Stowe House, Buckinghamshire

Change project:

The Stowe Lions by John Cheere

WMF Britain welcomed a milestone event in April 2013: the return of the Stowe lions. In a fitting acknowledgement of our partnership with Stowe House Preservation Trust, these magnificent creatures, sculpted in lead with extraordinary detail, have now been reinstated to the plinths they knew in the eighteenth century, ninety years after they were sold in Stowe’s 1921 sale.

Their story is a curious one. It is clear that they were based on the 'Medici Lions' commissioned by Ferdinando I de’Medici, and originally set in the Loggia dei Leoni at the Villa Medici, Rome. The basis was an antique Roman marble relief. This was worked up as a full figure looking to its right, by Giovanni di Scherano Fancelli in c.1598, and accompanied by a mirror-image version by contemporary sculptor Flaminio Vacca (1538-1605).

That original pair remained in Rome until 1789, before being moved to Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, where they can still be seen today. The two sculptures were hugely influential in eighteenth-century Europe: copies and versions can be found from landscape gardens to mantlepieces.

The date of purchase of lead versions of the sculptures by Stowe House’s owner Richard Temple-Grenville (owned Stowe 1749-79) is unknown; indeed the attribution of these tooled casts to John Cheere (1709-87) was only made this year when conservator Rupert Harris found evidence of surface tooling characteristic of Cheere’s workshop.

John Cheere was a prodigious sculptor in lead, supplying the figures that adorn Queluz Palace Gardens, Lisbon, purchased from his Piccadilly atelier in 1755 – they were themselves a previous project of World Monuments Fund. The Stowe Lions may date from slightly later, as they were placed on limestone plinths cut for the steps to the South Front portico of Stowe, completed in the early 1770s to the amended designs of Robert Adam. They were originally painted golden yellow to match the limestone.

Stowe lion at Blackpool c. Blackpool Council

The current lions at Stowe

It is believed that the casts were made from the originals when in Rome, as Vacca's impresa is precisely duplicated from his version. This would be extraordinary evidence for the reach and industry of Cheere's workshop and could relate to Italians at Stowe such as Borra and Valdrè.

When Stowe House and its grounds were parcelled up for auction in 1921, and its applied arts were sold off, the lions began their journey to Stanley Park, Blackpool, where they arrived in 1926. They were accompanied by other figures from Stowe such as shepherds and shepherdesses (probably from the Grecian Valley, after 1749), several of which were stolen by metal thieves in August 2011. Having been sawn off at the ankles, these were probably melted down for scrap value. The lions were subsequently deemed to be at severe risk.

WMF Britain and Stowe House entered into negotiations with Blackpool Council to safeguard the lions by repatriating them to Stowe on a long lease, in return for providing replacement casts for Blackpool which will be reinforced to prevent their theft from new stone plinths.

The conservation work began in summer 2012. Dismantling at Blackpool revealed that the lions’ iron fixing pins into the stone plinths were in poor condition and had rusted away, about to snap. This could easily have led to a lethal collapse, and would also have facilitated their theft, so the exchange was particularly timely.

Once in Rupert Harris’ studio in Bow, East London, it was clear that the lions had suffered from graffiti scratches, and the more serious effects of wear and compression from children sitting on their backs. This had deformed the internal iron framework. Rupert replaced the frames in stainless steel, and sections of the sculptures were removed and re-welded to allow this. The surface was re-tooled with an authentic finish. Casts were made, and replicas produced for Blackpool – with substantial stainless steel pins through the ankles. An important legacy is the production of moulds which will enable future models to be created, and any damage repaired on the basis of evidence.

On 3rd April, to make way for the Cheere lions, the malnourished stone lions of 1927 by John Bickerdike were removed from the plinths in a steel cage design by the Morton Partnership, calculated to spread the load and avoid splitting. They were re-set by the Chapel, a contemporary building.

We are delighted to have received donations of over £325,000 for the repatriation and conservation of the Stowe lions. The generous support of the Paul Mellon Estate, The Linbury Trust and many other kind donors has helped to secure the future of these important works of art. On 9th April 2013, the lions were craned into position and fixed to the original Northamptonshire stone plinths.

Since settling back in, the lions have reclaimed their place as the majestic guardians of Stowe House. Keeping watch at the South Portico, they are poised to welcome the 150,000 annual visitors who approach the mansion from the National Trust’s New Inn entrance.

Thank you to all the donors who contributed to this special project.

The Stowe Lions Image gallery

Click on the image below to open the gallery lightbox viewer

An important legacy is the production of moulds which will enable future models to be created, and any damage repaired on the basis of evidence. The generous support of the Paul Mellon Estate has secured these works of art that, due to their attribution, are now valued at c. £1 million.

The overwhelming benefit will be for the thousands of visitors to Stowe who will be welcomed by these hugely impressive guardians - the best possible finishing touch to a £20 million project.

Lion seen in situ prior to the 1921 auction