A white marble sculpture of a nymph struggling with a satyr
Lot 225
Sold for £424,650 (US$ 541,288) inc. premium


Lot Details
The energetic struggle of which the result must remain unknown, depicted in a lively manner, the naked nymph kneeling with her weight on her right knee which is pushed towards her tightly bent left knee, the muscular seated satyr with his legs bent on either side of her restraining the nymph tightly between him, her right foot lodged beneath his right thigh, the enthusiastic satyr has the maiden grabbed around the waist, her left hand fingers curled back in an attempt to unclasp her assailant’s right hand from beneath her breast, his left hand resting on her left shoulder, her slender body partly turned towards her assailant behind, stretching her right arm back as she grasps a clump of the satyr’s hair while pulling forward in an attempt to escape his attentions, both heads, Renaissance restorations, are naturalistically and sensitively rendered, the nymph turning back looking over her left shoulder but glancing upwards, with an anguished expression, her brow slightly furrowed, her lips set apart, the thickly curled hair drawn up and secured into a top-knot, some loose strands fall onto her neck; the satyr looks up towards the maiden with a look of pleasure and anticipation on his face, with thickly curled hair, some longer strands falling onto the nape of his neck, with pointed animal ears, the scene set on an integral low carved marble triangular base, with curved edges.

28in. (71cm.) height including integral base
26 ½in. (67cm) width of figures
21 ½in. (54.5cm.) depth of figures
16 ¾in. (42.5cm.) maximum width of base


  • Estimate on Request

    Recorded with Stefano Bardini, Florence, circa 1893.
    Purchased from him by:
    William Waldorf Astor, later Viscount Astor of Hever (1848-1919) before 1905.
    Thence by descent to:
    Hon. John Jacob Astor (1886-1971), 1st Baron Astor of Hever;
    Gavin Astor (1918-1984), 2nd Baron Astor of Hever;
    John Jacob Astor (b.1946), 3rd Baron Astor of Hever;
    Acquired from the Astor family by Hever Castle Limited in 1983;
    Thence to the present owner.

    G.Astor, Statuary and Sculpture at Hever, (Ipswich 1969), p.3, no.22, drawing.
    Gabriella Capecchi (trans. Michael Rocke), The Historical Photographic Archive of Stefano Bardini: Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art, (Florence 1993), p.38, no.64, p.110, illus. pl.64, where this piece is described as a 2nd Century copy of a late Hellenistic original.
    Adrian Stähli, Die Verweigerung der Lüste: Erotische Gruppen in der Antiken Plastik,
    (Berlin 1999), pp.363-4, no.3.3 & illus. pl.109 and on the front cover.

    It is not known from whom Stefano Bardini (1836-1922) purchased this marble group, the restoratioins would indicate a Florentine provenance. Bardini was an internationally renowned antiquarian, art connoisseur and an unusually sensitive photographer, who established his prestigious emporium in the Palazzo of the Piazza de' Mozzi complex, Florence, but also had offices in London and Paris. He mainly worked as an antique dealer between 1870-1920. Among Bardini’s clients were the directors of the best known European and American museums, which included the Louvre, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Metropolitan Museum as well as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum of Berlin whose director, Wilhelm von Bode at one time noted that "without doubt"...."he was the most important antique dealer that Italy has ever had". Many prominent private collectors acquired important pieces from Bardini, including J. Pierpont Morgan, Prince J. Liechtenstein, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Barons Herzog and Figdor, the Vanderbilts, Madame Rothschild as well as William Waldorf Astor, and many other lesser known collectors and scholars, as well as antique dealers through which many more pieces found their way into private collections.

    By his will drawn up but two days before he went to meet his Maker he bequeathed his Palazzo and its contents, "in order to demonstrate the cult that I have always nourished for the artistic glory of Florence and the affection which binds me to this city." (10 September 1922). Florence has always had a refined tradition of collecting and the Bardini museum in Florence is still a major attraction, although currently closed for restoration, despite extensive re-modelling in 1975-1976. It was during these earlier renovations, in a small attic room, that a chest containing hundreds of photographic plates were discovered, they dated to the final years of the Nineteenth Century. The old plates were printed and contained the private photographic archive of Stefano Bardini, most of the plates and prints were produced in his private laboratory by his assistants and by Bardini himself. Gabriella Capecchi, The Historical Photographic Archive of Stefano Bardini; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art, (Florence 1993), forms the first of twelve volumes of the photographic archive documenting thousands of Works of Art, from Ancient to Romanesque sculpture, Twentieth Century arms, medals, plaquettes, bronzes, furniture, musical instruments and many other artworks. Here we reproduce the photograph of the Hever sculpture from the Bardini Archive.

    William Waldorf Astor, born in New York, the only son of John Jacob Astor III and Charlotte Augusta Gibbs, made his considerable fortune trading in furs. He began collecting antiquities when he was American Minister in Rome (1882-85) and not much later immigrated to England becoming a British subject in 1899, then created Baron Astor of Hever in 1916, and Viscount Astor of Castle in 1917. He purchased Cliveden House, Buckinghamshire from the Duke of Westminster in 1893. A decade later, in 1903, he bought the neglected Hever Castle in Kent from Edmund Meade Waldo. In the Sixteenth Century, Hever Castle had been the home to two of Henry VIII’s wives, both Anne Boleyn who spent her childhood there, and Anne of Cleves who received the Castle as part of her divorce settlement. It was here that he lavished his wealth on the restoration of Hever, restoring it to the splendour of its Tudor days, creating magnificent gardens, which included a formal garden for the sculptures he had brought to this country from Italy in 1905. (ref. D. Strong, "Some Unknown Classical Sculptures and for the first account of sculpture in William Waldorf Astor’s Italian Garden at Hever Castle", Connoisseur, (April 1965), pp.215-225). At one point over one thousand men toiled in the gardens and grounds, which were laid out by Joseph Cheal and Son. Of the one thousand employees, some eight hundred excavated the 35 acre lake. In about 1907 this group was installed on the Pompeian Wall by the side of the lake in the Italian Gardens, which contained fountains, cascades and grottoes.

    This marble symplegma (a closely-knit group of two persons) is one of a very few examples of this dramatic subject which have come down to us from Classical times. They are treated in detail by John Boardman & Eugenio La Rocca, Eros in Greece, (New York 1975) and in Adrian Stähli, Die Verweigerung der Lüste: Erotische Gruppen in der Antiken Plastik, (Berlin 1999). Satyrs are associated with the cult of Dionysos, particularly embodying the suggestion of human lust and are usually associated with the pursuit of both wine and women.

    A celebrated example of similar subject matter and construction is now in the British Museum (Wolfson Basement Gallery. GR.1658.), distinguished by having been in the collection of Charles Townley (1737-1805). Published in B.F. Cook, The Townley Marbles, (Trustees of the British Museum 1985), pp.62-63, fig.58, also in Adrian Stähli, op cit, pp.74-75, figs.41-44. Although the construction of the group is largely the same as the Hever example, the position of the heads of both the nymph and satyr are composed differently. Here the head of the satyr faces towards his right, while on the Hever group he looks up towards the nymph. The head of the nymph on the Townley sculpture casts her gaze down towards the satyr and has a less aggrieved expression on her face than that appearing on the face of the Hever nymph.

    Townley’s famous collection, was built up with the help of important figures of his day, such as Thomas Jenkins (1722-1798), Gavin Hamilton (1730-1797) as well as Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778). His sculpture of the struggling nymph and satyr figures in the picture by Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), of Charles Townley’s Library, (1781-1783), at 33 Park Street, Westminster (now Queen Anne’s Gate, SW1), which is in the Townley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire, and is reproduced here. Exhibited in its first state at the Royal Academy in 1783, it was reworked after the acquisition of the discus thrower about ten years later. Clearly this group would have appealed to Townley; he wrote a very erotic poem, "Advice to the Female Coterie", in 1771, his friends mocked that he was passionate about Venuses both living and dead. He had paid £350 for this sculpture, the second highest price that he paid for any of his sculptures. (ref. B.F. Cook, op cit, p.16). The highest price he paid was for the Townley Venus, an over life-size sculpture found by Hamilton at Ostia and purchased for £600 in 1776, (published in B. F. Cook, ibid, p.23, fig.22).

    When the nymph and satyr arrived in England it was declared to Customs at £40 but they were tipped off ". . . by the impertinence of some gentleman." (John Townley wrote to Charles Townley, Paris, 14 January 1770). The valuation was increased to £155. His sculpture had been found by Domenico de Angelis, close to Tivoli and restored by Sposino. (ref. B.F.Cook, ibid, p.16.). Another version of the find-spot has it that it was discovered on ground adjacent to Villa Adriana, formally known as Oliveto on the Villa Di Cassio. (ref. G.Vaughn, The Collecting of Classical Antiquities in England in the 18th Century: A Study of Charles Townley (1737-1805) and his Circle. Unpublished D. Phil Thesis, (Sackler Library, Oxford 1988)). For a full treatment of the site see C. Piertangli, "La Villa Tiburina detta di Cassio" in Atti della Pontifica Academis Romana di Archaeologia, Series II, vol.XXV-I, (1949-50), pp.157-181. It seems that the Sposino mentioned was one Pierantoni, restorer of ancient sculpture to the Vatican at the time. Cook’s Domenico de Angelis was an artist and doubtless dabbler in ancient art at the time.

    The Capitoline Museum, Rome possesses another example (Nuovo Inv.1729) from Trastevere, Rome. Published in Boardman & Rocca, op cit, pp.154-155; R.R.R.Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture, (London 1991), fig.158 and Adrian Stähli, ibid, p.76, pl.45. This sculptural group is missing the head of the nymph, but the head of the satyr has a similar pose to that of the Townley group.

    Adrian Stähli, Die Verweigerung der Lüste: Erotische Gruppen in der Antiken Plastik, (Berlin 1999), furnishes a full bibliography of both these examples.

    In subject matter and composition these last two sculptures closely resemble the group of a struggling satyr and hermaphrodite in the Skulpturen-Sammlung in Dresden. Published in Margarete Bieber, The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, (New York 1981), fig.626 and Smith, op cit, fig.159.

    A rather different group now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool was formerly in the collection of Niccolo la Piccola, Keeper of the Capitoline Collections and was bought from his widow by Henry Blundell (1739-1810), beating Townley to it. The latter made a sketch of it (ref. Cook, ibid, p.51. no.48), The Greek inscription is now known to be spurious. Bernard Ashmole (1894-1988) suggested that this group, before being purchased by Henry Blundell, (now Ince Blundell Collection), may have been the pendant of the nymph and satyr, but this seems to be without foundation, as the two groups do not readily balance each other. (ref. B. Ashmole, A Catalogue of the Ancient Marbles at Ince Blundell Hall, (Oxford 1929), pp.30-31.)

    For a very detailed general treatment of the erotic group in the Renaissance see Bertrand Jestaz, Un Group de Bronze Érotique de Riccio. Fondations Eugene Piot, Monuments et Memoires (vol.64) (1981).

    It is rare indeed for a sculptural group of museum quality and impeccable provenance to be offered for sale at auction. It has been painstakingly conserved since its discovery and forms a formidable centrepiece. The highly complex work demonstrates an extraordinary ability by the Roman sculptor to create a timeless masterpiece that is visually appealing from every angle. Accordingly, this could well be the last opportunity to acquire a Classical group of such outstanding importance.

    The primary restorations to this Roman group are the heads of the struggling characters. Clearly they are Florentine. We have here an interesting example of how the Renaissance viewed Classical sculpture. The head of the nymph resembles in conception that of the son on the left of Bacchio Bandinelli’s copy of the Classical Laöcoon group (discovered 14 January 1506, bought by Pope Julius II and still in the Vatican), the full-sized marble version of which was intended as a gift to François I of France (1515-47) by Pope Leo X (1513-21); in the event it remained in Florence and now graces the Uffizi. Work was in progress on this in 1523. The Sixteenth Century heads closely recall the work of Bacchio Bandinelli’s assistants Giovanni Bardini and Domenico Poggini.

    Giovanni Bardini was born in Castello in 1540 and interred at Florence on the 18 April 1599. His apprenticeship to Bacchio Bandinelli probably began about 1555. On his master’s death in 1560 he was asked to complete the choir-screen in the Duomo at Florence. Thereafter he had a distinguished career which is detailed with full bibliography in Grove’s, Dictionary of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist Art, (London 2000), vol.I, pp.108-110.

    Domenico Poggini was born in Florence on the 24 August 1520 and died in Rome on the 28 October 1590. He was a sculptor, medallist (praised by Vasari), die-engraver (in 1556 he worked at the Florentine mint and in 1585 was chief engraver to the Papal Mint), goldsmith, bronze-caster and indeed a poet (he composed a sonnet extolling Duke Cosimo I Medici). His earliest training probably came from Michele, his father. Benvenuto Cellini (Vita.) describes a gold cup made by him but under his direction circa 1545-6 for Duke Cosimo. More details of his life with bibliography are to be found in Grove’s Dictionary, op cit, pp.1265-6.

    Due to being exposed in the Italian Garden at Hever for some decades this group became obscured by various lichens and algae. The National Museum & Galleries on Merseyside, Conservation Department, both steam and laser cleaned the surface of the whole. Loose debris was removed with a wooden spatula. Old pins have been removed and some detached elements have been re-attached using steel pins embedded in epoxy resin. Finally the whole has been coated with cosmoloid wax in white spirit to protect the surface.

    In addition to the heads, various secondary restorations took place during the Renaissance. A photographically documented report of the realignment of the Sixteenth Century restoration and recent conservation is available from the Department on request.

    Bonhams gratefully acknowledges the preface by Professor Sir John Boardman. Bonhams also gratefully acknowledges the comments made on the Renaissance heads by Patricia Wengraf, and the assistance of Richard Falkiner, in the drafting of this catalogue.
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