Giambologna's extraordinary gifts as a creator of animalier bronzes were given full rein in the pair of bronzes of a Lion attacking a Horse and a Lion attacking a Bull. The prototype for the former was a fragmentary marble group now in the garden of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, which Michelangelo is reputed to have described as 'meravigliosissimo' (most wonderful). The group was restored in 1594 by the Milanese sculptor, Ruggiero Bescapè, with the horse's head bowed forward in surrender. A rare variant by Giambologna shows a very similar solution, but here he imagined a far more dramatic reconstruction, in which the horse's neck is twisted back in agony, and its head is racked by pain. The Lion and Bull, which is clearly designed as its pendant, also had an antique prototype, albeit a less celebrated one. It was Giambologna's achievement to make the two even more intensely dramatic than their models, and also to make a harmonious if savage pair of them. One fascinating way in which he does so is to make the lion strikingly similar, but not quite identical, in each case.
Although no example of this pair of bronzes is signed by Giambologna, they are listed among his models in the early sources. Thus in 1611 Markus Zeh referred to 'Un gruppo d'un lione ch'ammazo un cavallo' and 'Un gruppo d'un lione ch'uccide un toro', while in 1688 Baldinucci listed 'Il Cavallo ucciso dal Leone' and 'Il toro ucciso dal Tigre' (actually a known variant of this group) (Dhanens, loc. cit.). Recently, it has been suggested by Charles Avery (loc. cit.) that while the invention of the bull group is indeed Giambologna's, he may have delegated responsibility for the horse group to Antonio Susini. Two examples of each model are signed by Antonio, but in each case the wording of the inscription is different. Both bull groups - respectively in the Museo di Palazzo Venezia in Rome, and the Louvre - are marked 'F' for 'fecit', whereas both horse groups - again in the Museo di Palazzo Venezia and in the Detroit Institute of Arts - are marked 'OPUS' (Avery and Radcliffe, loc. cit.). The intention may have been to distinguish between a bronze invented by Antonio and one merely executed by him but this is by no means proven. For while it is true that less invention was required in the case of the horse group, where only the victim's head could not be based on the antique prototype, this very feature is indisputably the most thrilling element in either bronze. It is not by chance that it so caught the imagination of Jan Baptist Weenix (1621- circa 1660) that he represented the classical group with the flailing head from the bronze in a capriccio view of Rome, sold in these Rooms on 8 July 1988, lot 6. These two bronzes, as well as the following lot, which have never previously been discussed or reproduced, come from the collection of the Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle. They were acquired by Sir Jacob de Bouverie, Bart., who succeeded his brother in 1736, and was created 1st Viscount Folkestone in 1747. In the meticulously kept record in one of the London House Books, which runs from 1723 to 1745, the entry for 2 March 1738 (1739) reads as follows: 'By paid at Beauvais. sale for 2 Groupes of Lions bronze (13:13:0', and then under 10 March 1739 (1740), 'Bought at L. Halifax. sale, the Rape by Nessus the Centaur (26:5:0'. By way of comparison, an entry for 24th March of the same year reads 'Robinson my Butler a year. wages due to morrow - (20.' In the former instance, no copy of the auction catalogue is known to survive, although a record of the prices paid for paintings reveals that the sale lasted three days and numbered 261 lots. We are no better informed about the identity of Mr. Beauvais, although there was an engraver of that name active in England at the time. The capital 'A's on the backs of both lions may represent evidence, as yet inconclusive, of some still earlier provenance.
By contrast, the Lord Halifax who owned the Nessus and Deianira is a figure of far greater substance. Born Charles Montague in 1661, he occupied the highest political office - he was First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer - but also suffered impeachment and near disgrace before his death in 1715. He was a close friend of Sir Isaac Newton, whom he met when they were fellow undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in later life a considerable admirer of the great man's niece, Catherine Barton. He was in addition a poet and a patron of writers such as Addison, Congreve, and Prior. Others were less impressed by his largesse, Pope writing in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot of him as 'Proud as Apollo on his forked hill Sat full-blown Bufo, puff'd by every quill,' while Swift remarked that his bounty extended no further than 'good words and good dinners'.
Halifax's activities as a collector remain to be explored, but his collection was a substantial one. The death of his nephew and heir in 1739 seems to have precipitated its appearance at auction, when it was described in the sale catalogue as 'THE Entire and valuable COLLECTION of Paintings Bronzes, Busts in Porphry and Marble, and other Curiosities, of the most NOBLE CHARLES Earl of HALIFAX, deceas'd'. Lot 36 on the third and final day was 'The Rape of the Centaur in Brass', immediately followed by 'Europa, Its Companion'. A bronze of the Rape of Europa by or after Giambologna is known, but not in any outstandingly fine version. The Halifax example may not have been especially impressive either, since it sold for eleven guineas, which was less than half the price paid by Sir Jacob for the Nessus.
Halifax does not appear to have travelled on the continent, but some of his collection may nevertheless have been acquired there by intermediaries. On Christmas Day 1700, the Irish portrait painter Charles Jervas (1675?-1739) wrote to Matthew Prior from Rome as follows: 'I am glad to hear that you propagate the virtuoso faith; I shall endeavour to confirm your disciples in it by disposing of their money with all possible care. I must take the more time because I can't yet guess at Mr. Montague's gusto. Some general hints as to subjects would be of service .... However, soon as I light anything for their purpose, [I] shall not fail to secure it.' Furthermore, as late as 23rd December 1713 (3rd January 1714), Halifax himself wrote to Prior in Paris: 'Sir Andrew Fountaine has much obliged me in buying some little bustos and figures for me; I beg to trouble you with the enclosed to deliver to him' (Prior Papers, loc. cit.).
Sir Jacob de Bouverie was an even more significant collector, and bought works by his contemporaries as well as by the old masters. His principal passion was for pictures, but he was also interested in sculpture, and sat for a marble portrait bust by Michael Rysbrack. Nevertheless, neither the Halifax catalogue nor Sir Jacob trouble to identify the sculptor of the Nessus, although Giambologna's name does appear elsewhere in the catalogue. Remarkable as it may seem in view of the admiration of subsequent generations, such negligence was commonplace at the time.
Like all the early bull groups, the present example does not have a carved naturalistic base of the sort found on later casts. In terms of quality, this pair is the equal of any surviving example, and is particularly exquisitely patinated in tones of rich reddish gold.
A PAIR OF BRONZE GROUPS OF A LION ATTACKING A HORSE AND A LION ATTACKING A BULL
THE PROPERTY OF THE EARL OF RADNOR
9½ and 8 1/8in. (24.2 and 20.7cm.) high (2)
Prior Papers, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquis of Bath preserved at Longleat, Wiltshire, III, Historical Manuscripts Commission, Hereford, 1908, pp. 432, 444
E. Dhanens, Jean Boulogne, Brussels, 1956, pp. 73-4
London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Giambologna, Sculptor to the Medici, C. Avery and A. Radcliffe eds., 5 October - 16 November 1978, pp. 186-189, nos. 170-173
C. Avery, Giambologna: The Complete Sculpture, Oxford, 1987, pp. 56-61, 269, pls. 63, 64, cat. nos. 139, 141
Bought at Mr. Beauvais's sale, 2 March 1738 (1739) by Sir Jacob de Bouverie and thence by descent to the present owner.