International Museum Day: 30 Objects – Intaglios

03 May 2017

For International Museum Day on 18 May our Head of Collections, Alice, has chosen her top 30 objects from Mount Stuart’s Collections which we’ll bring to you throughout the Month. Ranging from books, furniture, silver-work, paintings and documentation from hundreds of years of Stuart family life, this barely scratches the surface of our Collections so make sure to plan your visit and experience it for yourself!

Housed in their original beech trays, we have a collection of delicate, bright red casts of portraits, animals and classical scenes. Gem engraving as an art dates back to classical antiquity with designs and portraits engraved and incised into the gemstone in a method called ‘carved intaglios’. These could be used to make impressions in seals whilst others had images carved in relief which were purely aesthetic objects in themselves. Casts of these gems were often collected as a cheaper alternative to an expensive craze. In our Collection there are 20 trays of intaglio casts made by Christian Dehn and purchased by the 3rd Earl of Bute in Rome in 1769.

intaglios close up
In the 18th Century there was a widespread interest in the idea of the Antique which led to the rise of the neoclassic movement in art and architecture. This preoccupation with the classical world was partly in response to the perceived ‘over the top’ exuberance of the rococo style but also reflected the enlightenment ideals of learning, rationality and order in this era.
This love of the classical was often seen in the mementos brought back from European tour or travels by aristocrats during this time. The Earl had not, as many of his peers, taken a traditional ‘Grand Tour’ tour of fashionable sights in Europe during his youth, perhaps due to the fact that his powerful uncle, the Duke of Argyll, was part of the exiled Jacobite court in Rome and also perhaps because of a genuine and serious interest in botany, for which Leiden, where he went to undertake his university studies, was particularly renowned.

For Bute it was later in life, at the age of 56 and rocked by his disastrous and short tenure as the first Scot to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (26 May 1762 – 8 April 1763), that the Earl was really able to explore his passions for, art literature and travel in the wider European context and it was during this period these charming intaglios were added to his collection.