Catalogue entry

T01299 Mercury about to Slay Argus 1730–32

Oil on canvas 655×645 (25 7/8×25 1/8)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1971
PROVENANCE ...; private collector near Freiburg im Breisgau c. 1964, by whom sold to a German dealer and by him to the Galerie Munsterberg 8, Basle; sold by them, Sotheby's 24 March 1971 (53, repr.) bt Colnaghi for the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED English Baroque Sketches, Marble Hill, Twickenham 1974 (76, repr.); Pittura inglese 1660–1840, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1975 (57, repr.)
LITERATURE Vertue III, pp. 35, 46, 63; F.J.B. Watson, ‘English Villas and Venetian Decorators’, RIBA Journal, LXI, 1954, p.XX; Christopher Hussey, English Country Houses: Early Georgian, 1955, p.43; English Taste in the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat., RA 1955–6, pp. 26–7, no. 6; Croft-Murray 1962, pp. 76–7, 272, 1970, pp. 18–19, 165; T.P. Hudson, ‘Moor Park, Leoni and Sir James Thornhill’, Burlington Magazine, CXIII, 1971, pp. 657–61; A. Baird, ‘Jacopo Amigoni in England’, Burlington Magazine, CXV, 1973, p. 734, fig. 41

This sketch is for one of the four large decorative paintings by Amiconi at Moor Park near Rickmansworth, Herts., some fifteen miles north-west of London. In the finished picture (repr. in col., Waterhouse 1981, p.19) Jupiter, accompanied by putti and an eagle, is seen reclining on a cloud overhead, surveying the scene. Argus holds a staff in his right hand and the two cowherds behind are more sharply defined. The finished picture is an upright with a shaped top and it is clear that the Tate Gallery's sketch was originally also an upright, the original paint continuing over the turn-over at the top and being cut off at the present edge; there are however no traces of Jupiter and his companions in the corresponding area of the sky in the sketch, part of which has been retained. The original size of of no. 1 is suggested by a companion sketch for ‘Argus Lulled to Sleep’, approx. 760×635 (30×25), in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, catalogued as by Pellegrini (see Baird, p. 734, fig. 42).

Moor Park was bought and rebuilt in 1720 by the city magnate Benjamin Styles, the chief architect being Sir James Thornhill who also decorated the hall with eight large inset canvases ‘representing 8 heroic Virtues taken from several stories of the Antients, Greeks & Latins & Britons’ (Vertue, p.35) as well as the ceiling. There was, however, a dispute over part of Thornhill's bill, leading to two lawsuits in 1728 and 1730, and in 1732 Vertue recorded that ‘Mr Styles of More Park has had painted by Amiconi (I hear) 7 or 8 stories to place in his hall in lieu of those Sr. James Thornhill did - & no doubt intended as a mortification to him’ (p. 63).

Amiconi in fact painted only four pictures, those decorating the main walls of the hall below the gallery; the four canvases of gods above are probably by Francesco Sleter (1685–1775). They illustrate the subject of Jupiter and Io from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Jupiter, enamoured of the nymph Io, changed her into a heifer to protect her from the jealousy of Juno who, suspicious of what was going on, asked for the heifer and handed her over to ‘hundred-eyed’ Argus for safe-keeping. Jupiter asked Mercury to kill Argus, which he did after first lulling him to sleep. Juno then took Argus's eyes and used them to decorate the tail of her peacock. Io was eventually restored to human shape and gave birth to Epaphus. The four pictures show ‘Jupiter and Io’, ‘Argus Lulled to Sleep by the Flute of Mercury’, ‘Mercury about to Slay Argus’ and ‘Juno Receiving the Head of Argus from Mercury’.

A set of four small but finished pictures by Amiconi, each approx. 775×650 (30 5/8×25 1/16), includes two variants of the Moor Park pictures: ‘Argus Lulled to Sleep’, in the Seattle Art Museum, and ‘Jupiter and Io’, in the Mayer sale, Lepke, Berlin, 7–9 October 1913, lots 432–4 with the two other pictures, showing a ‘Dancing Bacchante’ and a ‘Sleeping Bacchante’. These seem to have belonged to Amiconi's friend the castrato Farinelli (see Jacob Simon in Marble Hill 1974, exh. cat.).

The Tate Gallery also owns a sketch for one of the earlier Moor Park decorations. This is by Antonio Verrio (T00916) and is for the ceiling of the saloon, probably painted for the Duke of Monmouth between 1670 and 1685 but preserved when the house was rebuilt by Thornhill (see Croft-Murray 1962, p. 239).


Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988