Rodin’s Houses of Parliament sculpture in ownership mystery
Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Burghers of Calais’ has stood in Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament for nearly 100 years – certainly long enough to become a familiar feature of the area. However, this imposing public artwork is, in 2011, the subject to something of a mystery as to its ownership, with no government department or agency willing to stake their claim.
The bronze – one of only four made during the artist’s lifetime – was cast in 1908, and had been created to commemorate the siege of Calais in 1347. In 1911, the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund) purchased the work for £2,400 and donated it to ‘the nation’; this rather ambiguous donation could perhaps partially account for the confusion now surrounding the sculpture. It was not until 4 years later in 1915 that the work was publicly unveiled. However, while this was undertaken by the government’s Office of Work, this department was dissolved many years ago, ruling it out of the ownership dispute.
The most likely candidate would seem to be the Royal Parks agency, as the sculpture sits in Victoria Tower Gardens. However, they too categorically deny ownership, despite the fact that they were listed as lender when the work was shown in recent years at exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery and Royal Academy. A spokesman for the agency reported that responsibility for the Burghers lay with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which manages Royal Parks. This was then denied by a departmental representative, only adding to the confusion.
The driving force behind the search for the owner of ‘The Burghers of Calais’ is the Art Fund, which in its previous incarnation conducted the purchase of the work. And this isn’t the first time the organisation has become involved with the sculpture in recent years: in 1990, its chairman Nicholas Goodison successfully pursued a campaign for its restoration after it fell into a state of disrepair.
The Fund is now pledging to do everything possible to identify the sculpture’s legitimate owner. For now, though, the questions surrounding the work remain unanswered. Words Maddie Bates © 2011 ArtLyst
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