The Shield of Achilles

Here’s one for my excellent mother who can never get enough of decorative silver, the more insanely elaborate the better. Coming up for sale for five million dollars or so is the Shield of Achilles, a spectacular masterpiece of 19th century silver. London silver dealers Koopman Rare Art will be offering it at the TEFAF Maastricht this year.

While it does have four rings at the rim and in the center for attaching leather straps, tt’s not actually a shield, although it could probably be used as one in a pinch (by someone with an arm of Hellboy-like strength). It’s a huge silver-gilt charger three feet in diameter weighing 46 pounds. It was cast and chased with scenes from the eighteenth book of The Iliad of Homer in which Achilles receives new armour forged by Hephaestus himself after his dearest friend Patroclus is killed wearing his previous set.

A couple of excerpts of the very detailed description of the shield from Robert Fagles’ outstanding translation of The Iliad (Book 18, 572-579, 670-686):

And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one
and under glowing torches they brought forth the brides
from the women’s chambers, marching through the streets
while choir on choir the wedding song rose high
and the young men came dancing, whirling round in rings
and among them flutes and harps kept up their stirring call —
women rushed to the doors and each stood moved with wonder. […]

And he forged on the shield a heard of longhorn cattle,
Working the bulls in beaten gold and tin, lowing loud
and rumbling out of the farmyard dung to pasture
along a rippling stream, along the swaying reeds.
And the golden drovers kept the herd in line,
For in all, with nine dogs at their heels,
Their paws flickering quickly – a savage roar! –
A crashing attack – and a pair of ramping lions
had seized a bull from the cattle’s front ranks –
He bellowed out as they dragged him off in agony.
Packs of dogs and the young herdsmen rushed to help
But the lions ripping open the hide of the huge bull
Were gulping down the guts and the black pooling blood
While the herdsmen yelled the fast pack on – no use.
The hounds shrank from sinking teeth in the lions,
They balked, hunching close, barking, cringing away.

The shield was designed and modelled by John Flaxman, one of the leading sculptors of the Regency period who took extensive inspiration from classic motifs and played a significant role in popularizing the Neoclassical style. This piece is the highest expression of his embrace of classical design. He follows Homer’s description meticulously. In the center of the shield is Apollo driving his chariot of the sun. The marriage feast and the lions attacking the cattle are there, as are the other elements — the fight and court appeal, the siege and battle, the harvest of crops and grapes to make wine, a Cretan, the ocean.

It took a lot of effort to come to fruition. Flaxman first submitted a design for the charger to silversmith Philip Rundell of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in 1810. Then he worked another seven years on the design, altering it until it achieved his vision. He made the model in 1817 and after a few bronze versions, the silver-gilt version was finally produced in 1819. It was bought by King George IV in 1821 who would give it the honor of being the centerpiece of his coronation banquet buffet.

George IV’s chaser is still in the Royal Collection. Four more silver-gilt shields were made: one acquired by Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (now in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery), one by Hugh Percy, 3rd Duke of Northumberland (now owned by His Excellency Mohamed Mahdi Altajir), and one by William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (now held by the National Trust at Anglesey Abbey). The last was made in 1823-24 and sold years later to Ernest Augustus, the fifth son of King George III of Britain, who acceded to his father’s title of King of Hanover upon the death of his elder brother William IV in 1837. His niece Victoria acceded to the throne of the United Kingdom. The shield was acquired by the new king in 1838.

So highly-regarded was the Shield of Achilles that after Flaxman’s death in 1826, fellow Royal Academy member painter Sir Thomas Lawrence described it in his eulogy for the sculptor as “that Divine Work, unequalled in the combination of beauty, variety and grandeur, which the genius of Michael Angelo could not have surpassed.”

That may or may not have been hyperbole, but Flaxman and Michelangelo had more than a few things in common. They were both child prodigies. Flaxman was 12 years old when he won the Society of Arts’ first prize for a medal he’d designed and modelled. He was 15 when he won another and exhibited at the Royal Academy. By the age of 20 he was gainfully employed modelling reliefs for Wedgwood pottery, and like Michelangelo, he was inspired by classical themes, creating some of Wedgwood’s most popular jasperware and basaltware with Greco-Roman motifs. His drawings of the art of antiquity made during a long sojourn in Rome because best-sellers and inspired decades of amateur imitators.