Lansdowne House – Rape and Death in a Ballroom

“Do you mean to tell me you’ve another interesting display?”

Louisa cringed.  “Oh, I wish you would not tease me, Diana.  You cannot know how dreadful it is to have a husband who brings home everything that is dug up.  Why is it that the Romans had to conquer so many places and scatter their things about?  I vow they did this just to distract wives in decent society hundreds of years later.”

The offending art was located in the ballroom at Lansdowne House.

Louisa gestured to large fragment of Roman sculpture mounted on the wall, watching Diana’s reaction with trepidation.

“It’s called the Rape of Persephone.  And from a coffin, no less.  Lansdowne would have it mounted there, just in time for our first ball of the Season.  I declare he has done so for no other reason than to vex me.  And you know there will be any number of debutantes and their mamas in attendance.  They shall all think it terribly ill-bred, being forced to gaze upon the image of a young girl being carried off to suffer any number of indignities.”

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Louisa.”

“Really?  You amaze me.”

Diana turned to face her.  “It’s a metaphor for untimely death.  Not at all improper, I assure you.  The sarcophagus probably belonged to someone who died very young.  Snatched away by Death in the prime of her life.”

Louisa swallowed, just then remembering Northam’s tragedy.  “Diana, please forgive me.  I had no notion, otherwise I shouldn’t have–”

“Do not be distressed, Louisa.  My parents have been dead for so long that I can scarce remember them.”

Yet Louisa could not miss the strange glitter in Diana’s eyes.

She took Diana’s arm.  “Uh–come away, dear and see my latest watercolor.  I am persuaded you will enjoy il Signor Rossi’s technique.”

The ballroom at Lansdowne House is still extant, but without the decoration that made it famous.  The panel known as the Rape of Persephone was one of several Lansdowne marbles that were arranged in this room–originally intended to be a sculpture gallery.  In the 1930 photo, you can see them set in the wall.

And you thought only Elgin had them.

Originally the ballroom  was meant to be a music room by Lord Bute, the first owner of Lansdowne House.  The Earl of Shelburne, later Lord Lansdowne, had visited Italy after purchasing the house and was possibly inspired by the excursion to have a gallery for his sculpture.  He commissioned the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton to convert the music room to a suitable space.  Hamilton lived most of his life in Rome and was considered a gifted neoclassical history painter, favoring Greek and Roman subjects.  He was also an art dealer and excavator of antiquities.  How convenient.

Eventually, however, the plans for the sculpture gallery were dropped and by the time of my story Notorious Match, the room assumed its present and final function.

The ballroom can still be seen today at the Lansdowne House Club (see below) which has a marvelous gallery of its own you can peruse here.

9 thoughts on “Lansdowne House – Rape and Death in a Ballroom

  1. I absolutely loved this post! I’ve been to the great houses, but as they stand now, and I sometimes forget how strange it must have been to be seventeen and right out of the school room, surrounded by all those rippling and aggressive greek gods.

    And I love how you point out Hamilton’s slightly nefarious role as one who designed rooms to his best profit.

    You’re book sounds marvelous.


  2. Oh, yes–they are lovely, aren’t they? And so often misunderstood. Even today the Rape of Persephone is mistaken for a Roman celebration of violence to women. And by people who ought to know better.


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