The Magazine of South Carolina

A Grand Tour Indeed

Burghley House's Priceless Treasures Come to the Columbia Museum of Art


"Temple of Vesta"

Joseph Nollekens' 1764 marble bust of Medusa

Cabinet, circa 1680, attributed to Leonardo van der Vinne

Rock crystal ewer

Pierced gold & enamel pomander

Figurine of Cleopatra

Pictorial snuff box

Article by Diana Blackwell/Photos Courtesy Columbia Museum of Art

Once upon a time, a young man of noble birth could not consider himself thoroughly educated until he embarked on the Grand Tour, a leisurely, indulgent immersion in the architecture, art, history and culture of neighboring countries and distant climes. John Cecil, Fifth Earl of Exeter, an early "Grand Tourist," and later his great-grandson the Ninth Earl, Brownlow Cecil, each set off to Italy and France to further refine their formal studies. Their souvenirs, objects of tremendous beauty and taste, made their way home to Burghley House, the Cecil family country estate near Stamford in Lincolnshire, England. These fabulous pieces would be supplemented by other acquisitions, gifts and items through marriage over a period of 400 years.

In a rare international showing, Burghley House treasures will be on display at the Columbia Museum of Art from January 22 to March 19, 2000. "The Cecil Family Collects: Four Centuries of Decorative Arts From Burghley House" showcases some 120 pieces, including sumptuous miniatures; jewelry and jeweled pieces; statuary; marbles; mosaics; European, Japanese and Chinese ceramics; furniture and furnishings; and silver. This private collection is distinctive for the exceptional range, quality and value of its components, its representation of the evolution of taste, and the gratifying fact that it has remained largely intact over the centuries.

The museum’s first "blockbuster" exhibition, "Burghley House" is expected to draw record regional audiences. Salvatore G. Cilella, director of the Columbia Museum of Art, notes that South Carolina is one of only six American stops for the collection—and the last before it returns to England. "It says a great deal about South Carolina’s commitment to the arts that we were able to secure this tour, whose other North American stops are Santa Barbara, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Palm Beach and Peoria," Cilella comments. "This is a significant exhibition that will increase the trend of statewide and regional visitors joining our local patrons. As the museum’s reputation and attendance grow, Columbia reaps real economic development and quality of life benefits."

Charles T. Cole Jr., Palmetto Region executive for Wachovia Bank, N.A., and president of the museum’s board of trustees, proposed that the bank underwrite the Columbia presentation after hearing about the prestigious history and contents of Burghley House. Wachovia Carolinas Banking CEO Will B. Spence, who happened to have visited Burghley House on a recent vacation, readily supported Cole’s suggestion. "With its move to Main Street, the museum is positioned to host an exhibition of greater dimensions and proportions than could be offered in the past," Cole observes. "Burghley House clearly is a show of great educational and aesthetic value, and Wachovia is happy to help make it accessible to the public."

A hallmark of the collection is Joseph Nollekens’ marble bust of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon decapitated by Perseus, purchased by the Ninth Earl in Rome in 1764. A copy of the Rodanini Medusa now housed in the Glyptothek museum in Munich, Nollekens’ work is a mesmerizing contradiction. Far from hideous, this Medusa is coldly and serenely beautiful, with two neatly entwining serpents framing her face; only the sightless eyes and parted lips convey a powerful and unsettling sense of menace.

Another compelling piece is a cabinet given to the Fifth Earl by the Archduke Cosimo III of Tuscany in winter 1683-84 after a stay at his court in Florence. Attributed to Leonardo van der Vinne of Florence, the piece is of ebony with bone and mother of pearl marquetry, marble and gilt-bronze on a gilt wood stand. It is notable for its pietra dure panels featuring birds, baskets of fruit and flowers, six marble columns and figures representing the four seasons.

Other highlights of the collection include a pair of mosaic pictures depicting the Roman Colosseum and the Temple of Vesta, Roman goddess of the hearth; an ebony altar cross with lapis, agate and gilt bronze; a Miseroni Workshop rock crystal ewer done in 1600, ornamented with enameled gold, rubies, garnets and diamonds and featuring a carved cameo of Elizabeth I; a Bella Donna majolica dish made in about 1530; a circa-1770 George III commode by Mayhew and Ince of satinwood, rosewood and purple heart wood with brass fittings; and miniature paintings on vellum whose subjects include the "Adoration of the Magi" and members of the aristocracy—Cecil family members among them. The exhibit’s Japanese porcelain pieces, the earliest documented export porcelain of their kind in the Western world, are testimonials to the Cecils’ discerning eye for the truly collectible.

The connoisseurs who compiled and preserved this collection were part of a family as distinctive as their home’s priceless treasures. William Cecil, the First Lord Burghley (1520-98), rebuilt and enlarged the house purchased in 1527 by his father David. Under William’s hand, Burghley House would be recognized as a renaissance "prodigy house" noted for its extravagant luxury, size, and classical style and appointments. William Cecil was a trusted and favored advisor of Queen Elizabeth I and served as her treasurer. (Actor Richard Attenborough portrayed him in the recent motion picture "Elizabeth.") He was immortalized in verse by his contemporary, Ben Jonson.

John Cecil (1648-1700) and his wife Anne Cavendish are credited with modernizing Burghley House according to 17th-Century standards, in addition to their many trips to Europe that helped amass the family collection. Brownlow Cecil (1725-1793) carried on his great-grandfather’s renovations, engaging the esteemed Georgian architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown. David Cecil, Lord Burghley, Sixth Marquess of Exeter (1905-81), a gold medalist in the 1928 Olympic Games and silver medalist in 1932, inspired the character of "Lord Lindsay" in the movie "Chariots of Fire."

Contemporary mainline descendants likewise are distinguished. William A.V. Cecil of Asheville, NC, great-grandson of George Washington Vanderbilt, owns Biltmore Estate—another Cecil family home. His son William Jr. serves as president and CEO of the Biltmore Company. The current resident of Burghley House, Lady Victoria Leatham, is a director of Sotheby’s in London and is an author, speaker and television series host.

"The Cecil Family Collects: Four Centuries of Decorative Arts From Burghley House" is organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, VA. Support has been provided by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The exhibition is made possible by a grant by Wachovia Bank, N.A.

Diana Blackwell is vice president of Wachovia Bank, N.A., and is based in Columbia.


* Wachovia Corporation

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