Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Rectangular statuary marble group of a naked nymph reclining full-length and cross-legged on a lion's pelt, with spring issuing water. Head of wavy hair gathered to her right, supported by left hand. A winged cherub seated at her feet plucks a lyre.
For much of the last seven years of his life, Canova was preoccupied with orders which resulted from his visit to London in 1815. There he had been fêted not only as the greatest sculptor of the age, but for his official role in supervising the return from Paris to Rome of antiquities carried off by Napoleon. During the visit Canova was received at Windsor Castle by Queen Charlotte and the royal princesses, and at Carlton House by the future George IV, who commissioned the colossal group of Mars and Venus and presented the sculptor with a gold snuff box containing £500.
The Fountain Nymph, which Hugh Honour has aptly called 'a poetic expression of languorous voluptuousness', originated in a request made to Canova by John Campbell, first Baron Cawdor, as early as 1802. Campbell, who had travelled extensively in Italy, was Canova's first yet least successful British patron; two of his commissions - including the Cupid and Psyche (Paris, Louvre) - were pre-empted by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. In 1815, after the completion of a full-size model for the Fountain Nymph (it survives, with the small model, in the Gipsoteca Canoviana at Possagno), Canova agreed to the request of Sir Charles Long (later Lord Farnborough), George IV's artistic adviser, to carve the first marble for the Prince. A drawing was sent to London in June 1816, and in August Long conveyed the Prince's approval (Museo Civico Bassano). By that time, work was already under way; when Lady Murray visited Canova's studio on 25 July she found him at work on the nymph, and rejoicing 'in the peculiarly fine quality and purity of the marble'. The group was completed in 1817 and shipped to Portsmouth on the vessel that carried the Duke of Bedford's version of Canova's Three Graces. Arriving at Carlton House on 12 June 1819, it was installed in the unlikely setting of the Gothic Conservatory by the English sculptor Richard Westmacott, who subsequently received written instructions from Canova as to its placing and lighting. The plinth was to be 2 feet [60 cm] high, and capable of rotating so that the sculpture could be seen from all sides. In a letter dated 12 August 1819, he stated that it should be lit from above. The 'large brass guard ornamented with spikes' that was erected to surround it may have proved necessary in the light of the fêtes regularly held at Carlton House, when it must have been the focus of much attention.
The subject, a naiad lying on a lion's pelt beside a spring, awakened by the sound of a lyre plucked by Cupid, is described in the Dionysiaca by the Greek poet Nonnus, but the composition is more likely to have occurred to Canova from the adaptation of antique models such as the Capitoline Hermaphrodite. A second version of the group (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), lacking the Cupid, was commissioned by Lord Darnley for Cobham Hall in Kent. The marble for that version was found to be faulty; it was completed by studio assistants in 1824, two years after Canova's death. There are several parallels with Canova's notorious Venere vincitrice of 1805-08, in which Pauline Borghese is portrayed as Venus (Rome, Villa Borghese). The musical Cupid assumed a career of its own in the nineteenth century through copies by Canova's assistant Leandro Biglioschi and by Bertel Thorwaldsen.
Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002