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99 Objects – Helen of Troy & the Ring

Alyson Goldman - Friday August 12, 2016 9:10

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This blog continues in the “Europe & the U.S. in 99 Objects” series. Dr. Gabriella de la Rosa at the National Trust has started this project for the National Trust, originally published here, by delving into the Trust’s collections  –  nearly 1 million objects held at over 200 historic properties across the United Kingdom –  to find objects with  interesting, unusual and unexpected connections to Europe. These objects and their stories are being published in the form of a digital diary on the National Trust Collections website.


#2 Helen of Troy

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Notorious for aristocratic pillaging of continental European works of art through the Grand Tour and imperial conquests, Britain has at least one example of art traffic in the other direction. This is it. The marble bust of Helen of Troy by Antonio Canova was sent as a ‘thank you’ gift to Viscount Castlereagh for his help in persuading the British government to return Vatican works of art pilfered by that light-fingered connoisseur, Napoleon Bonaparte. Canova, the most celebrated sculptor of his day, had been hired by Pope Pius VII to represent the Holy See in a diplomatic mission to repatriate the spoils of Napoleon’s campaigns. The British even provided a frigate and 200,000 francs to ship the art back to Rome. The Duke of Wellington, a close collaborator with Castlereagh in this enterprise, was also rewarded with a bust – Head of a Dancer, now in the Wellington Collection, Apsley House. But it was the Irish Viscount who was thought to have done best out of the deal with Helen – appropriate in that she herself was a beautiful thing, stolen by foreigners and eventually, after years of war, returned home.

Category: Art / Sculpture

Date : 1816 – 1817

Materials: Marble

Measurements: 660 x 300 x 330 mm

Place of origin: Italy

Collection: Mount Stewart, County Down (Accredited Museum)

On show at: Mount Stewart, County Down, Northern Ireland, National Trust

NT 1542436

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#3 The Ring


When, in chapter five of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds something special amidst the ‘few wretched oddments’ in Gollum’s cave, we are told it is ‘One very beautiful thing, very beautiful, very wonderful. He had a ring, a golden ring, a precious ring.” Could this ring, now on display at The Vyne in Hampshire, be the inspiration behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous text? Discovered in 1785 in a farmer’s field in the Roman town of Silchester, this gold ring is engraved with the head of Venus and bears a Latin inscription which translates ‘Senicianus live well in God’. It was probably sold to the wealthy Chute family who lived nearby at The Vyne and were keen collectors. There it might have remained – just a curious archaeological find – were it not for the discovery, decades later, of a stone tablet at Dwarf’s Hill, a Roman site in Lydney, Gloucestershire. The tablet is inscribed with a curse from a Roman named Silvianus demanding the return of a ring stolen by Senicianus. The translation reads: ‘Among those who bear the name of Senicianus to none grant health until he bring back the ring to the temple of Nodens.’ In the early 20th century, the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler spotted the connection between the tablet and the ring. In 1929 he approached Tolkien, then professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, to advise on the entomology of the god named in the curse. We can only speculate on how much the ring, the curse and the Gloucestershire landscape fueled Tolkien’s imagination but by the following year he was fully immersed in writing The Hobbit.


A Roman ring with a diameter of 25mm and weighing 12gms. May have been made to wear on a thumb and over a glove. With a 10-faceted hoop and a bezel mounted on the top engraved with an image of the goddess of Venus. Probably 4th century AD. See NT 719790 for associated plaque.

Close view of a gold ring on a red material background at The Vyne, Basingstoke, Hampshire