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Ajax

  • Object:

    Cameo

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1800 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone

  • Credit Line:

    Townshend Bequest

  • Museum number:

    1797-1869

  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case 2, shelf 3

The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. This gem is in the neo-classical style popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when taste in the arts echoed the subject matter and style of the Greek and Roman masters. Thousands of gems were made in this style in Italy and brought back by British Grand Tourists, who went there to visit the newly-discovered classical antiquities and archaeological sites. In Greek mythology, the great warrior Ajax was one of the heroes of Agamemnon's army in the Iliad, the account by Homer of the Trojan war. He is frequently shown helmeted, and carrying his great shield, which was said to have been made from seven cow hides covered with a layer of bronze. After they had together won the body of Achilles back from the Trojans, Ajax lost a contest with Odysseus to lay claim to the great hero's magic armour, forged by Haphaestus the armourer of the gods. In his sorrow Ajax went mad, and killed himself. The cameo is signed in what appear to be Greek characters, but the signature is not recognisable as that of a known engraver, and is probably an invention intended to give the gem an added air of classical antiquity.

Physical description

Vertical oval cameo.Opaque white on grey layered jasper. Depicting a bust of a warrior, probably Ajax, helmeted and with a shield, facing three quarters to right. Cameo in very high relief. Set in a gold ring.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

ca. 1800 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone

Marks and inscriptions

Spurious signature in Greek characters in field to left of head.

Dimensions

Height: 38 mm

Object history note

This gem was part of the collection of the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798-1868), who bequeathed his important collection to the South Kensington Museum in 1869. Although the gemstone collection is not as comprehensive as that found at the Natural History Museum in London, it is of particular historic interest as its formation pre-dates the development of many synthetic stones and artificial enhancements. All the stones were mounted as rings before they came to the Museum. Some are held in the Sculpture Section, other more elaborately mounted ones in the Metalwork Section.

As well as being a clergyman, collector and dillettante, the Reverend Townshend wrote poetry. He met Robert Southey in 1815 and through him the Wordsworths, the Coleridges and John Clare. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and dedicatee of his novel 'Great Expectations'.

Historical context note

Engraved gemstones based on classical models were widely produced and collected in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.

Descriptive line

Cameo, oval layered jasper in gold ring, depicting a warrior, probably Ajax, Italy, about 1800

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1869, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 126
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, p. 220

Materials

Gemstone; Layered jasper; Microquartz; Gold

Techniques

Gem-engraving

Categories

Sculpture; Myths & Legends; Jewellery; Gemstones

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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