Issue Number: 116
As the life-size bronze cast of ‘Laocoön’ travels from Houghton Hall to the RA for the ‘Bronze’ exhibition, Sarah Greenberg discusses why this monumental sculpture group has made such an impact on western art
François Girardon, 'Laocoön and his Sons', c.1690 Houghton Hall, Norfolk/Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London, Roy Fox. When guests arrived at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the stately home built by Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), Britain’s first Prime Minister, they would have found themselves face to face with a monumental black bronze cast of Laocoön. Its sinuous forms stand in striking contrast to the white stucco and marble busts of the Stone Hall, including a neoclassical bust of Walpole dressed as a Roman in a toga with Garter star. Even today, the sculpture stops you in your tracks, its gleaming dark surface and writhing limbs framed by the perfect white cube of Neo-Palladian proportions designed by William Kent to evoke the idea of an ancient Roman palace.
What sort of polite conversation would have been attempted by ladies and gentlemen confronting a giant man and his sons being strangled by serpents? ‘Even now I shudder a bit when I look at it,’ says Lord Cholmondeley, the descendant of Walpole and current owner of Houghton, who shows me around. If, like Sir Robert, visitors to Houghton had been schooled in the classics, they might recount the tragic tale of Laocoön, the Trojan priest who tried to warn his countrymen about the Trojan horse. It is to him we owe the expression ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’, although according to Virgil, he actually said, ‘I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts.’ The goddess Athena, who was on the side of the Greeks, punished him by sending giant sea snakes to crush him and his sons to death.
If Walpole’s guests had taken the Grand Tour, they might have remarked on the sculpture’s faithfulness to the first-century BCE Hellenistic Greek marble original in the Vatican, discovered in 1506, one of the star attractions there. According to Pliny the Elder, it had stood in Titus’ palace in Rome and was considered one of the greatest works of art of its time. In the Renaissance, it inspired Michelangelo (think of his Dying Slave and the figures on the Sistine ceiling) and countless other Renaissance artists.
Girardon’s 'Laocoön', installed on a plinth designed for it by William Kent, in the Stone Hall at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Photo Sarah Greenberg.
Sir Robert never left England, but he sent his sons on the Grand Tour and his eldest, Lord Walpole, bought this life-size cast for him in Paris in around 1722-23. It has remained at Houghton ever since, so its loan to the RA’s ‘Bronze’ exhibition is a special event. Lord Cholmondeley is lending it because, he says, ‘I love the idea of the show, of bringing together all the great bronzes in one place, and I am pleased that this is considered one of them.’
By the end of the 18th century, Laocoön was considered one the greatest of all works of art. For Sir Joshua Reynolds at the then new Royal Academy (where a plaster cast of Laocoön took pride of place in the RA Schools, and starred in a 1795 group portrait of the Royal Academicians) it was an exemplum virtutis, an example of virtue, which Reynolds believed was the ultimate aim of a work of art. Why? Well, according to the influential 18th-century German critic and dramatist Gotthold Lessing, despite the fact that Laocoön is suffering an agonizing death while watching his sons perish, his lips are only slightly parted and he is not screaming but stoically sighing and bearing his fate. So Reynolds and his contemporaries saw in this sculpture an example of dignified restraint, the noble mind conquering the body’s agony, a graceful composition unmarred by anguished feeling. The more I look at this work, though, the more Lessing’s argument seems like a red herring. And Gombrich sets us straight once and for all: in his essay on Lessing, he says, ‘to ask what noise the poor priest emits is as pointless as to ask after the colour of his hair.’
This breathtaking vision of beauty and death is, in a way, an infinite work of art. Civilisations from Imperial Rome, to Renaissance Italy, to Enlightenment Europe have found in Laocoön the artistic ideals they sought. It also seems to call across the centuries to modern images of tragic death and suffering: Goya’s 3 May, 1808, Picasso’s Guernica, Capa’s Falling Soldier, to name a few. As we gaze at the black bronze Laocoön at the RA, it still attracts wonder and empathy, confronting us with both the nobility of the human spirit and the pain of the human condition, literally intertwined in its serpentine forms. The late great Robert Hughes wrote that Laocoön ‘rendered the mythic palpably human’.
I would add that, like all great art, Laocoön also does the reverse and shows humanity on a mythic scale.