The divine miracle of Wolsey’s lost angels

Designed for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey and then lost for over three centuries, four rare sculptures have been reunited at the V&A, revealing clues to their history.

Fate is a fickle mistress. In 1524, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was one of the most powerful men in Europe. Having risen from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief advisor, he desired a lasting monument for himself, and commissioned the Florentine sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezanno, to build a tomb. It was to outshine Henry VII’s, with a black touchstone sarcophagus and four bronze angels. Six years later, Wolsey’s fortunes had turned, and he died while under arrest for treason. The tomb parts were seized by the king for his own monument but never completed, and parts were eventually sold off during the Civil War. Wolsey’s angels disappeared, presumed lost, for over 300 years.

It wasn’t until 1994 that two sculptures ‘in Italian Renaissance style’ turned up at auction. Their true provenance remained a mystery until the Italian scholar, Francesco Caglioti, identified them in a paper he gave in 2007, and the hunt for their fellows began in earnest. It led to a golf club in Northamptonshire where, until the theft of the auctioned pair in the 1980s, all four angels had stood on gateposts.

As early works of Italian Renaissance art in England and a vibrant part of our history, the importance of reuniting the angels for the nation became a matter of urgency for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Offered the opportunity to purchase both pairs, a fundraising campaign was launched involving several funding bodies, including Art Fund, and donations from the public.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Art Fund, says: ‘The unexpected opportunity to reunite and display these four beautiful works of sculpture, so intimately connected with the course of British history, could not be overlooked.’ After a successful campaign, the angels were purchased by the V&A in 2015, and nearly 500 years after Wolsey’s fall from grace, his vision of grandeur is finally on permanent display.

Lois Salter, Curator of Sculpture, V&A, says: ‘Each Angel has its own personality, expression and history. Their appearance does not disguise the eventful and difficult journey they have endured to reach their final destination at the V&A, and yet they are inspirational, leading us on a fascinating voyage of discovery about their casting and history which we will continue to share with our visitors. The Wolsey Angels enhance our understanding of 16th-century England, the Tudor Court and the enduring influence of Italian Renaissance sculptors.’

All four sculptures developed an uneven verdigris patina, but the stolen angels were also later coated in multiple layers of coloured wax. Diana Heath, Senior Metalwork Conservator at the V&A, explains that the high gloss waxes were found to be unstable and obscured the form: ‘It took a variety of solvents and gels to remove the wax and uncover the finer details of the sculptures, and painstaking work under microscopy to remove corrosion and organic encrustations from the "green" angels.'

Detail: Wolsey Angels, about 1524-1529, Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554), V&A A.2-2015

Detail: Wolsey Angel, about 1524-1529, Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554), V&A A.2-2015

Describing the scale of the project, Diana explains: ‘It’s important to remember they were never made for outdoor use. The intention would have been to have them polished, then mercury gilded, so you must imagine they were intended to be very, very vivid.’

Instead, standing outside Harrowden Hall (now the Wellingborough Golf Club) for up to 300 years, they were exposed to weather, bird lime, and sulphur from nearby iron and brick works. Within the last 40 years they were somehow stripped of their wings, which remain lost.

Diana points out cracks, dents and abrasions from impact damage and some rough handling. Due to the ravages of time the angels have radically altered. However, while gilding would have protected the metal, which was cast from high purity copper, it would also have hidden invaluable clues to the angels’ creation. ‘We have this fascinating opportunity to see how they were constructed and repaired, and the struggles that the craftsmen and casters had in terms of getting good results,’ says Diana.

The very corrosion caused by their neglect has revealed defects the conservation team believe are contemporaneous repairs. At the time they were made there would have been shrinking, causing casting flaws to occur like cracks, small holes and defects that needed filling and closing up. These would be carefully chiselled out then plugs of copper would be inserted and hammered into position rather than using any sort of solder. Once burnished and smoothed these imperfections would have been hidden by the gilded finish.

Now structurally stable and coated in a protective wax, Wolsey’s angels bear their scars with dignity. Diana describes the conservators’ intention to ‘unify the appearance to an extent,’ adding, ‘but they clearly have their own separate and different histories. You can love them for their patches and imperfections. It has been a privilege to have such close involvement while examining and working on these fine sculptures. I have become quite attached to them and gained immense respect for the Benedetto and the craftsmen who created them.'

Against the odds, the angels have survived, and their inclusion in of one of the world’s great collections of Renaissance sculpture helps tell a bigger story. Where preserving links between objects is as vital as the objects themselves, they are natural company for works such as the bust of Henry VII by another Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, and the cast of a candelabra for Henry VIII’s tomb.

In the words of Dr Antonia Boström, Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass, the work undertaken by the V&A, collaborating with experts in the UK and Europe, has ‘contributed to our understanding of bronze casting techniques and to developing the appropriate conservation plan for these bronzes. Bringing these sculptures here has meant an enormous amount for the museum and for the country.’

As for the angels, from the Tudor power elite of the 16th century to the art thieves of the 1980s, they have been used for the personal glory and financial gain of their owners. Now, they stand securely as a monument to themselves, the splendour of Renaissance sculpture, and the ongoing preservation and understanding of our history, now protected for future generations.

Art Fund Art Partners admire the Wolsey Angels at the V&A in London

Art Fund Art Partners visited the Wolsey Angels and the museum’s conservation studios as part of a behind the scenes tour of the V&A on 3 May 2017. Art Partners provide vital support for Art Fund’s work with museums and galleries across the UK.

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