Cameo

Venus rising from the sea (Venus Anadyomene)

1770-1800 (made)

Brown, William

Height: 29 mm, Width: 12 mm

7913-1862 SCP

Cameo depicting Venus Anadyomene, rectangular layered jasper; by William or Charles Brown, Britain, 1770-1800.

Upright oblong cameo of two green layers of jasper enclosing a white layer. The naked figure of Venus, cut largely from the white layer, rises from the waves. She is visible from the thighs upwards, the outline of her lower legs just showing through the translucent water. She wears a wreath, and wrings out her long wet hair with both hands. In the left foreground beneath her right arm is a dolphin, cut from the dark upper layer..

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 cameo is signed 'Brown', which means it was made by one or other, or both, of the engravers William and Charles Brown. Scant details are available of the early background or training for the brothers William (b. 1748; d. London 1825) and Charles (b. 1749; d. 1795) Brown. From 1766 until 1770 William exhibited at the Society of Arts, and from 1770 to 1785 both brothers exhibited annually at the Royal Academy. William was the more prolific of the two, producing gems with classical themes, and contemporary portraits; Charles showed fewer gems and favoured animal subjects. From 1786 until the death of Charles in 1795 the brothers ceased to exhibit, as the first of numerous commissions for their work were received from the court of Catherine II, Empress of Russia. Ultimately perhaps half of their total output - 200 cameos and intaglios - were sent from the Brown’s London workshop to this great collection, and these remain together in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. Between 1788 and 1789 the brothers travelled to France where they worked by invitation at the court of Louis XVI. Because of these foreign commissions their work was far better known outside England, and pieces are relatively rare in British collections. This tiny work, signed ‘Brown’, is beautifully cut from three strata of jasper. The dark green top layer has been partially removed to reveal the figure of Venus carved into the whiteish middle layer, outlined against the dark green base. Traces of green have been retained to colour the hair of Venus, the dolphin and the waves.

Scant details are available of the early background or training for the brothers William (b. 1748; d. London 1825) and Charles (b. 1749; d. 1795) Brown. From 1766 until 1770 William exhibited at the Society of Arts, and from 1770 to 1785 both brothers exhibited annually at the Royal Academy. William was the more prolific of the two, producing gems with classical themes, and contemporary portraits; Charles showed fewer gems and favoured animal subjects. From 1786 until the death of Charles in 1795 the brothers ceased to exhibit, as the first of numerous commissions for their work were received from the court of Catherine II, Empress of Russia. Ultimately perhaps half of their total output - 200 cameos and intaglios - were sent from the Brown’s London workshop to this great collection, and these remain together in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. Between 1788 and 1789 the brothers travelled to France where they worked by invitation at the court of Louis XVI. Because of these foreign commissions their work was far better known outside England, and pieces are relatively rare in British collections. The gems they engraved are often, as here, signed simply ‘Brown’ and so cannot be attributed to one or other brother, and some may have been worked on by both. Vendor not recorded. An engraved gem entitled 'a figure of Venus' was exhibited by William Brown at the Royal Academy in 1774. Historical significance: The type of 'Venus Anadyomene' (Venus rising from the sea), shown standing naked and wringing water from her hair, was found in classical sculpture and is thought to derive from a lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles.

Location: Sculpture, room 111, case 9, shelf 3

View this object on the V&A website