has a well deserved reputation for small, thoughtful exhibitions which are a welcome antidote to the overcrowded marathons that major exhibitions can become. But in this case pressure of space has brought casualties, Much of the sculpture, particularly Hercules and objects from Canova's studio, is difficult to appreciate; and surely Thomas Coke's role has been underestimated? From the age of 15 he was acquiring antique sculpture of the highest quality, including an Artemis, recognised as one of the most famous statues in Rome (for which he was rumoured to have paid £1,500), and a Marsyas that Townley described as 'incomparably the finest male figure that has ever come into this country'. The best of Coke's astonishing collection remains exactly as he intended it to be seen in the sculpture gallery at Holkharn. Together with the dramatic display of the hall, it shows him to be both the greatest early 18th-century collector and a master of displays which are imaginative and sensitive.
Although the museum's own displays provide a natural extension to this exhibition, I found myself wanting more. This is a lovely exhibition, full of information and insight, unexpected links and eccentric snippets, clearly the result of much thought and research. Enough is supposed to be as good as a feast. But we all know that isn't true and, although it is in no way the fault of the curator or the museum, we have been denied the feast. Why are so few institutions willing to make space available for exhibitions of this sort?