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  • GBR
  • 2015-07-08
About the object
With pedestal foot, ovoid body with rounded shoulder, flaring mouth, and twin inward-turned handles emerging from ivy leaf-shaped terminals.
The provenance of this vase could hardly be more distinguished. Originally made for Nero’s Domus Transitoria on the Palatine Hill in Rome it was excavated in the 1730’s and some time shortly after acquired by Frederick Ponsonby, later 2nd Earl of Bessborough. On his death it was sold by his son and bought by Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle and has descended at Castle Howard ever since. Thus in modern times the vase has only appeared once at sale and has been part, over the past two hundred and fifty years of only two celebrated collections.  The 1801 auction catalogue of the Bessborough collection lists the present lot as a “singularly fine Aegyptian Vase, found in Augustus’s Bath.” The place of discovery most likely refers to a large and magnificently decorated subterranean chamber excavated in 1721 on the Palatine Hill and dubbed “Bagni di Augusto” or alternatively “Bagni di Livia” by the scholars who discovered it on behalf of the Duke of Parma. The names remained for most of the 18th and 19th century, although the structure itself, of which little is still extant, soon came to be recognized as part of the Domus Transitoria, the Palace of Nero, which was destroyed by fire in A.D. 64.
Augustus’s “Bath” turned out to be a misnomer as well. As early as the 19th century scholars identified it as a nymphaeum, an elaborate fountain structure with attached indoor garden. This large and highly elaborate architectural ensemble meant to combine the effects of running water and still, reflecting water with dazzling coloured marble and mosaic decoration, porphyry columns, and white marble statues. A large two-handled granite vase from Egypt, probably originally fitted with a lid, would have suited this context perfectly.
The sheer scale of the room comes across in an annotated floorplan executed shortly after its discovery (see R. Lanciani, “Il 'Palazzo Maggiore' nei secoli XVI-XVIII,” Mitteilungen des deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, 1894, p. 23) and its lavish wall decoration and architecture in the exquisite hand-coloured engravings of Elisha Kirkall (British Museum, inv. nos. 1874,0808.2159-2160). For the most recent and comprehensive scholarly assessment of this structure and a study of the complex hydraulics involved in its water displays see H. Manderscheid, “Was nach den 'ruchlosen Räubereien' übrigblieb – zu Gestalt und Funktion der sogenannten Bagni di Livia in der Domus Transitoria,” in A. Hoffmann and U. Wulf, eds., Die Kaiserpaläste auf dem Palatin in Rom, Mainz, 2004, pp.75-85.
The first modern owner was the aristocratic traveller, collector, builder and politician William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough (1702-1793). He grew up at the family seat Bessborough, Co. Kilkenny in Ireland which in due course he and his father would rebuild as a large classical mansion to the designs of Francis Bindon, between 1744-1755.Young Ponsonby entered the Irish parliament in 1725 and from 1727 he was MP for his native Kilkenny, a position he held for the next 30 years. It was not until 1736 that he embarked on his Grand Tour, considerably older and more mature than most who made the journey. This may well have been a reflection of the fact that he had just been elected to the Society of Dilletantes. He travelled to Rome by way of Florence where he encountered both classical art in its original setting as well as two people who have a continuing influence on his taste: the fellow British traveller John Montegu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard. After nearly two years travelling in Italy Ponsonby joined Sandwich and Liotard on the then unusual voyage to explore the eastern part of the classical world. In April 1738 they sailed from Naples and having explored some of the Italian islands went on to Greece. Here they visited Athens and the islands of Mylo, Zephros, Antiperos, Paros and Chios. They voyaged on to Constantinople and then the western coast of the Turkish mainland of Smyrna. Whilst in the area Ponsonby acquired antiquities and in the Ottoman capital he and Sandwich were painted by Liotard in oriental costume. He returned to England in 1739 fired up with a desire to form a distinguished collection of antiquities.
In that year he married Lady Caroline Cavendish whose father the 3rd Duke of Devonshire was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In the same year Ponsonby’s father was made Earl of Bessborough and he Viscount Duncannon. The new Viscount became Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty which may have influenced his decision to buy Ingress Abbey on the south bank of the Thames. His world though abruptly changed in the late 1750’s with the death of his father and then that of his wife. As a consequence he came into the family estates, sold Ingress and decided to build a new house with the purpose of displaying his growing collection of antiquities. As a site he chose the top of Roehampton Hill and for architect Sir William Chambers. Parkstead, the large classical villa that ensued, was to be a latter day Chiswick. Here he arranged his collection and as an anonymous poet wrote
“Here Genius, Taste, and Science stand confest
And fill the minds of each transposed Guest...
Where e’r we turn; where’er we look around
We seem to breathe and tread on Classic Ground…
Ask ye, from whence these various Treasures come
These scenes of wonder? Need I Bessborough name?”
Now in his sixties Bessborough had retired from public life but would live at Roehampton for another thirty years as a distinguished collector and trustee of the British Museum. Here he also brought up his children: his son Frederick who would succeed him, who married Lady Henrietta Spencer, sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and his two daughters who in turn would become the Duchess of St Albans and Countess Fitzwilliam.
It is clear from surviving correspondence that from 1763 onwards Bessborough began to collect in earnest once again employing as his agents the famous Roman dealer Thomas Jenkins (1722-1798), and in Paris Lord Clanbrassill (1730-1798). The latter seems to be principally concerned with a gem collection which would later form part of the celebrated Marlborough gems. It is possible to identify some elements in his collection with those cited in correspondence. For instance Jenkins supplied “the top of an ancient sarcophagus with bas reliefs of figures but for the main the task is made impossible as the Bessborough – Jenkins correspondence between 1763 and 1769 appears not to have survived. It was in the latter year that Jenkins visited Parkstead and followed it up with a letter suggesting more purchases including a marble of Diana and Apollo which Lord Bessborough acquired. Interestingly in his letter of reply he made the point that “ You know I have not room for many things. It ( Parkstead ) as you know pretty full so what I want most are such things as I can put out in the garden”. Fortunately this gives a slight clue as to when this vase may have been purchased for it is known that by 1801 it was standing in the main hall of the house which implies a potential purchase prior to 1769.
The reason it is known where things stood by 1801 was that the catalogue of the collection prepared then was unusually laid out in the order of where objects were displayed in the house. It commences with the gardens and the two temples before entering the basement area of the house  where terracotta vases and cinerary urns were displayed in what Bessborough called his catacombs. This seems to have been a well lit vaulted, stuccoed passage fitted with niches to imitate an ancient columbarium, an interesting prototype for Soane’s display at his house in Lincoln Inn Fields (see Jonathon Scott ,The Pleasures of Antiquity: British Collectors of Greece and Rome, New Haven, 2003, p. 140). The sequence of display then moves to the main hall on the piano nobile. It was here that Bessborough displayed his greatest treasures including the items he had purchased on his Grand Tour: “Greek Head of a Faun found in Athens”, “Group of a Lion devouring a horse found in the neighbourhood of Smyrna”, “ Statue of Ganymede dug up in the Campo Martial in 1769”, and amongst others “An Aegyptian Granite Vase found in Augustus’s Bath”. It is therefore very likely that the vase was either purchased by Bessborough whilst in Rome or later in the 1760’s from Jenkins.
Following Bessborough’s death in 1793 his son was forced to sell the collection and it was brought to auction by Christie’s in 1801. Their catalogue underlined the importance of the collection: Catalogue of the Capital, Well Known, and Truly Valuable Collection of Antique Statues, Bustos, Aegyptian and other vases, Bas- Reliefs etc…. The Property of a Noble Earl, deceased (Not less distinguished for his exquisite Taste and Judgement in the Fine Arts as his Liberality in Collecting). This Valuable assemblage, a great part of which was formed during his travels and residence in Italy.”
Amongst those who attended the sale was the architect /collector Sir John Soane, the antiquarians Charles Townley, Thomas Hope and Henry Blundell, and fellow nobility including Bessborough’s son in law The Duke of St Albans, Lord Egremont, and the 5th Earl of Carlisle.
Carlisle acquired five objects in all but none nearly as expensive as the present vase for which he paid 110 guineas. In the manuscript inventory of the antiquities of Castle Howard entitled Bronzes, statuary & table tops. 5th Earl of Carlisle (Castle Howard Archive H2/2/2) the present vase is listed as no. 1 indicating how important its new owner considered it to be. Surprisingly since then the vase seemed to escape the attention of scholars and has not been fully published. Even in Borg, Von Hesberg, and Linfert, op. cit., p. 19 it is merely mentioned in passing in the introduction. This is unexpected given both the historical importance and sheer beauty of this powerfully worked monumental vase.

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* Note that the price doesn’t correlate with today’s value, but only relates to the actual end price at the time of the purchase.