Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen and ink
  • 17 ¼ × 11 ⅛ inches · 438 × 282 mm
  • Inscribed on the verso:
    ‘That no doubt of the authenticity or accuracy of these measurements may be hereafter entertained I now certify that they were with the most scrupulous attention taken by me on the real statue of the Venus de Medici at Florence in June 1770. Joseph Nollekens’ 
  • £8,000

Collections

  • Nollekens sale, Evans, 5 December 1823; 
  • The Fine Art Society, London;
  • W A Brandt (1902-1978) acquired from the above on 26th July 1967 [£25];
  • By descent to 2024

Exhibitions

  • Ickworth, Neo-Classical Art, 18th May to 20th July 1969, cat.no.5.

These two sheets are part of an important group of measured drawings of celebrated antiquities made by Joseph Nollekens in Florence in 1770. Nollekens spent a decade working in Italy, returning to London to establish himself as one of the preeminent neo-classical sculptors of his generation. Made on the eve of his departure for London, Nollekens’s measured drawings offered an authoritative ‘on the spot’ account of the most celebrated antiquities available for inspection in Italy. The Venus de’ Medici had been known since the sixteenth century when it was recorded in the collection of Villa Medici in Rome being moved to Florence in 1677. François Perrier published three plates of the sculpture in his Segmenta nobilita statuarum in 1638 and by the mid-eighteenth century it was considered one of only a handful of exemplary works of ancient sculpture. Whilst in Rome, Nollekens had spent time in the studio of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and was an experienced and talented restorer of antiquities; as with other sculptors working for the Grand Tour market, Nollekens also serviced the demand for replicas of ancient examples.

By 1770 the Venus de’Medici had become an object of fascination amongst visiting artists and tourists. It was a fascination which led to the sculpture being regularly measured by British travellers. Anna Miller wrote of her visit to the Uffizi at about the date Nollekens was in Florence, that she was shown the sculpture by the custodian of the gallery and given the measurements of the Venus printed on a piece of paper. Miller goes on to add: ‘we measured her from the roots of her hair, or top of her forehead to her heel, and found her to be exactly four feet nine inches and three quarters, English measure.’ Miller gives a raft of measurements included ‘passing the string under her arms across her breast’ suggesting it was a fairly involved operation.[1] For Nollekens, a professional sculptor, these drawings performed multiple functions. They asserted Nollekens’s a priori knowledge of the sculpture, a fact asserted by the careful statement inscribed on the verso of each of the sheets attesting to the accuracy of the measurements. This accuracy also gave these drawings a scientific purpose, evidencing the dimensions of one of the most important works of antiquity. The dimensions, in turn, provided Nollekens with the blueprint to make his own reproductions. Having spent a decade in Rome, Nollekens was acutely aware of the market for accurate replicas of the finest antiquities. In Rome Nollekens had made a marble copy of the so-called San Idelfonso Castor and Pollux for Thomas Anson.

The precise measurement of antiquities was an important component of the classicist academic theories promulgated by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In 1683 Gérard Audran published his Proportions du corps humain mesurées sur les plus belles figures de l’antiquité which provided a syllabus of design based on the precisely measured parts of celebrated antiquities, so the student could begin by copying eyes, noses and mouths eventually graduated to entire figures. It is likely that Nollekens’s drawing remained accessible in his studio to be studied and copied by other young sculptors. These two sheets were almost certainly part of a lot in Nollekens’s posthumous sale described as: ’proportions of the celebrated Statue, The Venus de Medici, drawn and measured by him, with certification on the backs of four of the drawings, as to their correctness, and signed Joseph Nollekens, 1770, 12 drawings.’ At least two from this sequence are now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The two Ashmolean sheets show the Venus from the side, with measurements of the head and arms and a sheet showing the Venus front on, the two viewpoints not covered by our drawings.[2]

References

  1. Anna Miller, Letter from Italy…in the years 1770 and 1771, London, 1778, vol.I, pp.387-8. 
  2. WA1965.71.1 and WA1965.2.