The bust of the martyr St Agnes by Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, found accidentally as sculptures were gathered for cataloguing, was previously thought to have been lost. It now becomes the only work by the artist to be held in a UK public collection.
The discovery was made as part of a National Trust four-year sculpture cataloguing project to fully record and research all 6,000 sculptures and statues in its collection spread over 200 sites. This effort is taking place in collaboration with Art UK’s parallel endeavour to produce an online catalogue of the nation’s publicly owned sculptures.
The St Agnes bust was one of four sculptures commissioned for the Benedictine Abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul in Wissembourg, France. The other three now reside in museums.
The sculpture was acquired between 1932 and 1940 by Lord Fairhaven, the owner of Anglesey Abbey. Having been wrongly described in his 1940 inventory as ‘The Virgin and the Lamb’, St Agnes has since been on top of a cupboard in the Abbey’s Windsor Bedroom.
That was until Dr Jeremy Warren, the National Trust’s sculpture research curator, discovered its true identity. “It was clear to me that the sculpture was of superb quality, with enough clues to lead us to look at the work of sculptors who were working in the later 15th century,” he noted.
Alice Rylance-Watson, the National Trust’s collections cataloguer, added: “This discovery demonstrates the enormous importance and value of cataloguing. The project has involved visiting properties and examining each sculpture in person to produce detailed and accurate descriptions, followed by research in archives across the country to determine who made the pieces, and how they came into the Trust’s collections.”
Convinced St Agnes won’t be the sole exciting find of the project, Warren continued: “We suspect there are a lot of discoveries, great and small, to be made in the Trust’s sculpture collections, and it is an aim of this project to winkle out as many as possible that will enhance the appreciation of this rather unsung part of our properties.”