Marlborough gem

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Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (ca. 1773), jasperware by Wedgwood based on the 1st-century Marlborough gem, which most likely was intended to depict an initiation rite (Brooklyn Museum)

The "Marlborough gem" is a carved onyx cameo that depicts an initiation ceremony of Psyche and Eros.[1] It is the most famous engraved gem in the extensive and prominent collection both inherited (through a marriage in 1762) and expanded by George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough.[2] It is conserved in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is called Cameo with the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, or an initiation rite,[3] reflecting the view of its subject generally held until the last century.

In the carving, Cupid and Psyche are depicted as veiled putti accompanied by other infants, one of whom holds over their heads a winnowing-fan filled with pomegranates, emblems of bios and fertility. Signed Tryphon,[4] it was probably made in the 1st century CE, though its date has been questioned and a case made for a 16th-century origin.[5] The Gem was given by Peter Paul Rubens, who declared that he loved gems beyond all other relics of antiquity,[6] to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, in the 17th century. Another famous gem from the Marlborough Collection that is also sometimes known just as the "Marlborough Gem" is a head of Antinous.[7]

The artist's signature is minutely incised into the black background of the stone, just above the central figures in the frieze-like procession. Various 18th-century sources reported that Louis XIV of France had been prepared to offer the equivalent of £4000 in the previous century.[8] An early 16th-century drawing of the subject by the architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio was seen among the papers of Rascas de Bagarris recorded by Jacob Spon.[9] The gem was carefully drawn by Theodorus Netscher and engraved by Bernard Picart for Philipp von Stosch's Gemmae antiquae caelatae (1724)[10] which placed its magnified image in the hands of all Europe's antiquarians and rendered it part of the visual repertory of milordi on the Grand Tour, who knew it from its illustration added to the 1728 French edition of the Jonathan Richardsons' (Senior and Junior) Account..., published in French as Traité de la Peinture et de la Sculpture... Amsterdam, 1728;[11] in the 18th century the English could be counted on to pay top prices for outstanding carved hardstones of assured antiquity.

Once in the Marlborough collection, the gem was often redrawn: Giovanni Battista Cipriani painted a version of the gem,[12] Francesco Bartolozzi engraved it, James Tassie cast it in opaque coloured glass paste,[13] and for Josiah Wedgwood, first William Hackwood reproduced a low relief from Tassie's cast, and then John Flaxman modeled it at a larger scale;[14] both versions were executed in Wedgwood & Bentley's white-on-blue jasperware that imitated cameos; the 'Marlborough Gem' first appeared in Wedgwood's 1779 catalogue. The Wedgwood plaque, available in several sizes, appears mounted on Parisian and London furniture, and a marble relief of the scene is set in the chimneypiece of the red drawing room at the original home of the Marlborough gems.[15] It became so familiar that the caricaturist James Gillray engraved a parody of it in 1797, lampooning the long-delayed marriage of Lord Derby to the actress Elizabeth Farren, who is travestied as a tall, lanky veiled figure, who is offered a countess's coronet instead of the winnowing fan of pomegranates, with the plump cherubic Lord Derby at her side. By 1870 the Marlborough collection cataloguer observed, "the design has been reproduced in all sorts and materials of art, perhaps oftener than any other similar subject."

The 7th Duke of Marlborough sold the gem, catalogued as "The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche", together with the other Marlborough Gems, at Christie Manson & Wood, London, in 1875. The collection, sold in a single lot that brought £35,000, went to David Bromilow of Bitteswell Hall, Leicestershire, who maintained the collection intact; when his daughter subsequently sold the Marlborough gem with the rest of the Bromilow Marlborough hardstones by Christie's, 26–29 July 1899, the cameo was sold for £2000.[16] Now the collection is very widely dispersed, with large numbers in American museums. Pictures of impressions, electrotypes and many originals are now published on-line by the Beazley Archive.[17]


  1. ^ Traditionally identified as a marriage ceremony: "160. The renowned cameo representing the hymeneal procession of Eros and Psyche" as it was catalogued in Nevil Story-Maskelyne, The Marlborough gems, being a collection of works in cameo and intaglio... (1870), which reports Heinrich Brunn's opinion that the cameo, despite its unsurpassed technique, is not antique, in part based on the frieze-like composition that does not fill the field.
  2. ^ See Boardman Lecture, and this account of the collection
  3. ^ Boston MFA
  4. ^ No other engraved gem signed by Tryphon is known to exist, according to M.L. Vollenweider, Die Steinschneidekunst und ihre kunstler in spätrepublikanischer und augusteischer Zeit, 1966, pl. 28. no. 1, noted in Diana Scarisbrick, "Henry Walters and the Marlborough Gems", The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 39 (1981:49-58) p. 428.
  5. ^ John Boardman, "The Marlborough Gems", 2008
  6. ^ Noted in Scarisbrick 1981:49 note 7.
  7. ^ "Generally regarded as one of the finest portrait gems from antiquity," according to John Boardman (Boardman lecture) the Marlborough Antinous carved from a black stone was bought by Marlborough as the outstanding piece from the prime collection of Antonio Maria Zanetti, Rome; it had been broken, and restored in a gold mount; it is conserved in a private collection in Monaco.
  8. ^ Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: the lure of classical sculpture, 1500-1900 1981:49, note 51 (the gem's subject given the traditional title the 'Wedding of Cupid and Psyche').
  9. ^ Spon, Recherches curieuses d'antiquités, (Lyon, 1683:87), noted in Oleg Neverov, "Gems in the Collection of Rubens", The Burlington Magazine 121 No. 916 (July 1979:424-432) p. 428 and note 48; Rubens sent a cast of the Tryphon gem among casts of his others to Claude Peiresc.
  10. ^ Stosch, Gemmae antiquae caelatae, Amsterdam, 1724, pp 94-97; pl. lxx illustrated in Haskell and Penny 1981, fig. 27.
  11. ^ Richardson 1728, vol. iii. part i, p. 6
  12. ^ Sherwin's engraving after Cipriani, from Jacob Bryant, A New System, or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (London, 1775), was illustrated by Jean H. Hagstrum, "Eros and Psyche: Some Versions of Romantic Love and Delicacy", Critical Inquiry 3.3 (Spring 1977:521-542) fig. 1.
  13. ^ Tassie, Catalogue... pl. xlii.
  14. ^ Images from Liverpool, Lady Charlotte Schreiber, The Schreiber collection. Catalogue of English porcelain, earthenware, enamels... (Victoria & Albert Museum), cat. no. 1279 "Pair of oval plaques" with Flaxman's "Sacrifice to Hymen" forming the pendant.
  15. ^ A chimneypiece at the Marlborough seat, Blenheim Palace , in Woodstock is carved with a representation of the design. J.Boardman with D. Scarisbrick, C. Wagner and E. Zwierlein-Diehl The Marlborough Gems (Oxford University Press 2009), p.34
  16. ^ For the latest publication on the subject see now J.Boardman with D.Scarisbrick, C.Wagner and E.Zwierlein-Diehl The Marlborough Gems (OUP 2009), no.1; "Marlborough gems sold, The New York Times, 30 June 1899
  17. ^ Beazley Archive: Marlborough

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