The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Thorvaldsen’s Works at Hams Hall Rediscovered

  • Kira Kofoed,, 2016
  • This paper was delivered at the conference “Thorvaldsen & Great Britain,” held on January 19-20, 2016, at the Accademia di Danimarca & British School at Rome, by research fellow Kira Kofoed of Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

Old news, new discoveries

This paper is about a large sculptural interior decoration by Thorvaldsen that was situated at Hams Hall, a now-demolished manor house in Warwickshire, near Birmingham. It is an example—or a case study, if you like—of how important and fruitful it can be to publish and study original sources with new eyes, as we intend to do in our ongoing internet publication project, The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives.

Until now, the complete large-scale commission for Hams Hall has not been mentioned at all in Thorvaldsen research. The few known notes regarding some of the artworks commissioned for Hams Hall are riddled with numerous errors—this despite the fact that a biography dating back to 1909, Life of Lord Norton, makes mention of a commissioned terracotta version of the Alexander Frieze, cf. A508: a remarkable detail that is entirely unique, as all other contemporary accounts refer exclusively to commissions of the frieze in plaster or marble.

The main purpose of this paper is thus to reintroduce and re-insert the complete Hams Hall commission into Thorvaldsen-research.

An old letter

It was an undated letter to Thorvaldsen from an unidentified sender that started my whole investigation into the Hams Hall commission. This letter is one of the letters from Thorvaldsen’s private papers that the sculptor’s first biographer, the Danish writer, Just Mathias Thiele, collected in Thorvaldsen’s home in Rome after his death in March 1844. Since then, the letter has become part of the physical archives of Thorvaldsen’s correspondence at Thorvaldsens Museum, which make up the core of The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives on the internet.

The letter in question is written in Italian, though clearly by a non-Italian, as both the sender’s name (F. Alleyne McGeachy) and the letter’s language suggest. It is clear that the writer had become friends with Thorvaldsen during a prior stay in Rome with his wife, as the tone of the letter is very warm and straightforward. For example, McGeachy opens the letter by writing:

Carissimo Amico [My dearest friend]

And, more humorously:

Ci è sempre gratissima la memoria della nostra amicizia con quel vecchio eccellente, che abita sul monte Pincio

[The memory of our friendship with that excellent old man who lives at Monte Pincio is always very delightful to us.]

For me, the most interesting sentence of the letter was the following one:

Tutte le sue opere sono arrivate benissimo è stanno adesso in campagna alla casa del mio fratello, dove tutti ammirono e domandono chi abbia fatto queste bellessime cose.

[All of your artworks have arrived in very good condition, and are now installed at the countryside in my brother’s house, and everyone admires them and asks who made these beautiful pieces of art.]

Identification of the sender

It was now of absolute importance to identify the sender in order to identify his “brother” and his house—and thereby the artworks mentioned. However, the evident match, the British politician Forster Alleyne McGeachy (1809-1887) had no brother, so at first I ruled him out. No other matches were found; but luckily it turned out that in 1834, McGeachy had married Anna Maria Laetitia Adderley (1812-1841), sister to none other than Charles Bowyer Adderley, also known as the first Baron Norton, an extremely rich heir to the Adderley estates. Adderley became a politician and a philanthropist, with several streets and a park named after him today. He was also McGeachy’s best friend. By marrying Adderley’s sister, McGeachy thereby became Adderley’s brother-in-law. And given the many matching circumstantial details—as well as the linguistic quirks and errors in McGeachy’s Italian letter (for instance in the various ways in which he mentions his wife and her brothers)—it is therefore likely that, by the phrase “at the countryside in my brother’s house,” McGeachy was in fact referring to his brother-in-law’s house, which turned out to match Adderley’s manor house, Hams Hall.

Hams Hall, Warwickshire, England

The manor house Hams Hall, Warwickshire, England. Photograph from Lost Heritage / England’s lost country houses.

Hams Hall and Thorvaldsen’s artworks

Hams Hall once stood near the village of Lea Marston in North Warwickshire (close to Birmingham). From 1637 until its sale in 1920, the estate was in the possession of the Adderley family. In Charles Bowyer Adderley’s day, the appearance of the main building was marked by its restoration and expansion in 1764, a project that presumably was executed by the English architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782). Adderley inherited the manor from his extremely wealthy great-uncle, who bore the same name: Charles Bowyer Adderley (1743-1826).

But now back to the investigation of the artworks by Thorvaldsen:

On the assumption that Hams Hall was the place in mention, and that Adderley was the commissioner, further investigation showed that Hams Hall was indeed described (albeit briefly) as having held artworks by Thorvaldsen. The most detailed such mention is found in the biography of Adderley published in 1909 as Life of Lord Norton, by William S. Childe-Pemberton, op. cit. This biography even includes illustrations of the entrance hall, along with a list of the six artworks purchased by Adderley:

The following is a list of Thorwaldsen’s works at Hams—the two first were gifts from the sculptor, the rest were done to order:
Singing Genii; (2) Playing Genii; (3) Cupid awaking the fainted Psyche; (4) Bacchus giving Cupid his first cup; (5) Cupid’s reception by Anacreon, wounded by dart of poetry in gratitude. These are all in marble. The terra-cotta frieze (6), round the cornice of the hall, represents the Triumphal Procession
of Alexander the Great into Babylon—the same as in marble at the Villa Sommariva Como and the Quirinal, Rome.

The last part—about the terracotta version of the Alexander Frieze, cf. A508 —was very surprising, as it was not stated elsewhere; and such a replica at such an early time is quite unique, as other contemporary accounts exclusively refer to commissions of the frieze in plaster and marble.

Most of the motives were easy to identify from their description. You can see them here—the numbers corresponds to the list just cited.

Cupid Revives Psyche

3. The relief Cupid Revives Psyche, A866.

Cupid and Bacchus

4. The relief Cupid and Bacchus, cf. A407.

Cupid by Anacreon, Winter

5. The relief Cupid by Anacreon, Winter, cf. A416.

Hams Hall, interior of the entrance hall, with Thorvaldsen's Alexander Frieze

6. Thorvaldsen’s frieze Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon, in a miniaturized and custom-fit terracotta version, cf. A508, in the entrance to Hams Hall. Photograph from Childe-Pemberton, op. cit., p. 22, undated; though according to Kingsley, op. cit., it dates from ca. 1909.

However, for the first two of the reliefs mentioned above—the singing and playing genii—we had no direct matches at the Museum. The matter was complicated further by the fact that an old correspondence was archived at the Museum describing these reliefs as allegories of Music and Literature. This correspondence dates back to 1926, when the Museum bought the relief deriving from Hams Hall, Cupid Revives Psyche, A866, from the London-based auction house Spink & Son. At that time, all five marble reliefs from the then-recently demolished Hams Hall were offered to the museum; but the remaining four reliefs were not acquired because the Museum’s director at the time declined to purchase them, reasoning that the other marble works were already well-represented in the Museum’s collections.

This correspondence from 1926 represents the first clear traces of the Hams Hall commission to appear at Thorvaldsens Museum. It states that photos of the Hams Hall reliefs had been sent to the museum. However, due to misplacement of these photos, the four other Hams Hall reliefs were partly consigned to oblivion. Their photos were never marked as related to Hams Hall, and at some unknown point they were even archived as illustrations of the museum’s own marble versions with the same motifs. Thus, after the 1926 correspondence was concluded, no one seemed to know what the Hams Hall reliefs looked like; even their motifs were partly forgotten, and other reliefs and other motives were later—wrongly—claimed or supposed to derive from Hams Hall.

A great deal of searching for and comparison of photos and artworks kept in the Museum and elsewhere finally made it clear which photographs had originally been sent to the Museum. The final two marble reliefs were thus finally identified with certainty as replicas of the reliefs known as Singing Angels and Playing Angels—not as genii. I will return briefly to this confusion at the end of my paper.

The Genii of Music Playing The Genii of Music Singing
The Genii of Music Playing, jf. A588, Hams Hall-version. The Genii of Music Singing, jf. A586, Hams Hall-version.

As for the Alexander Frieze in terracotta, it appears that it was not included in the 1926 sale in London. Certainly it was not mentioned in the letter from Spink & Son, nor anywhere else except for the 1909 biography of Adderley.

From the same biography we know that Adderley embarked on his grand tour in the early winter of 1835. Adderley reached Rome at some point in December, and stayed there for three months. He then spent the spring and early summer in Sicily, Malta, and Naples, and stayed at Thorvaldsen’s place in Rome during his short visit to the city on his way back through Italy. Adderley then travelled through southern France and Paris on his way back to England, reaching home in September 1836.

While in Rome, Adderley ordered the three large marble reliefs by Thorvaldsen and the Alexander frieze in terracotta. At some still unknown point (whether during his stay in Rome or upon delivery of the commissioned art works), Thorvaldsen gave him the two minor marble reliefs as gifts, namely, the reliefs with the singing and playing genii. We still do not know why Adderley ordered the frieze made in terracotta, and not in marble or plaster as was usual.

When the younger Adderley purchased works by Thorvaldsen for Hams Hall in 1836, he did not yet reside at the manor house, which was at that point rented out. We do know, however, that the artworks were installed during Adderley’s renovation of Hams Hall in the following years, and which was finished in 1841. Apparently the artworks were all installed in the entrance hall. From the remaining photo we can only see the frieze and one of the marble reliefs. This is the relief Cupid and Bacchus, cf. A407, visible to the right of the door in the middle of the picture. The placement of the other four marble reliefs is not known with certainty at present, but it is most likely that Cupid by Anacreon, cf. A416, was set across from Cupid and Bacchus, i.e., on the other side of the fireplace visible in the picture’s lower right-hand corner.

Hams Hall, interior of the entrance hall, with Thorvaldsen's Alexander Frieze

6. Photo of Thorvaldsen’s frieze Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon, in a miniaturized and custom-fit terracotta version, cf. A508, in the entrance to Hams Hall. Photograph from Childe-Pemberton, op. cit., p. 22, undated; though according to Kingsley, op. cit., it dates from c. 1909.

The bust visible above the fireplace is difficult to identify because of the poor quality of the photograph. We do know, however, that during his Roman sojourn Adderley commissioned a bust of himself by the Lawrence MacDonald (1799-1878), then the most popular Scottish sculptor residing in Rome. Macdonald was in fact the sculptor who, after Thorvaldsen’s death, took over his studios at the Piazza Barberini. He was also one of the founders of the British Academy of Arts in Rome (which closed in 1936).

Just to sum up, here is what we now know about the present status of the art works by Thorvaldsen that once hung at Hams Hall:

One relief is at Thorvaldsens Museum, one at the National Museum in Stockholm. The relief of Playing Genii was probably bought by the same collector who later donated the Singing Genii to the Swedish national museum, but the former relief is still untraced. There have been no records of other two marble reliefs or the terracotta frieze since their proposed sale in 1926.

In marble   Location
1. The Genii of Music Singing, cf. A586 (gift of Thorvaldsen) The Genii of Music Singing: Hams Hall exemplar. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, NMSk 1310
2. The Genii of Music Playing, cf. A588 (gift of Thorvaldsen) The Genii of Music Playing: Hams Hall exemplar. Location unknown
3. Cupid Revives Psyche, A866 (commissioned work) Cupid Revives Psyche Thorvaldsens Museum, A866
4. Cupid and Bacchus, cf. A408 (commissioned work) Cupid and Bacchus: Hams Hall exemplar. Location unknown
5. Cupid by Anacreon, Winter, cf. A416 (commissioned work) Cupid by Anacreon, Winter: Hams Hall exemplar. Location unknown
In terracotta    
6. Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon, cf. A508 (commissioned work) Alexander the Great's Entry into Babylon Location unknown

How did Adderley learn about Thorvaldsen?

What we do not know is how Adderley learned about Thorvaldsen. We do know that he was interested in art and literature, that the trip to Italy was his first tour abroad, and that this grand tour of his must have provided a perfect opportunity for him to start embellishing his future home at Hams Hall. Adderley could have heard of Thorvaldsen in many ways, whether from written sources or by being told about him by someone he knew. Apart from the enthusiastic and friendly McGeachy (who certainly knew Thorvaldsen well, judging by the letter cited). Adderley had at least one other family connection to Thorvaldsen, which seems very likely to have influenced him in his choice of artist.

Adderley was, namely, a close friend of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1809-1898), eldest son of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1787-1871) and Lydia Elizabeth, neé Hoare (1786-1856). Acland senior was a close friend of the Norwegian Knudtzon brothers, whom Stig Miss talked about earlier today; and as a young man Acland senior had traveled with Adderley’s father in Norway in 1802 during the interim Peace of Amiens amid the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the two were shortly imprisoned in Christiania (now Oslo) when the Peace expired. It is quite reasonable to believe that they visited the Knudtzon family during this stay in Norway. We also know that Knudtzon recommended Acland senior to Thorvaldsen, and being close friends—both the fathers and the sons in the Adderley and Acland families—they must have discussed Thorvaldsen at some point. This connection thus presumably contributed to the fact, that Adderley commissioned the works of Thorvaldsen for Hams Hall; or so it is at least reasonable to suggest.

Acland junior, on the other hand, went to Oxford together with “our” Adderley, and afterwards they, like their fathers, traveled together. It was with Acland junior that Adderley went to Rome in 1835. Acland’s parents had already arrived in their yacht, Lady of St. Kilda, and the Acland family lodged in the Villa Aldobrandini. Adderley, however, stayed with his sister and brother-in-law (the aforementioned Anna Maria Laetitia Adderley and Alleyne McGeachy), who lodged in Via Felice, Monte Mario. This brings us back to the letter from the now-identified McGeachy, indicating a prior stay in Rome—and the starting point for my reinvestigation of the Hams Hall commission.

The reliefs at Thorvaldsen Museum

And now a final remark on the two reliefs with the singing and playing genii. It is in fact the rediscovery of the entire body of Thorvaldsen’s works at Hams Hall that has now made it possible to situate the reliefs in their original context.

Ludwig Müller, Thorvaldsens Museum’s first curator and author of its first museum catalogue, placed these two reliefs in the group of “Christian reliefs” —as Three Worshipping Angels and Three Playing Angels. Müller probably based these titles on those chosen by Just Mathias Thiele, who dubbed the reliefs Three Playing Angels and Three Singing Angels in his first biography of Thorvaldsen. The “worshipping” part of the title appears to have been Müller’s own invention, and serves only to make the subject even more sacred.

The Genii of Music Playing The Genii of Music Singing
The Genii of Music Playing, jf. A588, Hams Hall-version. The Genii of Music Singing, jf. A586, Hams Hall-version.

The reliefs obviously form a pair, and Thiele believed that they were related to a commission for a Communion table in the Cathedral of Novara, Italy (1833). However, the reliefs’ nearly square dimensions do not fit the rectangular measures of the Novara commission; and those commissioners asked specifically for a variant of a different work by Thorvaldsen. What is more, a study of the contemporary written sources reveals that, rather than angels, they constitute genii (ie guardian spirits)—a motif that, in general, is much more widespread than angels in Thorvaldsen’s art.

Workshop accounts state that the two reliefs were labelled as the “geni della musica” [the genii of music]. This was the clue that led me to the crucial contemporary sources. In other documents, the reliefs are mentioned as “Singing Boys” and “Playing Boys,” or as a pair as “little boys playing and singing.” Perhaps it is also these reliefs that were entitled merely “Tré putti” [three putti]. There is also a single early mention of a relief called “drei singend engeln” [three singing angels]. Both the term “little boys” and “boys” correspond to the collective term “putti”—a category that covers associations to angels, pagan genii, and cupids as well as the so-called spiritelli, a kind of airborne spirit that affects the human body and emotions. As mentioned, finally, the 1926 letter offering the Hams Hall reliefs for sale mentions the two putti reliefs as allegories of Music and Literature.

All in all, it seems reasonable to conclude that the two reliefs are to be included in the comprehensive range of motifs by Thorvaldsen, namely, as illustrating the genii of various art forms and concepts. All of the the primary sources closest to Thorvaldsen’s workshop and to the first known owner of the reliefs agree on this point. Accordingly, the reliefs have now been retitled The Genii of Music Singing and The Genii of Music Playing.

However, it is also conceivable that the later reading—turning from pagan to Christian iconography—was also linked to the growing bigotry in the middle of the nineteenth century. Even Thorvaldsen himself may have blurred the picture, so to speak, by giving the genii more modern instruments like the mandolin and harp instead of the double-flute, lyre, and tambourine. The reliefs thereby switch easily back and forth between a pagan and a Christian sphere—forming a kind of one-size-fits-all motif. This mode of blurred perception is similar to the various ways in which the statue called Dancing Girl, A178 (1817), for example, can be regarded. This statue was similarly assumed by some to be a “Bacchante”—a figure that can be regarded as sweet and innocent on the one hand, and as rather wild and licentious on the other. These kinds of shifts in meaning may in fact have been quite typical for Thorvaldsen—as my collegues Ernst Jonas Bencard and Nanna Kronborg Frederiksen have touched on as well. And with this, I will stop and thank you for listening.

The content of this paper is primarily based on my previous work published in the Related Articles Thorvaldsen’s Works at Hams Hall and From Genii to Angels and Back. For further references, please consult those articles.


  • Stefano Grandesso (and Laila Skjøthaug (catalogue)): Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), Milan and Copenhagen 2015.
  • Julie Lejsgaard Christensen & Kristine Bøggild Johannsen: Thorvaldsen’s Ancient Terracottas, Copenhagen 2015, p. 121-122, cat. no. 68.
  • Charles Dempsey: Inventing the Renaissance Putto, Chapel Hill & London 2001.
  • James Hall: Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, London 1984.
  • Jørgen Birkedal Hartmann & Klaus Parlasca: Antike Motive bei Thorvaldsen. Studien zur Antikenrezeption des Klassizismus, Tübingen 1979, p. 183-184.
  • Ludvig Müller: Thorvaldens Museum. Tredie Afdeling. Oldsager. Første og andet Afsnit, Copenhagen 1847, p. 112, cat. no. 114.
  • Ludvig Müller: Thorvaldens Museum. Første Afdeling. Thorvaldsens Værker., Copenhagen 1848, p. 68, cat. no. 585-588.
  • Thiele 1848, p. 99-100.
  • Thiele IV, p. 264 (1856).

Works referred to

A866 A508 A407 A586 A588 A416

Last updated 01.06.2017