News Column

Wolf Hall writer backs campaign to save Wolsey angels: pounds 2.5m needed to secure future of statues designed for Henry VIII's cardinal

July 11, 2014

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

A national fundraising campaign has been launched to buy four bronze angels that shine a light on the tempestuous relationship between Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

The Victoria and Albert Museum needs pounds 5m to buy the sculptures that, for centuries, were thought lost. The museum already has half the money, thanks to pounds 2m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and pounds 500,000 from the Art Fund.

The angels were originally commissioned by Wolsey for his tomb. He hoped that they would have sat spectacularly on top of four 9ft (2.75 metres) tall bronze columns.

But Wolsey's fall from grace, because of his failure to persuade the pope to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, meant they were never used. Henry then appropriated them for his tomb - but they were again unused and were lost until 2008, when it was discovered that two of them were on the gate posts of a country house in Northamptonshire.

The V&A campaign has been backed by Hilary Mantel, writer of the bestselling Wolf Hall, which centres on the troubled relationship between Henry and his cardinal.

She said: "The recovery of Wolsey's angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men."

The angels are around a metre in height and were commissioned from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano in 1524, six years before Wolsey's death. "Like a lot of medieval grandees, Wolsey was planning his tomb long before he was intending to use it," said the V&A's keeper of sculpture, Paul Williamson.

While Benedetto was working on the tomb, which was meant to equal Henry VII's grand tomb in Westminster Abbey, Wolsey's fortunes were changing fast. He was stripped of his possessions and he job as the king's chief adviser in 1529. He died the following year, on his way to London to face charges of treason.

Benedetto was then commissioned to complete the tomb for the king, reusing all the neutral bits such as the angels. But that never happened and while all three of Henry's children expressed the intention to complete it posthumously, they never did.

No one knew the angels still existed until recently. In 1994, two of the angels appeared for auction at Sotheby's, although they were sold simply as being "in Italian Renaissance style".

In 2008, the other two angels were revealed to be on gateposts at Harrowden Hall, a country house that is now owned by the Wellingborough golf club. It was then discovered that the angels sold at Sotheby's had been stolen from Harrowden Hall in 1988.

Williamson said the story of the tomb had become something of a lost chapter, although four candlesticks intended for it are known to be in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent.

"The assumption was that all the other bits had been melted down or lost forever so it is rather extraordinary that the four angels should turn up. Having these angels associated with two of the most famous names of English history, never mind 16th-century English history, is really rather astonishing."

The four angels have been reunited for temporary display in the V&A's medieval and Renaissance galleries to encourage donations.

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said: "The Wolsey angels are a vital part of our national history and artistic heritage. Little of Benedetto da Rovezzano's English work survives and we are fortunate to be able to put these outstanding sculptures on display."

Dame Jenny Abramsky, the chair of the NHMF, said: "The Wolsey angels are unique survivors of the turbulent Tudor court. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the V&A to acquire them and we're pleased to be playing our part with a pounds 2m contribution."

Stephen Deuchar, the Art Fund's director, said he too was delighted to be supporting the campaign. "The commission, design, creation and subsequent history of the Wolsey angels lend them an unusual, colourful and important place in English visual culture."


Paul Jesson - Wolsey in the play of Wolf Hall currently running in London - views the statues in the V&A Photograph: i-Images

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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