Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Marlborough Gems: formerly at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

The collection of about 800 engraved gems of the Fourth Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817) at Blenheim Palace was the largest and most important of the 18th-century English collections. It comprised a Renaissance collection of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua, acquired by Lord Arundel in the mid-17th century; the mid-18th-century collection of Lord Bessborough; and the Duke’s own acquisitions. The Duke had to sell his collection after financial set backs in 1875. He sold it in its entirety to David Bromilow whose daughter sold the collection piece by piece at Christie’s in 1899, when it dispersed over the world.

Sir John Boardman (President of the Society of Jewellery Historians) has located the present whereabouts of almost a quarter of the collection. In his book The Marlborough Gems: formerly at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (OUP 2009) , Boardman has put a great deal of detective work to piece together almost the complete collection. The appearance of less than one third is known from autopsy or mainly 18th-century drawings. However, the Beazley Archive in Oxford possesses impressions and electrotype copies of virtually every Marlborough gem as well as the cataloguer’s notebooks.

Not much has been written on the subject of cameo‘s and intaglio‘s before, and it is very difficult to judge if a gem is it ancient, renaissance or 18th century. For example this famous cameo representing some sort of initiation ceremony involving Cupid and Psyche can be 1st century AD or renaissance. One is not sure. It is however one of the most famous cameo’s from the collection, now in Boston.

Perhaps the Marlborough collection is also the greatest collection in the entire world, judge for yourself. You can search the Archive for the identified gems from the Marlborough collection here. And for gems that are still lost look here.

Boardman’s book shows a lot of illustrative material; from the Archive, from drawings and from autopsy, study, and photography, at least of the surviving identified pieces. Each gem is described and discussed, and, in the accompaying text, the evidence for the Mantua collecting and the sources for the later collections are explored, with emphasis on the way the collection illustrates the history of gem-collecting in England, and the English reception of classical iconography that was copied in the 18th century. The gems are presented in chapters relating to the collection from which they were acquired.

This heavy book is very important to the history of engraved gems.

The 4th Duke of Marlborough holding a cameo depicting Augustus by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
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