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15 January 2021

Restoring a Hidden Treasure

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.   

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 alas a lost treasure 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 a mystery; while it is believed to be one of four bronzed plaster sculptures purchased by William Constable in 1760, this has never been absolutely confirmed. The sculpture’s similarity to others from this time signed ‘John Cheere fecit’ has led to it being tentatively identified as being by Cheere also – though as catalogues of Cheere's work reveal that he never recorded creating a statue of this title or description, it is truly a mystery!   

However, recent study has identified the figure as being copied from one of the figures from the monument of Four Moors by Pietro Tacca. These sculptures sat at the base of the Monument of Ferdinand I de' Medici in Livorno, a family monument by the wealthy and mercurial Medici family whose Court employed the artist. As the monument commemorated their victories over the Ottoman Empire (or pirates, depending on your source), it is perhaps unsurprising that the sculptures created took the rather disturbing form of the Monumento dei Quattro Mori , or the Monument of the Four Moors.  

Though controversial by modern standards, Tacca’s monument was a huge success; others soon copied its design, and smaller works like ours appeared on the shopping lists of wealthy tourists.  It seems likely that William Constable purchased our sculpture during his Grand Tour in the 1760s, and when writer George Poulson visited Burton Constable in the 1840s it was described as being proudly on display in the Staircase Hall.   

Having discovered something of the sculpture’s history, it became a priority for conservation; something of a challenge, as its poor condition meant some pieces were missing entirely! 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. However, 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. 


For more information on the history of this sculpture see our blog post!

Contact Details:

Philippa Wood - Curator

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