Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Venus Victrix

It’s 1990 and I’m bored with my life, something is missing from it and for the life of me I cannot think what that crucial ‘something’ might be. We’re walking our dogs along the old track ways of Hainault Forest and wondering just how ancient they really were when my then partner, Rebecca, suggests I get a metal detector and find out… Three weeks later, I take delivery of a C-Scope 770d and my life is complete!

Early 1900's, publisher, Birn Bros of London, copyright lapsed
The forest was magical with its ancient pollard hornbeams, and was once the home of a famous hermit locally known as 'Old Dido' who lived under a tarpaulin but who left no trace behind for me to find. The woodland tracks proved to be Georgian at the earliest and though I made a few nice discoveries of coins and objects lost by canoodling Victorian lovers, I was soon finished with them.

I then had an amazing run of beginners luck on one small parcel of pasture digging what remain to this day some of the best finds I’ve ever made including a Bronze Age hoard, a gold noble and a Medieval gilt-bronze figure of St John the Evangelist. The gold coin was my first ‘hammered.’ That’s how jammy I was. But, all good things come to an end and it wasn’t long before I was short on finds and hungry for a new site.

One day out and about looking for pastures new I stumbled across a little cache of tiny child-sized thimbles in the grassy verge of a lakeside track. Investigating further I found a few buttons too, and then musket balls as well. Those finds proved to be the start of a passionate exploration of what turned out to be the most fascinating site — the long demolished remains of an early 19th Century gamekeeper’s cottage that existed for less than a century.

Copyright Jeff Hatt
Every find was a personal one. The husband’s military buttons of which I found three from the same tunic were of the Essex Light Dragoons and proved him an officer because they were of Sheffield plate and made in London by Samuel Fermin in the 1790’s. The wife’s cheaper costume jewelry was found too, but I’m willing to bet it was the children who lost them as discarded playthings!

Copyright Jeff Hatt
One day I’ll publish the complete inventory from the site but for now I’m going to present the ‘star find,’ the object that most captures the spirit and directly expresses the zeitgeist of those long forgotten times. It’s rude, salacious, and controversial. It’s also French. And that’s quite something considering the husband’s military life as a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, but, one way or the other it came into their possession and was lost for me to find.

Copyright Jeff Hatt
For a long time I hadn’t a clue what it might be and even though the base had been drilled and tapped for a screw thread I really thought it might be Roman, so classical is the pose. Museum experts were stumped too, but decades later I learned the truth of the matter…

Pauline Bonaparte was the ‘first sovereign Duchess of Guastalla, an imperial French Princess and the Princess consort of Sulmona and Rossano.’ She was also the younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, the most famous Frenchman in history besides Vercingetorix.  She was quite a girl, a great beauty and used to getting her own way.

She was married off by her brother against her love for another to General Charles Leclerc. They embarked for Saint-Domingue to quell rebellion there. Yellow fever eventually claimed the life of her husband but in the meantime Pauline found the time to take ‘numerous lovers, including several of her husband's soldiers, and (was) developing a reputation for "Bacchanalian promiscuity." In her second marriage to Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona she had a sexual adventure with the virtuoso violinist, Paganini…

Unawares, or fully cognisant of his wife’s promiscuity, in any case Camillo commissioned her portrait made in 1805, and in Rome by Antonio Canova, the greatest sculptor and most acclaimed artist of their times — and what a portrait it was! Semi-nude and she reclined upon a couch in fashionable Empire Style the result is a marble of beauty but at the same time also a thing of intrigue and gossip the news of which crossed nation states and by the evidence of this find which seems to be a tiny bronze copy of it, the English Channel too.

Judged against the moral climate of the times a copy of Canova's 'Venus Victrix' would have been pornographic material. England at that time was in the throes of religious division and fundamentalist return to strict social codes of conduct where even the word 'leg' was deemed improper. Contrary to our ideas about the Victorians though, erotica was popular and even Victoria herself made and collected drawings of the male nude, but such a wanton display of a woman in her prime showing off almost every of her charms would have been seen as nothing short of disgusting to many a cold-blooded prude.

Our red-blooded soldier and father of the family clearly thought otherwise! This must have been his possession, surely, and perhaps a private one never seen by anybody else for that matter, at least not the children or guests, but perhaps from time to time and whenever the occasion demanded, his wife...

Was it acquired during military service in France at the Battle of Waterloo? After crushing Napoleon did he take home a model of his half-naked little sister posed as Venus the Conqueror as a trophy of his own victory? Ah, detecting throws up so many unanswerable but delectable questions doesn't it?

And still, there remains a doubt. There's no exact Roman model for Canova's pose though one would certainly have been sought because artists always base their ideas on something already in existence. You'll notice there's a small but significant difference between the bronze and the marble. Pauline wears a simple band around her forehead whereas the bronze figure wears a full-blown Trajanic diadem...

After all is said and done, this may not be a copy after all — it may be the original thing.