Plaque, The Sale of Cupids

WB.85     about 1800–1830 • Rock crystal, enamelled gold mounts • plaque

The scene is derived from an ancient Roman wall painting, discovered in Herculaneum in 1759. The sentimental subject became popular with European artists and was copied in painting, Wedgwood ceramic and engraving (see below). The crystal is close to the work of neo-classical gem engravers working in Rome and Vienna in the early 19th century.

Curator's Description

Oval plaque; rock crystal; engraved in intaglio with copy of the fresco of the sale of Cupids at Herculaneum; gold enamelled mount with studs and bands; chain for suspension.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

15.5 cm wide, 12 cm high, 1.1 cm deep, and it weighs 360g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991:-

Origin: Uncertain; Italian or Austrian (perhaps Rome or Vienna), probably first third of 19th century.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: This engraved gem is exceptional for four reasons: the sheer size of the oval plaque; the thickness of the rock-crystal and (on the reverse) the reduction of it by creating a polished, bevelled border; the cutting of the scene on the obverse, and hence the elimination of any need to engrave the composition in reverse; and, finally, the creation of a matt surface within the figure scene.

The intaglio scene itself is derived from a classical fresco painting buried under a rain of volcanic dust in AD 79, when Mt Vesuvius broke into sudden activity and destroyed the towns of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae (O. Elia, ‘Pitture di Stabia’, Naples, 1957, pl. XLIII). The fresco was discovered only in 1759, and three years later was published for the first time in ‘Delle Antichità di Ercolano’ (Naples, Vol. III, 1762, pl. 7), where the engraving is fully signed: “Gio. Morghen Reg. del. / C. Nolli Reg. f.”.

Consequently, the rock-crystal intaglio and its pseudo-Renaissance enamelled gold frame cannot be older than 1762. Indeed, when this plaque was first published in Read 1902 it was described as “modern” and a brief reference was made to the 1762 engraving of the “fresco discovered at Herculaneum”. However, in Dalton 1915 and again in Dalton 1927 the description of the plaque as “18th-19th century” opened up the interesting possibility that it might have been engraved in the late eighteenth century when neo-classicism was particularly fashionable and strong links, both political and cultural, between Britain and Naples existed. Attractive though this idea might seem, the evidence - albeit inconclusive - no longer seems to favour a late eighteenth-century origin, as the following discussion will indicate.

After the discovery of the fresco in 1759, the subject itself rapidly gained popularity in artistic circles in Europe, especially in France, where as early as 1763 the painting ‘Marchande d'Amour’ by Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809) was exhibited at the Paris Salon. Although clearly inspired by the fresco, it must be stressed that the painting is a very free interpretation indeed. This emerging artist, elected to the Royal Academy in Paris in 1754, had come under the influence of a leading antiquary, collector and connoisseur, the Comte de Caylus, who encouraged him to experiment with the revival of the techniques of classical encaustic painting and to study the newly discovered frescoes of Herculaneum. As a result he exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1763 a total of eight paintings, including the ‘Marchande d'Amour’ (now in the Palace of Fontainebleau), and so began a new fashion in Paris for paintings à la grecque, as they were then called. Thus started one of the first waves in the great movement of neo-classicism that was to dominate the remaining decades of the eighteenth century.

Like many leading contemporary patrons of the arts in Europe, the Empress Catherine II of Russia (reigned 1762-96) so approved of the subject that she included it in the programme of the decoration of her palace at Tsarskoe Selo. In England the subject seems to have been adopted by Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) towards the end of the eighteenth century (see Hugh Tait, Wedgwood, Paris and the "Sale of Cupids" plaque, ‘Ars Ceramica’, The Wedgwood Society of New York, No. 6, 1989, pp. 14-17, figs 1-4, where attention was drawn to the absence of any documentary evidence in the Wedgwood archives or elsewhere confirming the unsupported, but widely published, statement that the subject was first modelled and used by Wedgwood in 1784 - this date was first quoted in Jean Gorely, New Light in Old Sources, in ‘Old Wedgwood’, No. 8, 1941, p. 76). Neither the exact date nor the immediate sources used by Wedgwood for his reliefs of the 'sale of Cupids' is known and, consequently, their relationship to this rock-crystal intaglio in the Waddesdon Bequest needs to be considered.

At least two jasperware cameo versions were produced by Wedgwood, the slightly larger being oval and the smaller being rectangular. The latter, which subsequently incorporated (on the right) a Roman sacrifice scene with a statue of Eros on a pedestal, is represented in the British Museum's collections by an early nineteenth-century example made of a white jasper body with a black dip, whilst the border of leaves has a green ground; it bears the impressed mark WEDGWOOD, also three dots in triangular formation, and it measures H. 3.2 cm, L. 6.3 cm. When this cameo plaque was first published and illustrated (R. L. Hobson, ‘Catalogue of English Pottery in the British Museum’, 1903, p. 249, no. 628, pl. 35), reference was made to Wedgwood's design being derived from the painting discovered at Herculaneum in 1759; however, neither the painting nor the engraving was illustrated. Only in 1957 was a comparative photograph of the Naples 1762 engraving reproduced, but regrettably it was seriously misleading because, in error, it was printed in reverse and had been so drastically trimmed that both signatures were lost (see Carol Macht, ‘Classical Wedgwood Designs’, New York, 1957, P-56, pl. 29).

In all the Wedgwood jasperware cameo versions the composition of the scene is repeated and, although it corresponds in many respects with the 1762 Naples engraving, there are no background details and the two figure groups have been brought close together, thereby eliminating the artistic caesura of the original fresco and the 1762 engraving. In both these respects it is not unlike the French miniatures painted en grisaille and set in the lids of at least two gold circular boxes - both made in Paris by Jean-François Morand in 1789: firstly, there is the example preserved since 1917 in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1982, p. 18, Case 3, Board K, no. 62, where it is stated that the painting (DIAM. 6.4 cm) is on ivory); and, secondly, there is an unprovenanced example in Switzerland (Sotheby's Geneva Sale Catalogue, 17 November 1988, lot 385, col. pl., where the diameter is stated to be 6 cm and the miniatures to be “in the manner of Piat Joseph Sauvage”). The gold box maker J.-F. Morand had entered his mark eight years earlier and, as he is last recorded in Paris in 1793, he has a working career of little more than a decade (S. Grandjean, ‘Catalogue des Tabatières, boîtes et étuis’, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1981, no. 161). Although neither of these miniatures is identical with Wedgwood's reliefs and therefore the immediate source has still not been traced, nevertheless it may have been French, for Josiah Wedgwood was a shrewd businessman who recognised that the latest fashion in Paris often became popular with his wealthy clientele in London.

There are also compelling reasons which make it improbable that Wedgwood's versions were copied from the large rock-crystal intaglio gem in the Waddesdon Bequest. The engraver of this rock-crystal has departed from the 1762 engraving and introduced several significant additions and changes, which are not repeated in the Wedgwood reliefs:

(i) The woman standing on the extreme left is depicted with an outstretched left arm, gesturing towards the pen.

(ii) The woman seated on the left is also depicted with a raised left arm - apparently supporting the back of the cupid between her knees.

(iii) The draperies of these two women (on the left) are altered, especially in the area below the knees of the seated lady and in the voluminous garment worn by the standing figure - now replaced by a short-sleeved tunic and dress.

(iv) The standing figure is represented as taller, and her head and neck are gracefully inclined forward.

Consequently the Wedgwood versions, which are closer to the 1762 engraving and do not incorporate any of the more important changes of this intaglio, can be presumed to have had a different intermediary source - and, indeed, there is no proof that the Waddesdon Bequest intaglio plaque had even been made at the time when Wedgwood adopted the subject for his series of bas-reliefs.

In Italy, especially in Rome, the fashion for modern engraved gems, both cameos and intaglios, flourished in the eighteenth century and reached its peak in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. The names of the many gem-engravers employed in this craft are known from the records, but relatively few of their signed works have been traced and so only a very incoherent account of their production can be formulated. Many, like the youthful Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855), were engaged in the production of spurious 'antique' gems for the wealthy collectors, and in the classic case of the faked 'Poniatowski gems' the team is said to have included well-known engravers, like Luigi Pichler, Giuseppe Girometti and Cerbara, as well as lesser names, like Odelli and Cades. Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833), the nephew and heir to the King of Poland, had lived in Rome since 1791 and made a collection of over 2,600 'antique' gems, but nearly half of them were found to be modern fakes, when the collection came to be dispersed in London at Christie's in 1839. This celebrated case was, doubtless, paralleled by numerous similar deceptions that failed to be unmasked with such open debate (see ‘Catalogue des Pierres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski’ (unsigned), Florence, 1831; Dalton 1915, p. lxviii; A. Busiri Vici, ‘I Poniatowski a Roma’, Florence, 1971; Hugh Tait (ed. and contrib.), ‘The Art of the Jeweller, A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum: Jewellery, Engraved Gems and Goldsmiths’ Work’, London, 1984, pp. 124-5; P. Neverov, The Art Collections of the two Poniatowskis, ‘Muzei’, 2, Moscow, 1981, pp. 171-96; J. Rudoe in ‘Fake? The Art of Deception’, exh. cat., British Museum, 1990, pp. 149-51, no. 154).

Within such a context the Waddesdon Bequest rock-crystal intaglio might have been created, on commission from a dealer/jeweller middle-man, by one of these gifted but little-known Italian gem-engravers of the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one signed intaglio of this subject has, most fortunately, been recorded; it is a variant of the 'sale of Cupids' scene and has the signature, in the exergue, CADES (see Georg Lippold, ‘Gemmen und Kameen des Altertums und derNeuzeit’, Stuttgart, 1922, p. 184, pl. cxxiii). In this intaglio, however, only the right-hand half of the scene is repeated; indeed, the seated woman with, in front of her, the pen containing one Cupid and a second Cupid held aloft above it, faithfully follows the classical original, but the rest of the scene has been omitted. It has been replaced by a single standing nude female figure - perhaps Venus?

Although it is signed, the authorship of this intaglio remains uncertain. Mistakenly, it has been recently published as the work of Giuseppe Cades (1750-99), one of the painters working at the Borghese Palace in Rome (see R. Reilly and G. Savage, ‘Dictionary of Wedgwood’, Woodbridge, 1980, p. 66; also R. Reilly, ‘Wedgwood’, vol. I, London, 1989, p. 603). Three different members of the Cades family practised the craft of gem-engraver (see Constantino G. Bulgari, ‘Argentieri, Gemmari e Orafi d'Italia’, Rome 1958, p. 224). The foremost member, Alessandro Cades, who died in Rome in 1809, was associated with Giovanni Pichler (1734-91); in his later years Alessandro, with his wife Clementina Gioni and family, lived near the Piazza di Spagna. Two sons, Tommaso and Giovanni, were both gem-engravers and continued to operate in Rome for many years, becoming involved in the scandalously large-scale production of faked gems bearing false signatures for the famous Poniatowski Collection. Tommaso (born in 1775) is documented at various times up to 1850 and is better known because he issued a series of casts for sale. Although Giovanni was born only in 1791, his marriage in 1819 and subsequent addresses are recorded until his death in 1835. Whereas few engraved gems, if any, can be attributed to the younger son, who was just eighteen years old when his father died, it seems that Tommaso and his ageing father may have had a close working relationship and perhaps used the same form of signature. The Museum's stylistically related cameo of Cupid and Psyche is similarly signed with no more than the surname: CADES (see Dalton 1915, no. 100, pl. VII).

This one recorded intaglio by Cades, based so closely on the composition of the fresco of the 'sale of Cupids' and yet so radically adapted, is indicative of the Roman gem-engravers' familiarity with the subject. If, therefore, the Waddesdon Bequest rock-crystal plaque had also been made in Rome at about the same period, the engraver's introduction of several changes in the composition would not have been exceptional, and certainly there would have been no shortage of Italian goldsmiths to fashion the enamelled gold in the Renaissance style (see Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, I: The Jewels’, London, 1986, pp. 15-18, figs 1-2, for examples made shortly before 1829). The frame might even have been produced by the Castellani workshop, founded in 1814 by the antiquarian-minded goldsmith Fortunato Pio Castellani (1794-1865).

However, the gem-engraver's role had also become important in other centres, especially in Vienna where Luigi Pichler (1773-1854), having worked successfully in Rome, started a profitable career in 1808. He numbered the Emperor Franz I among his patrons, was a member of the Vienna Academy, and from 1818 to 1850 was Professor of Medal- and Gem-cutting, thereby introducing another generation of potential gem-engravers to the secrets of the art. However, in the decade before the middle of the century, following upon the sale of the Poniatowski Collection in 1839, the loss of confidence caused the vast market for engraved gems to shrink and the creation of false 'antique' gems was no longer such a profitable pursuit. In its place, it seems that work of a comparable nature could be found by catering for the needs of the collectors of 'Renaissance' engraved rock-crystal vessels with richly enamelled gold mounts. An origin in Vienna, therefore, would not seem improbable and might account not only for the 'historising' design of the enamelled gold frame but also for the introduction of a rather refined, elegant figure-style, for undoubtedly the anonymous engraver has radically 'improved' the three female figures so that they might conform to the prevailing 'sweet' style.

Significantly, this 'sweet' style and the other additions and alterations (like the ladies' left arms) are not to be found in the 1859 Berlin edition (by W. Zahn) nor the 1861 French edition (‘Herculanum et Pompéi. Recueil Général des Peintures, Bronzes, Mosaïques, etc.’, Paris, 1861, pp. 75ff., pl. 59), where the illustration of the fresco by H. Roux repeats faithfully the 1762 engraving but omits most of the heavy shading of the background. However, the lengthy text of this 1861 edition is perhaps an excellent indication of the wide interest that this fresco continued to arouse; indeed the authors, L. Barré and J. Bories, offer an elaborately contrived interpretation of the allegorical scene.

Symptomatic of the continuing popularity of the subject during the second half of the nineteenth century is another - but greatly inferior - engraved rock-crystal plaque of the 'sale of Cupids' in the Taft Museum, Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, Ohio (Acc. no. 1931.212; H. 8.1 cm, w. 8.9 cm). That this pseudo-Renaissance engraved gem was made with the intention of deceiving a rich collector can scarcely be doubted, for the engraver has had the temerity to engrave a famous signature (below the scene): VALERIUS BELLI VICENTINUS. (See WB.86 for more information about this artist.) The Taft Museum plaque has no known history, having been acquired by Mr and Mrs Charles Phelps Taft at some date between 1902 and 1927; when it was briefly described in the ‘Taft Museum Catalogue’ (Cincinnati, 1939, p. 85, no. 252) it was stated to bear “a fictitious signature; Italian(?), eighteenth or nineteenth century”. Few today would support so optimistic an attribution; indeed, the debased form of Renaissance-style frame engraved around the oval scene and the form of the swags of drapery engraved in the upper part of the oval scene are indicative of a workshop north of the Alps at the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century. In contrast, the plaque in the Waddesdon Bequest seems so close to the work of the late neo-classical gem-engravers that an early nineteenth-century origin, perhaps in Rome or more probably in Vienna, seems a likely explanation, although it has to be recognised that London itself had built up a small but gifted school of gem-engravers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The hand of the engraver of this plaque, however, cannot be recognised among the extant signed or documented works exhibited at the Royal Academy in this period, and therefore the London attribution must remain, at best, no more than a very tentative suggestion.


  • Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 85
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the British Museum’, London, 1915, no. 660 (with illus.)
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 85
  • Hugh Tait, Wedgwood, Paris and the "Sale of Cupids" plaque, ‘Ars Ceramica’, The Wedgwood Society of New York, No. 6, 1989, p. 17, fn. 11
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. III. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.16, figs. 366-367.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1915: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography in the British Museum., London, BMP, 1915
    3. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    4. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991

Go to the Collection Online page for this object?