Great sculpture in our collections
With more than 6,000 sculptures in over 200 collections, sculpture in the National Trust covers thousands of years of making, by artists across the world, in an array of different media.
Each collection tells the particular story of a person or family, reflecting their tastes, ideas, achievements and relationships.
Made of luminous Thasian marble, this sculpture was purchased at great expense by Robert Clive (1725–74), the infamous East India Company official who secured British rule in India at untold human cost. Clive was vastly enriched by his colonial position, amassing a huge personal fortune in cash and the spoils of war.
For his wife Margaret, who was very fond of cats, Clive purchased this extremely rare sculpture, sold to him as a genuine Roman antiquity. It shows a wild cat struggling with a snake, hissing at an invisible intruder that threatens to rob it of its prey. For an excavated object, the exceptional condition of the sculpture – and the rarity of cats in Greek and Roman art – has led some scholars to believe that the cat is an 18th century pastiche, and others a true antiquity, albeit with modern restorations.
Buying it was no easy feat. In a letter from Rome dated February 1774, Clive wrote to Margaret: ‘You may imagine that I attempted to purchase it, I certainly did, and can assure you was very Lavish in my Offers for your sake, but alas I fear this delightful Cat is out of reach of Money’. Persistence paid off, however, and Clive’s cat now prowls the Long Gallery at Powis Castle.
From the Nile Delta to Kingston Lacy
This striking basanite bust may depict Cleopatra’s lover Mark Antony (83-30 BC). It was discovered at Canopus, modern-day Alexandria, in around 1780, and was produced by Greek sculptors working in Egypt around the late 1st century BC. The bust was acquired by George Baldwin (1744–1826), a British consul, who thought it actually depicted Antony’s great adversary Octavian (63 BC–AD 14).
Baldwin’s collection was sold at Christie’s in 1828 and the bust was bought by William John Bankes (1786-1855) for Kingston Lacy. Bankes had travelled extensively in Egypt in 1815 and 1818–9, carrying out important excavations and deciphering hieroglyphics. He brought back to Kingston Lacy a colossal obelisk from Philae, which is installed on the south lawn, as well as mummies, amulets, scarabs and tomb fragments. Today the bust is displayed in the Egypt Room near a large greywacke statue of Rameses II.
A secret survival of the Reformation
During the 14th to early 16th centuries, alabaster carvings from Nottingham were exported in huge quanitities across Europe, some being sent as far afield as Iceland. During the Reformation (c.1527-90), carvings that remained in England were largely destroyed, making this alabaster panel a rare survival.
The Reformation was a period of great danger for the Throckmortons of Coughton Court in Warwickshire, the Catholic family who owned this Nativity panel. It is now kept in the Tribune of Coughton, a room full of relics which the Throckmortons kept hidden until Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
Elizabethan power and loyalty
One of the Trust's most magnificent pieces of figurative plasterwork is the frieze in the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Illustrating the forest and the hunt, it celebrates Elizabeth I (1533-1603), figured as the virgin goddess Diana, and her government of the nation.
Nearby, additional mythological scenes are modelled in high relief, including Venus chastising Cupid and Summer. This impressive wall-to-wall scheme was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608) to compliment and demonstrate loyalty to the queen.
An ill-fated monarch’s gilt bust
This glittering gilt-bronze bust of Charles I 1(1600-49) belonged to the king himself. It was cast before the Civil War by Hubert Le Sueur. Charles is depicted at the height of his absolutism in the guise of an emperor, with his helmet bearing a dragon and his breastplate a lion.
The bust was displayed at Whitehall Palace from 1638 but was sold a year after the king's excution for £12 (around £1,242 in today’s money). By the 1730s Henry Hoare II (1705-85) had acquired it for Stourhead in Wiltshire, where it can be seen today.
Grinling Gibbons' earliest work
In January 1671, the diarist John Evelyn recorded stumbling across a ‘poore solitary thatched house’ in which he found a 19-year-old Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) carving a crucifixion scene into a panel of limewood.
This is that panel, spectaculalry carved from a single piece of limewood. It is based on Agostino Carracci's engraving of a painting by Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice and is the first authenticated work by Gibbons, the master woodcarver who went on to carve for various monarchs, from Charles II to George I.
It was acquired by Henry Booth, the 1st Earl of Warrington (1652-1694) for Dunham Massey in Cheshire where it can be seen above the fireplace in the library.
Sculpture fit for a Sun King
Few rulers have commemorated themselves with as much pomp as Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’ of France. From the 1660s he began to self-fashion as the all-encompassing Olympian god Apollo, deity of many things including the sun and light, law and order, music and poetry, plague and healing, truth and prophecy. Louis chose the sun as his personal emblem, appeared in the guise of Apollo at ballets and was depicted as the deity in court paintings, sculpture and monuments.
This statue by the court sculptor Jean Raon (1630-1707) shows Apollo having slain the serpentine monster Python. Now at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, it was originally mounted in the vast landscaped gardens of Versailles, where Apollo is elsewhere glorified in the Latona and Apollo Fountains and Grotte de Thétys.
The plaster model was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1699, along with a model of Vigilance. Together, the sculptures are thought to signify Louis XIV’s victory over the foreign enemies and Protestant heretics who threatened his rule.
The triumph of good over evil
The North Gallery at Petworth, West Sussex was purpose-built for the 2nd Earl of Egremont’s remarkable collection of antique statuary. It was later expanded into a veritable academy of art by his son, George, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. The 3rd Earl of Egremont is known for harnessing talents like JMW Turner, but he was equally committed to modern British sculpture. Perhaps the most striking of all of the 3rd Earl’s commissions is John Flaxman’s remarkable St Michael overcoming Satan.
This life-size group took nine years to complete and was Flaxman's last great work. Apart from the spear, it was carved from a single block of marble. The square bay in Petworth's North Gallery was designed to display this work, which is where it can be seen today.
A sculpture gallery in the garden
Although statuary features in many of our gardens, a select few were transformed by their owners into outdoor sculpture galleries. Masterpieces of antique, baroque and 19th-century sculpture, for example, are revealed just by walking the grounds of Cliveden in Berkshire, where the placement of each piece was carefully planned by William Waldorf Astor, who purchased the estate in 1896, and later by his son and daughter-in-law Waldorf and Nancy Astor.
Cliveden already had a sculpture collection thanks to former residents, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. To this, William Waldorf added antiquities and sculptures that he commissioned and collected. Highlights include a pair of ancient Egyptian granite baboons, a suite of Roman sarcophagi, a balustrade from the Villa Borghese, and the flamboyant Fountain of Love by Thomas Waldo Story (1897).
Nature as sculptor
We tend to think of sculpture as something that is cast or carved by an artist, hewn from rock or moulded. Nature, however, is the sculptor of this work, its form the natural result of erosion.
The so-called Maloja stones were found in a mountain stream by the surrealist artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) when he was in Maloja, Switzerland, with the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. The two men noticed how the stream stones had been ‘wonderfully worn down by time, ice and weather’ and that in their natural state they were ‘beautiful enough’. Ernst carved shallow reliefs into some of them, but most he simply painted, like this egg-shaped example.
The architect Ernö Goldfinger purchased this Maloja Stone from Ernst, who was his close friend, in 1939. Eight more can be seen at 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger’s self-designed modernist home, in Hampstead, North London.
A modernist's interpretation of Orkney
Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire is known for its exceptional collection of modern and abstract art, brought together by the diplomat Sir George Labouchere (1905-99). There are sculptures by Anthony Twentyman, Hans Arp, Kenneth Armitage, and Henry Moore as well as this small-scale, glossy bronze by Barbara Hepworth (1903-75).
Two ovoid forms, polished to a high sheen, balance on a wooden platform: one is solid with the exception of a concave hollow, the other is pierced with a circular hole. Like figures in a landscape or Neolithic standing stones, they relate to each other.
Two Forms (Orkney) emerged out of Hepworth’s friendship with Margaret Gardiner, the political activist and early proponent of British modernism who, in 1979, established the Pier Art Centre in Stromness, Orkney. Gardiner spent long periods of time on the Scottish archipelago, and although Hepworth never visited her there, the islands’ evocative landscapes became the inspiration and namesake for this, one of nine bronze casts after an original slate and wood sculpture acquired in 2015 for the Pier Art Centre.
Legacies of empire
Asian sculptures appear in several National Trust properties, the majority acquired within the context of empire. Some objects were seized, others were acquired as political gifts, others still purchased as souvenirs of colonial travel.
A set of bronze Hindu devotional sculptures, for example, was procured along with hundreds of other precious objects from India, East Asia and Southeast Asia by Robert Clive and his son Edward (1754-1839), a Governor of Madras. The figures are displayed in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle, a collection which reveals both the power of colonial appropriation and the extraordinary richness of artistic traditions around the world.
The collection amassed decades later by George Curzon (1859-1925), Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, is displayed in the Eastern Museum of Kedleston Hall. Curzon’s administration was brutally efficient but divisive – he partitioned Bengal, pitting Hindus against Muslims – and, as a scholarly, well-travelled man, claimed to possess knowledge of the people, places and cultures he governed.
Perhaps it is for this reason that his collection is so varied, his sculptural acquisitions including Buddhist figures, delicate Indian ivory carvings, miniature Japanese netsuke, Chinese shrines and bronze censers.