The Townley Venus
- The Townley Venus
Proconnesian marble statue of Venus.
- Excavated/Findspot: Ostia
- Height: 2.13 metres
Adapted from a lost Greek original of the 4th century BC. The arms were restored in the 18th century and the statue was set in another plinth, thereby changing the original pose and viewpoint.Cook 2011, nr. 224:
‘A Statue of Libera, or of Ariadne, six feet six inches high, naked to the waist, and draped below. found 1775 in the ruins of the maritime Baths, erected by Claudius at Ostia’ (TY 12/3, dining room 17).
Townley’s identification of the subject varied over the years. In the first two priced lists (TY 10/6-7), she appears as Ariadne, but in the third (TY 10/5) as Dione, and in TY 12/1 as Dione or Ariadne. In the Classified Catalogue (First Townley Inventory), she has become Libera (‘the consort of Bacchus’) and in the roughly contemporary TY 10/3, she appears as Ariadne or Libera. From about 1801, Townley settled on Ariadne (TY 12/6, 1804 Parlour Catalogue, whence Combe’s receipt, TY 18/6). Richard Payne was still undecided between Venus and Dione (Specimens of Ancient Sculpture. Selected from Different Collections in Great Britain, by the Society of Dilettanti [London, 1809-1835]), but since Combe’s 1808 edition of the Synopsis, she has been universally recognised as Venus, the name under which Hamilton first offered her to Townley.
Negotiations for the purchase lasted over a year. Hamilton first promised an unidentified ‘capital’ object in a letter of 20 January 1776 (TY 7/604). On 10 February (TY 7/605), he hinted that he could offer Townley a better Venus than the one then recently acquired by the Duke of Hamilton (A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain (Cambridge, 1882), 300, no. 1), and on 27 March, specified a large Venus, almost seven feet high, ‘in two pieces, being originally made to join at the middle where the drapery finishes’. It was still to be cleaned, but he would send a sketch and the price if Townley did not object to the height (TY 7/607). It seems likely that Townley expressed an interest, for on 12 June Hamilton wrote that the Venus could not yet be drawn, being covered up in a stable, but he hoped to make space in a secret study, then occupied by other contraband. Meanwhile, Townley could regard the statue as his. On 27 July, Hamilton sent a sketch, promising a finished drawing if required. The price could not be lower than £800 (TY 7/613). Townley hesitated over the purchase of the Venus and also of the Thalia (1805,0703.33), which was under offer at the same time. By 29 August, Hamilton had received Townley’s letter of 8 July accepting the Thalia, and Hamilton encouraged him to acquire the Venus also: he was unlikely to obtain anything better since the Pope had the pick of new finds (TY 7/615). On the following day, replying to a letter from Townley of 30 August, Hamilton suggested a round figure of £1000 for the Venus and the Thalia together. He would also consider Townley’s suggestion of shipping the two pieces of the Venus separately (TY 7/616). On 4 October, Hamilton confirmed prices of £700 for the Venus and £300 for the Thalia, a total of £1000 (TY 7/617). Townley seems to have suggested that the Venus should be sent on approval, for on 8 October Hamilton declined to do this, since the Venus had to be smuggled out and could not therefore be returned (TY 7/618). This seems to have persuaded Townley to visit Rome and to see the Venus for himself before making up his mind on such an expensive purchase. A drawing promised by Hamilton on 21 October (TY 7/619) was sent on 29 October (TY 7/620), the restorations indicated in red chalk. There is then a break in the correspondence with Hamilton until after Townley’s return. Negotiations were evidently satisfactorily concluded in Rome, and in a letter of 3 May 1777, Hamilton enclosed a Bill of Lading (TY 7/622).
Townley’s records of the price are inconsistent with the figures in Hamilton’s letters and with one another. In the addenda to the first priced list (TY 10/6), Townley wrote £700 for the Venus (and £400 for the Thalia), but in the later priced lists (TY 10/7 and TY 10/5), in 12/1, in the ‘Union Catalogue’ (fo. 21v) and in TY 10/3 (fo. 35), the figure is £600.
There is a further problem with the provenance. In Hamilton’s later account of his excavations (TY 7/638; cf. Smith’s publication of the Stowe copy in JHS 21 (1901), 316, and the list on 320), the Venus is reported to have been found at Ostia, but in TY 7/611 Hamilton remarked ‘The Venus you saw at the Pichini in a dark room, is the one in question’, apparently implying that Townley had seen the piece on his previous visit to Rome (1771-2), which was before Hamilton began his excavations at Ostia in 1774 (for the date see Smith, JHS 21 (1901), 314, note 8, and a letter of 1 May 1774 from Hamilton to Lord Shelburne, Sale Cat. Christie, 5 March 1930, 90, no. XX). Perhaps someone else had seen the Venus at the Pichini, and Hamilton, misremembering the occasion, supposed that it was Townley. Otherwise, I am unable to resolve this discrepancy.
cf. Aphrodite of Arles (Furtwängler); Hellenistic following of Praxiteles (Bulle); ‘Praxitelean’ (Bieber, JdI); perhaps from late period of Praxiteles (G. Lippold, Die griechische Plastik. Handbuch der Archäologie III.1 (Munich, 1950), after Furtwängler); ‘eine eklektische Schöpfung’ (Lullies); variation on Venus of Arles (2nd ½ of IV BC, Robertson); Restoration attributed to Albaccini (G. Vaughan, ‘Albacini and his English Patrons’, Journal of the History of Collections 3/2 (1991), 183-197, 190, fig. 8, caption); stored by Albacini awaiting export (G. Vaughan, ‘Albacini and his English Patrons’, Journal of the History of Collections 3/2 (1991), 183-197, 188, quoting Bodley AddMs D 71, fo. 225-6).
* Townley drawings 2010,5006.62 and 63; 2010,5006.75; 2010,5006.97; and 2010,5006.107;
* Zoffany: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 36-37, figs. 19-20, no. 26;
* Nollekens: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 45, figs. 26-27, no. 14;
* Chambers: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 42-43, figs. 24-25, no. 19.
- Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum (1808), II.8;
- Ancient Marbles of the British Museum I, pl. 8;
- A Guide to the Graeco-Roman Sculptures in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2 vols. (London, 1874  and 1876), I, no. 136;
- A. H. Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, Vol. III (London 1904), 28-9, no. 1574;
- A. Furtwängler, Meisterwerke griechischer Plastik (Leipzig, 1893),549-50, fig. 103. Edited by E. Sellars as Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture (London, 1895), 320-1, fig. 137;
- H. Bulle, Der schöne Mensch in Altertum (Munich, 19122), 344-5, pl.160;
- Bieber, JdI 38/39 (1923/24), 257-8;
- G. G. Lippold, Die griechische Plastik. Handbuch der Archäologie III.1 (Munich, 1950), Die griechische Plastik. Handbuch der Archäologie III.1 (Munich, 1950), 242;
- R. Lullies, Die Kauernde Aphrodite (Munich, 1954), 67 (not ill.);
- Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, II, 65 s.v. Aphrodite no. 546* (bibl., history of attributions);
- B. F. Cook, The Townley Marbles (London, 1985), 23-4, fig. 22;
- L. Todisco, Scultura greca del iv secolo (Milan, 1993), 71, fig. 117;
- G. Vaughan, ‘Albacini and his English Patrons’, Journal of the History of Collections 3/2 (1991), 183-197, 190, fig. 8.
On display: G23
2007, 19 Mar-18 Jun, Paris, Musee du Louvre, Praxitèle
Greek & Roman Antiquities
If you’ve noticed a mistake or have any further information about this object, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Object reference number: GAA8773
British Museum collection data is also available in the W3C open data standard, RDF, allowing it to join and relate to a growing body of linked data published by organisations around the world.
The Museum makes its collection database available to be used by scholars around the world. Donations will help support curatorial, documentation and digitisation projects.