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Thu 14 Jan 2021
Conserving Hidden Treasures
Philippa Wood // Curator
Even with the Hall's doors closed, life is busy behind the scenes at Burton Constable! One exciting development will see a hidden treasure displayed to the public for the first time.

Burton Constable aims to display as many of its treasures as possible. Even amid closure due to Covid-19, we're working to make the hall and its contents as accessible as possible ready for the public's return,.

Through the current lockdown, those staff still able to work on-site are working to conserve the historic interiors. Now, excitingly, we are also beginning the restoration of a 18th Century treasure never previously displayed to the public, as the Chained Captive begins its journey to Lincoln Conservation.

With the aid of a grant from the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme this hidden treasure will join the displays our visitors enjoy, taking its place in the Staircase Hall once more.

Discovering the History of a Hidden Artwork

One of the most exciting things about working as the curator of a historic country house is the simple fact that one can never fully know the history of every single object in your care - and the hope that one day you may discover a lost treasure hidden in some forgotten nook that no-one has seen for centuries.

The sculpture sent for conservation this week of a slave in chains (a subject which does, I must confess, rather discomfort all working on the project) is not, I fear, a lost treasure I've unearthed from nowhere. However, it has been sitting sadly in the rather unglamorous section of the old servants quarters that today forms a never-seen store room.

The history of this piece is still something of as mystery; while it is believed to be one of four bronzed plaster sculptures purchased from by William Constable in 1760, this has never been absolutely confirmed.

Its similarity to other sculptures from this purchase signed ‘John Cheere fecit’ has led to it being tentatively identified as being by Cheere also. An 1841 account of the hall by writer George Poulson following his visit to Burton Constable describes the work as being on display in the Staircase Hall alongside Cheere’s very similar works.

However, recent study has identified the figure as being copied from one of the figures from the monument of Four Moors by Pietro Tacca. Further research into catalogues of Cheere's work reveal that he never recorded creating a statue of this title or description. Truly a mystery!

Pietro Tacca and the Quattro Mori

Pietro Tacca (16 September 1577 – 26 October 1640) was an Italian sculptor who began studying under sculptor Giambologna in 1592 and took over his teacher's workshop in 1608. Just as his teacher had been court sculptor to the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Tacca soon took on the role.

In 1622 Tacca was commission by Cosimo II of the Medici family to create sculptures for the base of the Monument of Ferdinand I de' Medici in Livorno. This monument was commissioned  to commemorate Cosimo's father's victories over the Ottoman Empire2 which ruled modern day Turkey and vast swathes of the Mediterranean - or, according to other sources, to celebrate victory against barbary pirates3.  Given the cause of the commission, it is perhaps unsurprising (if distasteful to us today) that the sculptures created took the form of the Monumento dei Quattro Mori , or the Monument of the Four Moors. Of these four figures, three represent people of the southern Mediterranean coast while the fourth has more features more common to people from the north African coast.

The sculpture, despite its controversial subject in today's eyes, was hugely successful and very influential following its installation in 1626. In the years following its construction numerous other monuments were built following a similar design, and the presence of miniature sculptures based on Tacca's works in numerous museum collections around the world indicates that there was a market for tourist souvenirs of the piece in the 17th and 18th centuries.

While the work is undoubtedly controversial, and will pose some serious questions for curatorial interpretation here at Burton Constable, there are some students of fine art who find Tacca's handling of the subject to be remarkably sympathetic. While sculptural images of bound captives at the foot of a victor appear throughout antiquity, Tacca's portraitlike depiction lead some to see the work as a way to "address contemporary social conditions"4 in Livorno, Tuscany's most important port at the time when the slave trade was growing rapidly in this area.  Indeed, at the time when the work was commissioned the Italian coast's largest slave prison was being built in the city, meaning that Tacca would have been all too aware of the human suffering he was depicting.

 

Restoring our Sculpture

Having discovered where this sculpture was housed during the Victorian period it became a priority for Burton Constable to have the piece restored so that it could be enjoyed by our visitors present and future, in its old home in the Staircase Hall. This conservation work will form part of an ongoing project to interpret the 19th century refurbishment of Burton Constable Hall by the Clifford Constables.

Making the piece ready for display is, however, something of a challenge. At some point in its history it has seen significant damage; one arm and the lower part of one leg are missing entirely, while several further fragments have detached but remain with the piece. Tentative enquiries were made of Lincoln Conservation, who quoted for two different options

  1. to conserve those parts of the statue that remained and consolidate the piece to protect it from further deterioration, or
  2. to conserve the piece as above and re-model the missing parts to restore the sculpture to its former appearance.

The Burton Constable Foundation typically only conserves items rather than restores them, believing that damage is often crucial in telling the story of our collections. In this instance it was decided that a full restoration would better suit the needs of this object.

As we are a charitable foundation and are suffering like so many from the financial implications of forced closures due to the current pandemic, funding these crucial conservation projects is not always as easy as we would like. We are therefore immensely grateful to the Pilgrim Trust and the Association of Independent Museums for allowing us to push ahead with this project to restore and redisplay such a fascinating and complex hidden treasure.

References & Bibliography

1. Bonhams. (2019). A Doccia Group of a Shackled Slave, Circa 1770-1800. Available online at https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25311/lot/126/

2. Sir John Soane's Museum Collection Online. (nd).Figure of a chained captive after one of Pietro Tacca's figures on the monument to Ferdinand de' Medici in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy. Available online at http://collections.soane.org/object-m214

3. Mark Rosen(2015)Pietro Tacca's Quattro Mori and the Conditions of Slavery in Early Seicento Tuscany,The Art Bulletin,97:1,34-57

 

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Did you know?
Over 80 different species of birds have been spotted at Burton Constable, from the smallest British bird, the Goldcrest, to large birds of prey such as Buzzards and Barn Owls

The Burton Constable Whale is featured in Herman Melville's famous novel Moby Dick. 

Today the Burton Constable Whale is nicknamed 'Constable Moby'

Afternoon tea was created by the Duchess of Bedford in the late 18th century. She invited friends to join her for an afternoon meal of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, sweets and, of course, tea. The practice was so popular that it was quickly adopted by other social hostesses