The figures and colour were barely visible, covered in dark layers of old varnish and overpaint. When it was cleaned and restored in 2010, the resulting richness of colour and detail was a revelation.
The painting had lain out of its frame and crumpled for some time. We have not yet discovered where the painting originally hung, but it was probably intended for the ceiling of a Venetian palace.
William Bankes, who was responsible for amassing some of the most impressive artworks at Kingston Lacy, bought the painting in Venice in 1850. He lived in Italy in exile, having been discovered partaking of ‘lewd acts’ with an officer in Green Park.
His years in Italy – interspersed with the occasional covert visit to Kingston Lacy – were spent acquiring and commissioning masterpieces for his English home.
Apollo and the Muses?
The picture was recorded by Bankes’s sister as depicting Apollo and the Muses, but the recent cleaning has revealed that the subsidiary figures who surround Apollo cannot be Muses at all. In the first instance there are seven figures, not nine; and secondly two of them are male.
The subject of the painting has baffled art historians, but it seems likely that Apollo is depicted crowning a poet, who is shown holding a book. The poet’s bare chest and unbearded face suggest that he is a classical author, possibly Horace, who called upon Apollo in his Odes.
In the same text, Apollo encourages Horace to renounce worldly wealth, which explains why this figure is depicted in the painting trampling on golden caskets and coins.
The figure of Hercules, with his lion skin and club, looms top left. Hercules was often represented as a protector of eloquence in contemporary texts. The three maidens to the right are more of a conundrum.
The die (bottom right) is a typical attribute of the Three Graces, and one of them is distinctly and purposefully paler than the others. Perhaps she represents a malevolent distraction to the poet, whilst the others offer the rewards of eloquence?
The painting is now called ‘Apollo crowning a Poet and giving him a Consort’ and hangs in the dining room at Kingston Lacy, as William Bankes intended.
Come and see if you can work out the meaning of the three maidens.