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Athens in its flourishing State
Private Collection / Photograph by Richard Lines
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
Athens in its flourishing State
c.1772 (undated)
Oil on canvas
104.2 x 130 cm (sight size)
51 3/16 x 41 in. (sight size)
Private Collection, England
P180
According to Ralph Willett, 'Learning is represented in its most flourishing state; a Group of Philosophers are sacrificing to Minerva, just before her temple; in the Portico of which are several others in various Conversation; on the left ... is a statue of Theseus. Across the Bay of Athens, on which are several Grecian Vessels (one is in the Fore-ground, waiting to carry back the Philosophers), is the City, adorned with the most magnificent Buildings, Triumphal arches, &c. The Temple of the Winds, on a little Eminence, surrounded with Trees, fills up the middle Ground; and a delightful Country, the distance.'
London, Soane Museum,Visions of Ruin, 1999 (20)
Painted in 1772 for Ralph Willett (1719-1795), a well known collector of books and engravings, as one of two overdoors for the library at Merly House, Dorset; dismantled after 1813; anon sale, 20 May 1942 (121), bt Rutley; Major J.M. Mills; private collection, England
Unsigned, no inscription
It is possible that the temple, with its exaggerated perspective, is by a hand other than Wilson's
E51 Benjamin Pouncy after Wilson, Athens in its Flourishing State, The British Museum (X,8.5)
E51A Athens in its Flourishing State, The British Museum (X,8.6)
Pendant: Solomon Delane (1727-after 1784) Athens in its present State of Ruin, current location unknown, was the companion overdoor
The foreground figures have benefited from considerably more attention than is usual with Wilson but still leave much to be desired. Other figures are out of scale with them, notably those on the temple steps at the right. The architecture is sharply focused but gauchely conceived and may be by another hand. Note the influence of Claude, most apparent in the colouring and the ship in the left middleground. While the theme is classical, the colour range is essentially rococo. Among the bas-reliefs on the library ceiling was one representing Pericles and Pheidias in front of the Temple of Minerva, of which Willett stated that he 'owed the greatest Part of it to the truly Attick Mr. Stuart' and whose design the painting follows in its essentials. James Stuart's design was probably adapted by Willett for use by Wilson. Willett's fortune was based on the West India sugar trade and commercial prosperity, as reflected in the harbour bustling with trading vessels and the distant handsome architecture and fertile countryside. Constable has note that the design stands by itself in Wilson's later work as a pastiche of Nicolas Poussin; probably Wilson had little to do with it, simply accepting one prepared for him by his patron, Ralph Willett, who in turn took it from James Stuart. This painting was part of a decorative scheme - a relatively rare occurrence in Wilson's oeuvre. Other examples include the four paintings commissioned by Henry Blundell for Ince Hall (P71A, P119, P127 and P142) and the four commissioned by Sir William Young for Standlynch (see P57A).
R. Willett, A Description of the Library at Merly in the County of Dorset, London, 1785, pp. 35-36; WGC, pp. 43, 73, 80, 95, 169-70, under pl. 29b; Constable 1962, p. 141, no. 2, fig. 3; R. Bowdler, 'Visions of Ruin', The British Art Journal, vol.1, no.1, Autumn 1999, p. 90, repr.; T. Knox, 'A mortifying Lesson to human Vanity: Ralph Willett's Library at Merly House, Dorset', Apollo,vol. 152, July 2000, pp. 38-45
Constable noted that the decoration of the Merly Library was intended to illustrate the rise and progress of human civilisation and consisted mainly of bas-reliefs. The scheme was described and illustrated by Willett in Description of the Library at Merly in the County of Dorset, 1785. The library was sold in 1813 (Philips 21-23 June) and soon afterwards the building which contained it was demolished. The painting was not in the sale and its history in the 19th century remains obscure.
The Maratta frame has been augmented to emphasise its monumentality but probably dates from about 1813, when the painting was removed from the library at Merly. There is a vertical rebate of about 6 mm extending up the right side of the picture, suggesting that the frame is not the original one.