Many of the sculptures at Knole were collected in the 18th century by the 3rd Duke of Dorset when on the Grand Tour. It was fashionable for young aristocrats to bring back antique marbles, or to have casts made of famous statues seen in European museums.
As well as these artworks, the showrooms at Knole have magnificent sculptured decoration carved onto fireplaces, panelling and balustrades. Much of this work dates to the early 17th century.
Venus or mistress?
Although the sculpture of a voluptuous woman at the bottom of the Great Staircase is described in inventories as a ‘Naked Venus’, the reclining figure is a sensuous representation of the Italian dancer known as ‘La Baccelli’. Baccelli was widely known to be the mistress of John Frederick Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset. Perhaps understandably, the sculpture was banished in the attics when the 3rd Duke married Arabella Cope in 1790.
The four plaster sculptures in the Cartoon Gallery were probably bought by the 3rd Duke of Dorset while on the Grand Tour in 1789. In the niches are a pair of sculptures, cast in plaster from antique marble statues at the Uffizi in Florence. The Dancing Faun hold cymbals in his hands, and has a percussion instrument called a kroupezion attached to his foot. The Venus de Medici was a must-see object on the Grand Tour, and is one of the most widely copied statues of all time.
The Wrestlers was another highlight of the Grand Tour. The plaster sculpture retains its original paint finish, and has recently undergone conservation treatment, which included reattaching several fingers.
The final sculpture in this group represents Arrotino, the knife grinder. He is depicted crouching to sharpen his knife, before flaying alive the satyr Marsyas who had unsuccessfully challenged Apollo to a musical contest.
Lining the colonnade in Stone Court are a collection of antique marble busts also probably bought by the 3rd Duke of Dorset in Italy during his Grand Tour. Above them are four plaster relief panels depicting scenes from classical mythology. These panels were designed by John Flaxman at the beginning of the 19th century. Two of them have been identified as models for the decorative frieze on the exterior of Covent Garden Opera House, designed in 1808.
Sculpture in the Orangery
More sculpted panels by the eminent sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826) are displayed in the Orangery. They are a mixture of plaster casts of antique sculptures, maquettes (a sculptor’s ‘sketch’) and commissioned pieces. At the entrance to the Orangery stands Perseus, an early 19th century plaster copy of Antonio Canova’s famous marble statue. Canova was testing the limits of marble, with the left arm cantilevered over empty space while holding the heavy head of Medusa.
Gracing Green Court
The Borghese Gladiator is one of the most celebrated statues from antiquity. The original statue, now displayed at the Louvre in Paris, dates from 100 BC. There were many copies made and the statue was well-known in England, particularly after a copy was made in bronze for King Charles I in 1630. The lead cast of the Borghese Gladiator in Green Court appears to have been acquired by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset in 1697. A receipt from the sculptor, Richard Osgood for 'Statuary work' included a bill 'For the Gladiator as agreed for' and 'For a Large Stone plinth and Shield wth my Lords Armes'.
The lead figure at the other side of Green Court is also a lead cast of an antique statue, installed at Knole at the same time as the Gladiator. It is known as the Crouching Venus, or Venus Rising from the Bath, and is based on a statue dating from 3 BC.
There are some sculptures in the collection that represent former occupants of Knole. The portrait bust of Arabella Cope, Duchess of Dorset, was carved from marble in 1818 by the Irish sculptor Thomas Kirk. The choice of an Irish sculptor was probably due to the connections of Arabella’s second husband, Charles Whitworth, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1813 to 1817.
Set into the spiral stairway of the Gatehouse Tower is a sculpture of the head of Eddy Sackville-West. This is a life mask, cast in plaster from Eddy’s face by sculptor Paul Hamann in 1929.
A Shakespearian doorstop
This curious, roughly carved oak sculpture is believed to represent William Shakespeare. The figure has Elizabethan dress and holds a piece of paper, inscribed with the words ‘We shall never look on his like again’, paraphrasing Hamlet’s lament on the death of his father. The sculpture was made around 1890 and is reputed to have been used as a doorstop in Vita Sackville-West’s bedroom. Her mother encouraged a healthy flow of fresh air around the house and insisted that doors were kept open.