St Agatha in Osterley Park

  • Edward Kendall

St Agatha  by Carlo Dolci

St Agatha by Carlo Dolci

A painting of the early Christian martyr Saint Agatha, by Italian artist Carlo Dolci (1616-1687), has been acquired by the National Trust for Osterley Park and House in Middlesex thanks to a grant from Art Fund.

The return of Saint Agatha to Osterley has prompted the team at Osterley Park to stage a special winter exhibition for visitors, beginning this month, which will explore the rise to fame and fortune of the Child family (who acquired the painting) and showcase the art and design that they commissioned and collected from around the world.

The Child family were goldsmiths and bankers who patronised the fine and decorative arts. The wealth they acquired was used to create the Robert Adam interiors still seen at Osterley today, and which were filled with Old Master paintings, lacquer furniture, Indian fabrics and East Asian ceramics.

The painting of Saint Agatha, purchased by art lover Sir Robert Child at the beginning of the 18th century, became one of the works in a great picture collection at Osterley and was recorded in a 1782 inventory. However, it was later sold along with other family heirlooms in the 1930s.

Saint Agatha is a dramatic depiction of Agatha of Sicily, a third century Christian martyr who suffered torture at the hands of the Roman authorities and died in prison. She lived during a period when Christians living in the Roman Empire were persecuted by the state. The story goes that the Roman Governor of Sicily fell in love with her and repeatedly asked her to marry him. She refused on the basis that she was already married to God. Being spiteful, the enraged governor had her arrested on the grounds of her Christian faith. Whist in prison she suffered torture, including rape and having her breasts cut off, but never renounced her faith. To this day Catholics, especially those who were victims of sexual assault or those with breast cancer, turn to her in prayer seeking her intercession.

The painting is a fine example of the work of the Italian Baroqe artist Carlo Dolci, a leading figure of 17th-century Florentine art, whose passionate depictions of holy figures aimed to inspire reverence and empathy for the divine. It captures the miraculous moment when Saint Peter the Apostle appeared to Saint Agatha in a vision in order to heal the wounds she had received from her torturers.

John Chu, National Trust Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture explains: "Although an extraordinary number of original furnishings remain at Osterley, its once-famous picture collection has been almost completely dispersed or destroyed. We are lucky to have a number of paintings on loan from the Jersey family, but it is fantastic when a rare opportunity arises to purchase one for the property, especially one as moving and profound as this.

"The homecoming of Saint Agatha provides the chance to look more closely at the importance of pictures to the story of the house. She will be the highlight of our exhibition exploring the Child family's meteoric rise and what these precious objects meant to them at a remarkable moment in British history. Saint Agatha will be displayed alongside other European and Asian works of art and design, including furniture and ceramics, bought by the family.

"We also want to give our visitors a sense of the special meaning that each object held for the people and cultures that created them. Dolci's Saint Agatha, for instance, held powerful spiritual resonances for its Roman Catholic maker and his first Florentine patrons but it was seen in a much more secular light when it entered the collection at Osterley and was displayed alongside family portraits.

"We are very grateful to Art Fund and our other generous donors and supporters for enabling us to acquire Saint Agatha and hope the exhibition will inspire all those who enjoy discovering examples of the highest quality art and design."

Saint Agatha was purchased for £248,750 at the Christie's Old Masters Evening Sale in London on 5 July 2018 thanks to a grant of £85,000 from Art Fund, support from private donors, Trust members and visitors to Osterley Park, and from a fund set up by the late Simon Sainsbury to support acquisitions for the historic houses of the National Trust.

Since the acquisition, the painting has undergone two phases of conservation treatment.

Eleanor McGrath, Head of Grants at Art Fund, said: "It is wonderful to see this striking work return to its home at Osterley Park and House where it will be the highlight of the exhibition, helping visitors imagine the wider historic collections and life of the Child family."

'Treasures of Osterley - Rise of a Banking Family' runs from 4 November 2019 - 23 February 2020.

For more information see:

Tags: Edward Kendall, Osterley, St Agatha, Osterley Park

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.