John Henning’s miniature casts of the Parthenon frieze

Casts of the Parthenon frieze

In 1811 the Scottish sculptor John Henning (1771-1851) saw the Parthenon sculptures for the first time and was so struck by them that he immediately applied to Lord Elgin for permission to draw and model from them. Henning carved slate moulds of the Parthenon frieze in order to produce plaster casts two inches high, and a total of 24 feet and four inches long. He also carved moulds of the Phigalian or Bassae frieze, which the British Museum had acquired in 1814. This project was to take him 12 years to complete. 

In his advertisement of 1820, Henning stated that his aim was to reproduce the frieze as faithfully as possible and to restore the fragmentary areas, giving them the same character.  In order to do this he consulted reproductions of the drawings by Jacques Carrey who had recorded the Parthenon sculptures in 1674 before the extensive damage caused by the explosion in 1687. Although he found them lacking in detail, these drawings proved invaluable to Henning and enabled him to establish the order of the procession depicted in the frieze. Other potential sources that Henning may have used for his restorations include the drawings by Feodor Ivanowitsch who had been on the Athenian Acropolis, employed by Lord Elgin to make on the spot records. The British Museum had acquired these drawings along with Elgin's collection in 1816.  Further sources include volume II of the Antiquities of Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett which reproduced drawings made of the sculptures in 1765 by William Pars.

Henning sold his casts in handsome mahogany cabinets, each containing nine drawers, or framed in decorative woods such as the splendid set in Morocco and root of oak bought by George IV for £42 in 1821. John Henning, along with his eldest son (John Junior), also worked on the Screen at Hyde Park Gate in 1827 producing a carved frieze of horsemen loosely based on the Parthenon frieze. A year later they began work on the newly built Athenaeum Club at Waterloo Place.

The Club had been founded in 1824 for 'Literary and Scientific men and followers of the Fine Arts’. The building, designed by Decimus Burton (1800-1881), was part of the new civic architecture in Greek style by which London was embellished after the Battle of Waterloo.  In a letter to Decimus Burton, dated 28 July 1828, Henning Junior confirmed that he would execute in Bath stone a continuous frieze about 260 feet in length, to extend round three sides of the building.  Although it is the same height (three feet, three inches), the Athenaeum frieze, incorporating scenes from the north, south and east sides of the Parthenon frieze, is about half the length of the 524 feet long original. Henning chose to show a cavalcade on the flanks of the building, while the principle east facade carries a selection of the figures from the pedestrian procession of the north, south and east sides of the Parthenon. These finally converge on the seated gods and, in the very centre, the scene of the handling of the sacred robe or peplos for Athena. 

This work marked the high point in John Henning's career. Unfortunately, his casts of the Parthenon frieze proved so popular that pirated copies were soon being sold throughout Europe.  In 1835 a French firm boasted of selling 6,000 copies of Henning's casts.  This not only ruined Henning financially but also caused him additional distress, because many of them were inferior in quality. 

Henning tried to find other ways to increase his income from the results of his lengthy labour by working with the engraver Mr Freebairn in 1845, to produce a series of engravings of the Parthenon and Bassae friezes. However, only trial proofs were made before Freebairn's sudden death put an end to the project. Henning’s original slate moulds of the Parthenon and Bassae friezes were donated to the British Museum in 1938, some of which, along with their plaster casts, are on display in the Enlightenment Gallery and in Gallery 49. The Museum also has a complete framed set.

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