The story behind The Snake in the Grass

  • 25 October 2018

We find out more about the 18th-century painting that became one of architect and collector John Soane's most treasured works, and why Sir John Soane's Museum are crowdfunding to save its frame.

Joshua Reynolds, The Snake in the Grass, 1785

The Snake in the Grass (1785) by Joshua Reynolds will be familiar to regular visitors to Sir John Soane's Museum, London – it’s one of the first things you see as you enter.

Depicting a nymph possibly portrayed by the English actress and model Emma Hamilton – later Lady Hamilton and mistress of Lord Nelson – the painting hangs opposite architect and collector John Soane’s own portrait in the dining room.

While it had hung in different prominent places since he bought it at Christie's auction house in 1821, it was moved to the dining room towards the end of his life, likely because he was looking towards his own legacy.

When Soane died in 1837, he requested that his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, its contents and library be left untouched and gifted to the nation.

Now, in line with this mission to preserve the collection as it was, Sir John Soane’s Museum are crowdfunding through Art Happens to raise the money needed to conserve the painting’s original frame.

Why is it important?

The painting was of great significance to Soane. When Soane was still a student, Reynolds presented him with the Royal Academy’s Gold Medal for Architecture, setting him on a path to success – and Soane’s purchase and prominent hanging of The Snake in the Grass are indicative of Reynolds’ importance in his life.

The frame is an integral part of this history. Not only is it a fine example of 19th-century craftsmanship but it is also a rarity – while many historic paintings had their frames removed, this is the original frame in which Soane bought the work.

At the time it was made, frame-making was a significant industry, with whole workshops of skilled craftsmen using complex techniques to create highly decorated frames.

We know that it would have looked very impressive – but now, it is badly in need of repair. Over the last 200 years, the surface has become dirty, the gilding flaky and unstable, and the structure of the frame has degraded.

The frame of The Snake in the Grass Photo: Tom Ryley

How can you help?

Donations towards the project will help Sir John Soane’s Museum fund the expertise, materials and processes needed to conserve the frame. You can donate through Art Happens, our crowdfunding platform which gives museums and audiences the opportunity to bring creative projects to life, together.

No matter the size, every donation makes a significant impact in helping the museum reach their £15,000 target – and you can choose from a range of rewards, from a limited-edition print to a candlelit ‘unveiling’ event, and even a visit to an antique frame shop.

The conservation studio at Sir John Soane's Museum

Find out more about the project – and help make art happen.

#savetheframe

Tags: Art Happens