A nymph or a matron? Townley's 'Clytie'

On Saturday I’ll be talking about Roman sculptures in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. One of the sculptures on which I'll be focusing is the marble bust known as 'Clytie' that came into the museum as part of the collection of Charles Townley (1737-1805). Townley was born into a Catholic family near Burnley in Lancashire and in 1767 left England for the first of his visits to Italy on what is known as a 'Grand Tour', a popular activity for gentleman at that time, who travelled to Italy and later Greece and Turkey to visit places seen as romantic and exotic in order to experience the the cultural legacy of classical antiquity. With the help of various dealers he amassed a collection of antiquities and exhibited them in his house in London, where they made quite an impact.  In fact he was made a trustee of the British Museum in 1791.
Townley originally intended to bequeath his collection to the British Museum, but changed his mind shortly before he died and instead left it to his family on the condition that they opened a museum in Burnley to show the antiquities to the public. The family could not meet the condition, and so sold the collection to the British Museum for £20,000, a figure much less than the original cost to Townley.
The bust known as ‘Clytie’ is a beautiful sculpture and also a very interesting object in terms of the history of the museum’s collections and the acquisition of antiquities during the ‘Grand Tour’.
The sculpture shows a woman emerging from leaves or petals, and was the subject of much discussion amongst Townley’s circle of antiquaries and dilettanti. Townley himself changed his mind about the identity of the woman several times.
In his account book the woman is listed as Agrippina, and the bust was shipped to London under that name. But she was soon identified with Clytie, a figure from Greek mythology who pined away for love of the sun-god Helios or Apollo and was changed into a flower ‘like a violet’ that turned its face towards the sun as it passed by (Ovid, Metamorphoses iv 256-70). Townley called the flower a ‘sunflower’ since it turns to face the sun, but the petals do not look much like those of a sunflower and furthermore Helianthus is an American species. In his notebooks Townley also refers to the sculpture as ‘A female Bust like an Agrippina ending in a Sun flower….representing Clytie’, but yet again as ‘the Libera or female Bacchus’. Later he catalogues the bust as ‘Isis in the flower of the Lotus’.
What is not in doubt is Townley’s love of the sculpture, and also its popularity. Clytie was one of three of his ancient sculptures Townley had printed on his visiting card. The sculptor Nollekens, who also produced a portrait bust of Townley 'herm style', kept marble copies of the bust in stock to sell. As subject matter the nymph Clytie, normally depicted as the head of a woman emerging from a sunflower, was generally popular with neo-classical sculptors and artists. This particular Clytie was copied in various media: for example gems, some engraved before 1774 while the portrait was still in Italy, cameos and porcelain.
From 1855 the Staffordshire company W.T. Copeland & Sons (now Spode) made copies of Clytie in Parian, a new type of white unglazed porcelain which resembled marble from Paros. Minton also produced a version.
Townley's library by Johan Zoffany
A painting by Johan Zoffany shows Townley in the library of his London home surrounded by part of his collection (not arranged as they would have been in the house) and some of his antiquary friends. Clytie is given pride of place on a small table next to Townley.
It was even reported that during the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780 the bust was carried from the house in flight by Townley himself and though some scholars doubt that the rather slender Townley could have managed this feat the story confirms that this was his favourite sculpture. It was even rumoured that he referred to it as his ‘wife’.
Townley acquired the sculpture from the family of Principe Laurenzano in 1772 in Naples. He paid 500 Ducats for it, which he reckoned to be £98, and shipped it home to England on the ‘Lovely Betsy’. On arrival in the UK it was valued by Customs at £3 and incurred a duty of 19s. 6d.
So ‘Clytie’ caused a stir in the 18th century (Townley was not the only British collector who wanted to buy her) and she has since caused debate about her age and her identity.
Some modern scholars have claimed that the bust was made as recently as the 18th century and presented to collectors and potential buyers as an antiquity. This was not uncommon at that time: many unknowing gentlemen with spare cash were duped by the canny dealers of Naples, being sold forgeries or ensemble pieces.
However, work at the British Museum has shown that the piece in all probability dates from the mid 1st century BC and is certainly ancient. Experts consider the marble to be Parian, and therefore it must have been quarried in antiquity, since the underground quarries on Paros were not worked in the 18th century. A close look at the underside of the leaves or petals reveals traces of incrustation, especially at the back of the sculpture where the restorer did not pay so much attention. The sculpture was certainly subject to restoration at some point, most likely in the 18th century.
It seems that the sculpture was enthusiastically cleaned and even reworked in order to make it more appealing to the Grand Tour trade. Clytie, it seems, may have originally been a portrait reworked to make it more erotic and therefore more appealing to the gentlemen collectors.
This was not an uncommon occurrence. The most famous example is the 'Flora Farnese', a colossal statue restored and reworked sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries to look more erotic. The Farnese Flora is a reworked Roman copy of a Greek original statue of the second half of the 5th century BC. The original, of which various versions are extant, wears a long chiton and himation, however the Farnese statue has one side of the chiton removed by restorers sometime after the 16th century to reveal most of  her right breast. The statue became very famous, eventually going into the collection of the Farnese family.
Flora type with chiton intact
The Farnese Flora - with remodelled chiton

So our Clytie, though now showing a great deal of decolletage and most of one breast, was probably not originally meant to look so provocative. Her stola has been resculpted to be more revealing, and thus more marketable to the Grand Tourists. The overall effect is sensual, which is at odds with with what we know of the person currently identified as the subject of the portrait: Antonia Minor, who died in AD38.
Antonia Minor, also known as Antonia the Younger, was the younger of two daughters of Mark Antony and Octavia. She was the niece of Augustus, sister-in-law of Tiberius, grandmother of Caligula and Agrippina, mother of the Emperor Claudius, and both great-grandmother and great-aunt of the Emperor Nero.
As an historical figure, Antonia was celebrated for her virtue and beauty. She married the consul Drusus, stepson of her uncle Augustus, and brother of future Emperor Tiberius. Of their many children, only three survived to adulthood including the beloved Germanicus. Widowed in 9BC, she never remarried. She was offered the title of Augusta by Caligula, but rejected it, and became so upset by the excesses of her grandson’s reign that she committed suicide. She was renowned for her virtue in antiquity, so it seems particularly ironic that her portrait is later identified with the somewhat flighty Clytie.
The Baiae Antonia
The portrait can be compared with other known portraits of Antonia, such as the Antonia of Baiae, and the likeness is clear. The modestly tilted head and the shape of the lips are very alike. The hairstyle, low on the brow and centrally parted, became a fashion during Antonia’s lifetime as her beauty and restrained style was much admired.
Her portrait is still admired today, though not as its original sculptor intended, and Clytie/Antonia remains popular, copies of the bust being sold in the British Museum shop and elsewhere. Like many of the objects chosen for display in the Enlightenment Gallery, it has a truly fascinating story.


  1. Thank you for posting this interesting and informative article. So many of these pieces have fascinating stories!


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