Busts of Roman emperors return to Wimpole Hall

Four busts of Roman emperors will return to Wimpole Hall after a 60-year absence, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu programme and support from the Art Fund.

Italian, busts of Trajan and an unidentified Roman emperor, 17th century National Trust

Italian, busts of Trajan and an unidentified Roman emperor, 17th century

Created in Italy during the 17th century, the busts represent some of the best and worst of Rome's leaders. The first pair was bought thanks to an Art Fund grant, and features a bust of Trajan – one of Rome's greatest emperors – as well as a bust of an emperor whose identity is currently unclear. The second two busts show another unidentified emperor and Caracalla, possibly the most bloodthirsty and tyrannical Roman leader, and were given to Wimpole Hall through the government's Acceptance in Lieu of Tax scheme.

The two identified emperors couldn't be more different. Trajan was declared 'optimus princeps' – the greatest ruler – by the Roman senate, a philanthropist who led the empire to its most powerful point over his illustrious reign. In contrast, Caracalla counted fratricide, attempted patricide, and the genocide of his own people among his achievements as emperor – he was named 'the common enemy of mankind' by the historian Edward Gibbon.

Marble busts of Roman emperors were popular among the wealthy. They were powerful evocations not only of Classical history, but also of the intriguing characters who led the empire. The four magnificent busts haven't been seen at Wimpole since the time of Elsie Bambridge, who sold the sculptures off as the hall's last private owner. They had been part of the Wimpole collection since at least the 1770s, but may have belonged to the great collector Edward Harley, a lover of Roman antiquities. The busts will be reunited with their elaborate wooden plinths, which were created around 1860 by the Cambridge firm Rattee and Kett.

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said: 'These important busts were once an integral part of the decorative scheme at Wimpole Hall, and we are so pleased to be supporting their return. The public will gain real insight into the importance of the classical past for Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, while the quality of the busts makes them highly desirable acquisitions in their own right.'

The busts will return to display at Wimpole from Saturday 10 May, in the house's grand entrance hall. 

Venue details

Wimpole Estate Old Wimpole Road Cambridgeshire SG8 0BW 01223 206000 www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wimpole-estate

Entry details

Free with National Art Pass (standard entry £16.25)*

*Please note charges apply to enter the farm and gardens when the hall is closed

For full details of opening hours please check the Wimpole Estate website

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