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image M437

Colossal head of Pluto (identified by Soane as Jupiter), Italian?, 17th Century?

Cast bronze

Height: 100cm
Width: 51cm
Depth: 40cm

Museum number: M437

Curatorial note

The sculptor of this spectacular bronze head, a tour de force of bronze casting, is unknown.

The bust arrived in the Soane Museum between 1832 and 1834 (t is not mentioned in either of Soane's two first published Descriptions of his house in 1830 and 1832; nor does it appear in any of the myriad views of the house from that time or earlier). In the 1835 Description of the Museum, Soane describes it as 'A Colossal head of Jupiter, in bronze, presented to me by the Hon. Mr. Melville'. It is shown in position on its fine scagliola column in a watercolour dated 1834 (SM Vol_82_125).

There is an earlier letter in the Soane Archive dated March 1825(?) from Samuel Thornton to Soane which has a tantilising postscript that may refer to this bust: 'PS The Jupiter head which you saw will go to Christie's for sale'.

Tim Knox, Director of the Soane Museum 2005-13, identified the most likely candidate for this 'Hon. Mr. Melville' as John Thornton Leslie Melville, second son of the 10th Earl of Leven and Melville and from 1860 himself the 11th Earl of Leven and Melville (1786-1876).

He was born in 1786 and during his long minority was partner in the Bank of Williams, Deacon and Labouchere, and Deputy Paymaster to the Forces from 1809. He married on 15 September 1812, his cousin Harriet, youngest daughter of Samuel Thornton of Albury Park, Surrey (brother of Melville's mother). She died in 1832 and he married another Thornton cousin, Sophia, 4th daughter of Henry Thornton MP of Battersea (another brother of Meville's mother). His close connections with the Thornton family would explain the Soane connection. Melville's father was the 9th Earl of Leven and Melville (1749-1820), who married Jane Thornton daughter of John Thornton, a merchant of Clapham, in 1784. She was the sister of Samuel Thornton (1754-1861) of Clapham and Albury Park - Soane's correspondent about the bust. Soane's client Stephen Thornton of Moggerhanger House who was also a Director of the Bank of England, was another cousin. Jane died in 1818 and the 9th Earl on 22 February 1820.

The 9th Earl was succeeded by his eldest son, David Leslie-Melville, 10th Earl, a naval officer who married in 1824 - possibly precipitating a proposed sale fo his father's property in that year. His father, the 9th earl, had been on a Grand Tour in 1773-76 with Dr Andrew Marshall (Gentlemens Magazine, 1813, vol.1, p.483) where he is known to have bought mezzotints. It is tempting to imagine that he acquired this bust of Pluto in Italy at that time. The 10th Earl had four children but both sons predeceased him which is why the title went eventually to his younger brother, our Hon. Mr. Melville.

The letter from Samuel Thornton (1824 or 1825) to Soane Tim concluded is tipping him off about a proposed sale of the bust, which had probably been bought in Italy by the 9th Earl of Leven and Melville, the vendor being the 10th Earl who had retired from the Navy and married in 1824 and may have been selling off his father's possessions. There is no trace of the bust appearing at Christie's in 1824-26, perhaps the sale never materialised. Somehow the bust was acquired by John, the Hon. Mr. Leslie-Melville and was given to Soane in about 1832-34.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk