The Laocoön at Stowe

The completion of the restoration of the North Hall by Stowe House Preservation Trust was heralded over the summer of 2019 with the welcoming of the magnificent bronze statue of The Laocoön.

It is a copy of the early 19th Century version that stood in North Hall, purchased by the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos from the infamous Fonthill Abbey sale in 1823, the year after he received his Dukedom. However, it was only at Stowe for around 25 years before its disposal at the great Stowe Estate Sale of 1848.

The Illustrated London News reporting the forty-day sale at the time, rather exuberantly records the auction of the Statue:

“…the truly grand bronze, by Carbonneaux, of the celebrated group of the Laocoön, the size of the original antique, from its merits and size, attracting great competition. It is one of the finest bronzes in the kingdom. On last Monday’s sale it was put up at 150 guineas, and the biddings quickly reached to 400… after much excitement, Mr. Hume secured it at the sum of 540 guineas. It is believed to be purchased for the Duke of Hamilton.”

540 guineas is worth about £50,000 today so maybe a bargain even then!

The Duke of Hamilton himself went through an estate sale in 1919 and the statue then went to the garden of a Victorian manor in Dorset, where it was then discovered in 2016 by one of our restoration experts. After meeting the owner, we were able to arrange for his original bronze copy to be taken to the Rupert Harris Conservation studio and foundry in London to be restored, copied (for Stowe) and returned to Dorset to be displayed inside.

The bronze version was based on the original, marble statue that was believed to have stood in the Palace of Emperor Titus (39 AD – 81 AD) attributed by Pliny the Elder to the Rhodian sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus. It was re-discovered in January 1506 buried, in the grounds of a vineyard in Rome and put on public display at the Vatican, where it remains today.

The statue depicts Laocoön, a priest of Troy, with his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being crushed to death by sea serpents sent by the gods, after Laocoön attempts to expose the ruse of the Trojan horse by striking it with a spear, claiming, “I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.”

So, we have a modern bronze copy, made in England, of the Georgian bronze copy, made in France, copied from the original marble statue made for a Roman by Greek sculptors. I hope that’s clear! The Grand Tour is alive and well.

Anna McEvoy, SHPT House Custodian

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