Following a dramatic race against time to secure the painting, Angelica Kauffman’s Penelope and Euriclea has returned to Stourhead, cared for by the National Trust, 140 years after it was first sold at auction.
Henry Hoare II ‘the Magnificent’ (1705–1785), the creator of Stourhead’s landscape garden, was an enthusiastic art collector and greatly admired the work of Kauffman - a leading female artist working in a male-dominated sphere who became a prominent figure in the art and cultural worlds.
In this fine oil painting Kauffman depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey: faithful servant Euriclea wakes Penelope, bringing news that Penelope’s husband Odysseus has finally returned from fighting in the Trojan War and a perilous ten-year journey home.
In April 1773, Henry Hoare II purchased Penelope and Euriclea and displayed the painting in the Skylight Room, a picture gallery containing some of his finest and favourite works. Henry’s grandson, Sir Richard Colt Hoare was also a collector and his catalogue of pictures records Penelope hanging in the Dining Room in 1822, suggesting that it was still regarded as an important work of art.
A century later, debts and falling income forced Sir Henry Ainslie Hoare to auction off many valuable items from the Stourhead collection. On 2 June 1883, Penelope and Euriclea sold for the modest sum of 7 guineas. After the 1883 sale, Penelope and Euriclea went into private collections and largely disappeared from public view, re-emerging briefly at auction in 1992.
Earlier this year, on 12 May 2023, Stephen Ponder, National Trust Cultural Heritage Curator, heard that the painting was to be auctioned in New York, on 24 May - in just 12 days’ time. Stephen recognised this as ‘a rare opportunity to acquire the painting for public benefit and return it for display and interpretation to visitors in its historic home at Stourhead.’
Stephen said ‘With so little time available, I hardly dared hope that we might be able to find the funding and make a successful bid to bring the painting back to Stourhead.’
At Stourhead a key priority is retrieving objects lost in the 1880s sales to share them with visitors. All financial options were explored, and thanks to the generous support of a National Trust fund (set up by the late Simon Sainsbury) and a member of the Hoare family, the conservation charity was able to secure the painting. Almost exactly 140 years after the original auction, one of the lost treasures has returned to Stourhead.
Stephen went on to say ‘Seeing this beautiful painting for the first time was a very exciting moment, one of the highlights of my career. The attempt to acquire it for visitors to enjoy was a tremendous team effort, and I am absolutely delighted that we succeeded.’
Emily MacCormack, Senior Collections and House Manager at Stourhead added ‘The 1883 sale was a momentous moment in the history of Stourhead with many beautiful and significant paintings being sold to save the estate. It has been thrilling to see this painting, so loved by Henry the Magnificent, creator of the world-renowned landscape garden, return to Stourhead. It’s even more thrilling to be sharing it with visitors to the house for the first time in 140 years.’
Following preliminary conservation work to the frame and canvas by paintings conservator, April Johnson, to prepare the painting for display, it is on view in the Picture Gallery now, and has been since Monday 2 October. Kauffman’s work will be on display until Sunday 5 November.
The picture will then feature in a wider exploration of Kauffman’s work in 2024.