Antiquities and Archaeology
Historic house in danger of losing its marbles
Outcry over English Heritage’s “disgraceful” support for potential sale of significant collection of classical sculptures
By Emily Sharpe. News, Issue 231, January 2012
Published online: 30 December 2011
sefton. Moves are afoot to allow a group of Augustinian nuns to sell 102 classical sculptures from Ince Blundell Hall, a Grade II-listed estate in the borough of Sefton, near Liverpool, in north-west England. This would result in the dispersal of the greatest collection of ancient marbles in England outside the British Museum. Many of the historic interiors and exteriors were constructed specially to display the sculptures.
The collection was assembled by Henry Blundell (1724-1810), who built two extensions to the house—the Garden Temple (around 1775) and the Pantheon (1802-10)—to display his vast collection of antiquities, filling interior and exterior niches with works bought from some of Italy’s finest residences, including the Villa d’Este and the Villa Mattei. It is these marbles that the occupants, a group of Augustinian Sisters, want to sell. The estimated value of the sculpture varies, but one expert says it could be as much as £10m.
In 1959, Blundell’s heir, Joseph Weld, donated around 500 sculptures to what is now the National Museums Liverpool. He gave the house to the Sisters, who turned it into a nursing home.
An independent dealer has been in discussions with the Sisters about selling the sculptures since last summer. When Sefton council was alerted to this, it sought advice from English Heritage about granting permission “to remove, repair and replace fixtures and fittings”.
In a letter dated August 2011 and seen by The Art Newspaper, the heritage body concluded that “the historic and evidential value of the sculptures is more significant than the contribution they make to the historic and aesthetic value of Ince Blundell”, and that the removal of the statues was justified. One reason for its conclusion was “to prevent further deterioration and because of the current threats of theft and vandalism”. English Heritage’s support was conditional upon the “attainment of the highest standards of recording and conservation and the replacement of the sculptures with replicas of the highest standard in their original positions”.
An outcry from other heritage organisations has apparently led English Heritage to impose further conditions, most notably that no artefact should be removed or sold within 12 months, to enable a conservation body to buy the marbles and leave them in situ. English Heritage declined to comment.
“We are concerned because in effect, English Heritage is providing a precedent for anyone with historical fixtures in their house to apply to have them removed and sold,” says the architectural historian John Harris. “This is one of the most disgraceful moves by English Heritage in memory and it’s been done entirely in ignorance.”
Tim Knox, the director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, asks: “What is to stop every church or country house from saying that their monuments are in danger of being vandalised and therefore, in the interests of preservation, should be removed and sold? None of us wants to be horrid to the nuns, but their objectives are not in line with running a Grade II-listed building.”
The legal ownership of the marbles remains the biggest question. According to Harris, the Blundell heirs have always believed that Weld’s donation included the entire collection, which means the sculptures could belong to the National Museums Liverpool.
Knox says that reassembling the collection “would become impossible” if the Pantheon and Garden Temple are stripped of their sculptures.
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