British marble masterpiece to go on display for first time in 200 years

Frieze by forgotten sculpture John Deare sold to Victoria & Albert musuem for a fraction of its value

One of the most important pieces of neoclassical sculpture by a British artist, which has never been seen by the public, will be on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum from Friday.

John Deare's name is barely known today because he died at 38 and few of his works survived. Sale of the 18th-century masterpiece by an anonymous owner was restricted to allow only the V&A to acquire it for a fraction of its value. But art market specialists believe it would fetch £5m on the open market.

Discussing the "astonishing technique and narrative mastery", Paul Williamson, keeper of sculpture at the V&A, told the Observer: "Everyone is astonished by the virtuosity of the carving… This is the first [Deare] marble to go into a British public collection. His reputation has not been what it should be. But he's right up there."

Measuring more than 5ft in length, it depicts Caesar invading Britain, a battle scene on a beach. The marble figures of Caesar, Roman soldiers and the Britons fighting them off are incredibly lifelike, full of movement, sensitivity and expression, with every muscle and strand of hair depicted in intricate detail. It is little wonder that it took him more than five years to complete, from 1791.

With this relief, Deare (1759-98) will be recognised as one of the most innovative and gifted British sculptors. Born in Liverpool, he trained at the Royal Academy schools, where he won its gold medal, and a bursary to study in Rome. He remained there until his death in 1798, apparently from a chill caught by sleeping on a marble block for inspiration.

Until then, he had produced reliefs of historical, mythological and allegorical subjects for English patrons on the Grand Tour. Few survived; most that did are in American collections. Caesar Invading Britain was commissioned by his friend and patron, John Penn, whose grandfather gave his name to Pennsylvania. Although a British patriot, fascinated by British history and antiquity, the artist supported the American Revolution and would have sympathised with revolutionary forces struggling against an imperial power – hence the appeal of Caesar invading Britain.

The rectangular sculpture was installed above a fireplace in Penn's mansion in Buckinghamshire until the mid-20th century, when it was moved to a neighbouring house, whose owner was given permission by the local council to remove it – but only if it went to the V&A.

The V&A acquisition was made possible by Stuart Lochhead of Daniel Katz, a leading old masters' gallery, who said: "The quality of the carving is as good as you'll ever see. It's really astounding."

The work will go on display in the V&A's Hintze Sculpture Galleries from 21 October.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Is postmodernism Gaga, Warhol or a wooden toaster? Time to find out …
The V&A is staging an exhibition that tries to define the most elusive of art genres. Tim Adams was first in line

Tim Adams

24, Sep, 2011 @9:34 PM

Article image
Top British art galleries investigate sexual misconduct
Allegations against philanthropist Anthony D’Offay, reported in the Observer, have put the art world under the spotlight, writes Ben Quinn

Ben Quinn

20, Jan, 2018 @9:03 PM

Article image
K-boom! South Korea’s art and high culture lands in Britain with a bang
After K-pop and kimchi led the way, a major UK exhibition and cultural season will celebrate the best of the country’s art, music and style

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

20, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
The bigger picture: should British museums sell to stay afloat?
As galleries auction off treasures to retain staff and plug cash gaps left by Covid, the art world is divided on ethics of disposal

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

15, Nov, 2020 @9:15 AM

Article image
Donatello’s David sculpture to go on display in UK for first time
Renaissance artist’s famous marble to form part of V&A exhibition exploring his cultural impact

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

25, Oct, 2022 @5:01 AM

Article image
Guardians of UK's literary jewels at risk in V&A plan to cut key library staff
Two-thirds of librarians will lose their jobs in restructuring at London museum under new proposals

Dalya Alberge

07, Mar, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Dundee hopes V&A’s spectacular museum will reconnect the city to its creative past
The new centre should restore the cultural reputation of the city once famed for jute, jam and journalism

Kevin McKenna

26, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
David Bowie heads for No 1 and breaks V&A records
The new album and his museum exhibition are both hits – and tour rumours are growing, reports Tracy McVeigh

Tracy McVeigh

16, Mar, 2013 @10:10 PM

Article image
Behind the scenes at the V&A’s Alexander McQueen show
This collection of the designer’s creations will be one of the cultural hot tickets of the year, but putting it together has posed many challenges

Vanessa Thorpe

08, Mar, 2015 @12:05 AM

Article image
Pirates, explorers, empire-makers, slavers: how great works of art tell story of Britain’s past
A series of acclaimed exhibitions is holding a mirror up to UK history, from Celtic invasion to Enlightenment ideas to imperial conquest

Robert McCrum

13, Dec, 2015 @12:05 AM