Lansdowne House – dining with a nude

Lansdowne House Dining Room pre-demolition

“I wish you would not go in there.”

“Whyever not?” Diana asked.  “I’ve heard all about Lansdowne House’s new acquisition and would like to have a look.”

Louisa, Lady Lansdowne, was mortified.  Her husband’s new Canova sculpture was the talk of London.  “Ever since that dreadful Payne Knight was here for dinner everyone wants to look at it.”

“Good heavens,” Diana exclaimed.  “You had that man over for dinner?  The one who wrote A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus?”

“The very one.  But I am persuaded he is exaggerating.”  Louisa felt herself flush under Diana’s amused glance.  “She is not at all what they say she is.”

“Then there can be no objection to having a look.  Just to be sure.”

Reluctantly, Louisa followed the countess into the famous Adam dining room.  Grim grey statues in their wall-bound niches stared down in disapproval at the female nude who reclined, in all white marble, on her couch.

Louisa grew alarmed at Diana’s prolonged inspection.  “This is all so very distressing.  Do tell me she is not an, er, hermaphrodite?”

Diana folded her arms.  “That fellow Knight may have to reexamine his theory of pagan culture.  Your naiad is missing a most important piece if she’s to be what he says she is.”

Louisa nearly sagged against the sculpture’s buttocks in relief.  Then she caught a gleam of mischief in Diana’s glance.

“Stay–did you say a naiad?  Is that bad?”

Diana shrugged.  “Oh, most decidedly.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Lansdowne Dining Room

The dining room at Lansdowne House was executed under the brilliant design of the great Scottish architect Robert Adam.  His neoclassical creation was located in a part of the house that was demolished to make way for a street and additional buildings today known as Fitzmaurice Place.  This mutilation deprived the house of its historic design.  A design that gave the great London mansion “movement.”

The dining room was a part of the south wing–to the left of the old photograph in last week’s post.

Word got round in 1930 that the sculptures and other contents of Lansdowne House were to be put up for sale.  This was to be followed by demolition of the two wings.  Fisk Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was very interested in the house’s role as the venue for the negotiations of a Nation’s independence.  He tipped off the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of the pending destruction and the institution was emboldened to Act.

The dining room was dismantled and shipped over the Atlantic to its new home where it can be seen today, sans the Canova.  From the Met’s website, we have this marvelous description:

…the design of the ceiling…was carried out in plaster by Joseph Rose. The carving for the wooden doors and door frames, shutters and window frames, columns, baseboard, and chair rail, executed by John Gilbert, was finished in December 1768. The marble chimneypiece was supplied by John Devall & Co., chief masons for the royal palaces, the Tower of London, and the Royal Mews. The oak floor of the room is original. The niches originally held nine ancient marble statues acquired by Lord Shelburne in Italy from the artist Gavin Hamilton, which were dispersed at the Lansdowne sale of 1930. Now, the niches have been filled with plaster casts.  The original furniture, designed by Robert Adam and executed by John Linnell, no longer survives.

Thanks to this reconstruction, we can note several prominent features that would not be out of place in any Regency gathering.  Celadon green is the term for a particular jade coloring that is an enduring part of neoclassical design.  The fireplace is white marble, matching the large frame above it which often stood empty back in its London home.  The Lansdowne family had a vast collection of paintings, but no one individual work was large enough to fill the space Adam designed for it.

Sleeping Nymph - Antonio Canova

What of the reclining nude?  She is now in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  Lord Lansdowne commissioned her in 1820 from the great Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova.  An earlier post describes his work, but in the case of the reclining naiad, the sculptor had died before her completion and his assistants were relied upon to finish it.

Canova is thought to have been greatly influenced by a famous “marble” unearthed in Italy and presented to the Cardinal Borghese in the seventeenth century.   Known as the Borghese Hermaphroditus, the discovery electrified Western Europe.

Many copies were made of this reclining figure who lay on his (her?) stomach, not quite concealing the object of such amazement.


14 thoughts on “Lansdowne House – dining with a nude

  1. Fascinating! So the Canova is really a hermaphrodite? How fortunate that the Met was able to acquire and reconstruct the dining room. It’s fabulous.


    • Actually, the Canova was inspired by the Borghese Hermaphroditus, a famous statue unearthed in the seventeenth century and installed at Cardinal Borghese’s villa in Rome. The Hermaphroditus is thought to be a Roman copy of a much older Greek statue. In any event, Canova executed several reclining nymphs–all of which can be traced in inspiration to the Borghese. The Hermaphroditus resides in the Louvre.

      Thanks for commenting, Vivian!


  2. Another fabulous post. While visiting family in Virginia over the holidays, we toured Montpelier, James Madison’s home. They’re in the process of converting it back to the way it was when he lived there. They moved an entire room dating from the Dupont’s ownership in order to convert it back to Madison’s time. I’m always fascinated by the history of these historic homes.


    • Montpelier deserves to be restored to its original design. Thank goodness they removed that hideous stucco. This mansion is proof of Palladio’s strong influence on American, as well as European architecture. Thank you for commenting!


  3. Your blog sent me to my Greek mythology book. Hermaphorditus was named for his parents: Hermes and Aphrodite. He was a beautiful boy transformed to an androgynous being. He is portrayed in art as a female with male genitals…..the symbol of the sacred union of men and women.
    Being an older Regency woman, I can understand Louisa’s distress.
    Great post!


    • Oh! Did you rely upon Edith Hamilton’s excellent work on the subject? She’s quite an old favorite of mine.

      Poor Louisa. Diana’s teasing didn’t help either.

      Thank you for stopping by…


  4. Angelyn thank you, I am a HDR researcher, doing my thesis on Hermaphrodites and their 18th century collectors in Britain, your blog is really great, I love history as well, so it is great to see a fellow lover of ancient history, and this topic is fascinating.


    • You are very welcome, Lucile. I had to look up what an HDR researcher is. Now that I know–I’m jealous! But getting back to the topic at hand–Regency England would not be such a magnificent canvas for authors like Jane Austen if it wasn’t for the previous century’s pursuit of classical antiquity. Thanks for commenting-and for your generous compliment.


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