WMF Britain welcomed a milestone event in April 2013: the return of the Stowe lions. These magnificent creatures, sculpted in lead with extraordinary detail, have now been reinstated to the plinths they knew in the eighteenth century, ninety years after they were sold in Stowe’s 1921 sale.
It is clear that they were based on the ‘Medici Lions’ commissioned by Ferdinando I de’Medici, and originally set in the Loggia dei Leoni at the Villa Medici, Rome. The basis was an antique Roman marble relief. This was worked up as a full figure looking to its right, by Giovanni di Scherano Fancelli in c.1598, and accompanied by a mirror-image version by contemporary sculptor Flaminio Vacca (1538-1605).
That original pair remained in Rome until 1789, before being moved to Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, where they can still be seen today. The two sculptures were hugely influential in eighteenth-century Europe.
The date of purchase of lead versions of the sculptures by Stowe House’s owner Richard Temple-Grenville is unknown; indeed the attribution of these tooled casts to John Cheere (1709-87) was only made when conservator Rupert Harris found evidence of surface tooling characteristic of Cheere’s workshop.
John Cheere was a prodigious sculptor in lead, supplying the figures that adorn Queluz Palace Gardens, Lisbon– they were themselves a previous project of World Monuments Fund. The Stowe Lions may date from slightly later, as they were placed on limestone plinths cut for the steps to the South Front portico of Stowe, completed in the early 1770s to the amended designs of Robert Adam. They were originally painted golden yellow to match the limestone.
When Stowe House and its grounds were parcelled up for auction in 1921, and its applied arts were sold off, the lions began their journey to Stanley Park, Blackpool, where they arrived in 1926. They were accompanied by other figures from Stowe such as shepherds and shepherdesses, several of which were stolen by metal thieves in August 2011. Having been sawn off at the ankles, these were probably melted down for scrap value. The lions were subsequently deemed to be at severe risk.
WMF Britain and Stowe House entered into negotiations with Blackpool Council to safeguard the lions by repatriating them to Stowe on a long lease, in return for providing replacement casts for Blackpool which will be reinforced to prevent their theft from new stone plinths.
The conservation work began in summer 2012. Dismantling at Blackpool revealed that the lions’ iron fixing pins into the stone plinths were in poor condition and had rusted away, about to snap. This could easily have led to a lethal collapse, and would also have facilitated their theft, so the exchange was particularly timely.
Once in Rupert Harris’ studio, it was clear that the lions had suffered from graffiti scratches, and the more serious effects of wear and compression from children sitting on their backs. This had deformed the internal iron framework. Rupert replaced the frames in stainless steel, and sections of the sculptures were removed and re-welded to allow this. The surface was re-tooled with an authentic finish. Casts were made, and replicas produced for Blackpool – with substantial stainless steel pins through the ankles.
WMF Britain received donations of over £325,000 for the repatriation and conservation of the Stowe lions. The generous support of the Paul Mellon Estate, The Linbury Trust and many other kind donors has helped to secure the future of these important works of art. In April 2013, the lions were craned into position and fixed to the original Northamptonshire stone plinths.
Since settling back in, the lions have reclaimed their place as the majestic guardians of Stowe House.
Keeping watch at the South Portico, they are poised to welcome the 150,000 annual visitors who approach the mansion from the National Trust’s New Inn entrance.