Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation United Kingdom

Historic house in danger of losing its marbles

Outcry over English Heritage’s “disgraceful” support for potential sale of significant collection of classical sculptures

The sculptures in the Pantheon at Ince Blundell Hall (left) and the 18th-century Garden Temple, built to house Henry Blundell’s antiquities

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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Comments

5 Jan 12
17:10 CET

LAURA SOMMER, LONDON

Very disappointing.

4 Jan 12
16:1 CET

GLENYS DAVIES, EDINBURGH

My catalogue of about 10% of the items in the Ince Blundell collection (the ash chests and some other Roman funerary reliefs), published in 2007, included 8 ash chests and lids which are still embedded in the interior walls of the Garden Temple. In researching this material I spent some time at the Hall, and I can quite understand the nuns' quandary. Keeping these sculptures in their present location is not just a constant worry for them - it is not necessarily the best thing for the sculptures, especially those in the fabric of the exterior of the buildings. My concern is not so much that they should stay where they are (after all, the majority are now in store in Liverpool), but that the collection should stay together. The collection is virtually intact (I know of only a few pieces which have been lost): as such it is a valuable example of such late 18th- century collections. If they are sold, I hope that they will not lose their Ince identity, and will not be too widely dispersed.

3 Jan 12
15:21 CET

GARETH WYN-JONES, SOUTHPORT

I hope the collection can be kept intact. Our three daughters were dedicate to our lady in your Chapel by Father Coyne over 50 yrs ago

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