In accordance with Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 117, and to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in North Carolina, the NCMA is closed until further notice. While the Museum Park remains open for walking, running, and biking, visitors should practice extreme caution and take strict social distancing measures. See a full list of affected programs and events at ncartmuseum.org/covid19.
Continuing the saga of William Wetmore Story’s Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit…
The artist finished Saul in Rome in the early months of 1865 and, at the request of Pope Pius IX, dispatched it to the Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, the shipping costs paid by the papal government. Exhibited with the title Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit, the statue commanded a prominent position in the exhibition’s crowded Sculpture Hall, as seen at far right in an engraving:
“The Prince of Wales Opening the Dublin International Exhibition—The Procession through the Sculpture Hall,” London Illustrated News, May 20, 1865
The reviews of Story’s Saul were overwhelmingly positive. Proclaiming it one of the finest sculptures in the exhibition, one reviewer titillated his readers with a melodramatic description of the mad monarch:
The statue of the gigantic Saul is colossal … The wicked King sits on his throne, looking with dilated eyes and the fierceness of dementia; his brow fearfully corrugated, his whole frame convulsed. With one hand he clutches at, to tear, his beard; with the other he grasps the handle of a weapon at his side; yet the terror of his aspect is dignified by Michal Angelesque largeness and grandeur.
The reference to Michelangelo is spot on. The influence of the great Renaissance master can be seen in the monumentality and muscularity of the figure of Saul, his psychological intensity, and the powerful gesture of the hand pulling on his beard—an obvious borrowing from Michelangelo’s great figure of Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II.
In the catalogue to the Dublin exhibition, Saul is listed for sale at ₤2,000— a princely sum roughly equivalent to $250,000 today. However, even before the exhibition opened the statue was sold. The buyer was Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808–78), baronet, member of Parliament, and one of the most distinguished Jews of Victorian Britain. Sir Francis intended Saul as the centerpiece for his palatial Italianate manor then under construction at Rendcomb Park in the Cotswolds.
Rendcomb Park, Cotswolds, England
Elevated on a base of blue-gray marble, the sculpture was given pride of place in the octagonal reception hall at Rendcomb.
Saul remained in situ for more 150 years, even as the estate passed from the Goldsmid family to a succession of owners. In 1920 the house and much of the estate became Rendcomb College, a private boarding school.
From its earliest days, the school embraced Saul more as a beloved mascot than a work of art. Generations of students wrote poems to the king. One memorably described his less than regal “kingdom”:
A warm cosy fire
An out of tune piano,
A slate-based snooker table
And a phone booth…
Students at Rendcomb often shrouded Saul in a Santa suit.
King Saul en masquerade at Rendcomb College
Each year Saul was elaborately decorated for the school’s end-of-term Christmas party. Over the years Saul impersonated Santa, a Roman emperor, a gypsy fortuneteller, Gandalf, the Phantom of the Opera, and even Satan, for a Hell-themed party.
In recent years Rendcomb officials concluded that Saul should be sold to benefit pressing financial needs. Alerted to the possible availability of the sculpture, I jumped, tumbled, and tripped at this once-in-a-curator’s-lifetime opportunity. Chief conservator Bill Brown and I flew to England and examined the statue at Rendcomb, returning home with redoubled enthusiasm for its acquisition. At this critical juncture, NCMA trustee Anne Faircloth and her husband, Frederick Beaujeu-Dufour, stepped forward and generously agreed to underwrite the acquisition. Huzzahs to Anne and Fred!
And so, the king arrived in July 2018, all two tons of him (plus an additional two tons of the base). However, before Saul could take his place in the West Building’s Portrait Gallery, he needed a thorough cleaning and the restoration of a lost toe.
Watch this documentary by UNC-TV to learn how Saul's missing toe was restored.
John Coffey is deputy director for research, the Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art, and curator of Judaic art at the NCMA.
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