Is this the Ugliest Sculpture in London?
Updated: Jul 6, 2019
How a sculpture from 18th-century Britain led to a history of American Political Satire
The story of the infant Hercules derived from Greek and Roman mythology, has long been associated with the idea of fighting malice and corruption. The love-child of the god Zeus and the mortal Queen Alcmena, Hercules was repeatedly targeted for death by his jealous stepmother Hera. Demonstrating his considerable strength at an early age, the baby demigod strangled two serpents Hera had placed in his cradle before they could cause him harm. While the story of the infant Hercules since ancient times represented the weak overcoming the strong; it was particularly in America, a young nation fighting for independence from powerful Britain in the eighteenth century, where the symbolic association took on a life of its own.
The impetus for this blog post began after touring Spencer House (the ancestral town house of Lady Diana Spencer’s family) in early January. There I came across a sculpture representing the weirdest blending of classical imagery and political satire I’ve ever seen [ Fig. 1]. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been slightly obsessed with what possibly could be the ugliest sculpture in London. What follows is a herculean trail that leads from ancient Greece and Rome, to eighteenth century Britain, the American Civil War, and President Theodore Roosevelt.
Made of refined marble and about twenty-eight inches in-the-round, the center of the Spencer House sculpture is dominated by the body of a baby topped with the head of man who is strangling two snakes. The snakes also have human heads, and the baby has been so effective in his defense that he’s managed to sever the one on his right.
The composition was based on a satirical cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson published by William Humphrey on February 3, 1784 titled “The Infant Hercules, ” [Fig. 2.]. The child is identified as William Pitt the Younger because he is perched on the “Shield of Chatham” the name of this ancestral seat. Inscribed on the bodies of the intertwined snakes are the words “American War,”and “East India Bill,” alluding to Pitt’s political rivals Charles James Fox (on the left) and Lord North (on the right) whose coalition government had lost the America for the King. Produced the day following Pitt’s successful election to office in 1784, the cartoon addresses its readership by having the baby Pitt look directly at the viewer and say with some measure of chagrin: “These were your MINISTERS.”
In 1783 William Pitt, second son to the Earl of Chatham, became the youngest prime minister of Great Britain at the tender age of twenty-four. Appointed by King George III, Pitt initially faced such a vicious battle to retain power that only the threat of the King’s abdication forced Parliament to accept the choice of his young protégé. Eventually over time however, much of the British peerage grew to admire Pitt as he eliminated the national debt that had grown to cover the costs of fighting the American revolutionaries and advanced the power and size of the British Empire by curtailing the growth of the East India Company.
One of Pitt’s admirers was Frederick Augustus Hervey the Fourth Earl of Bristol, who around 1790 commissioned the relatively unknown Italian sculptor Pierantoni (called “Sposino”), to create the Spencer House sculpture. What makes the object so remarkable—and ugly—is that it turned a satirical cartoon into a form of high art often reserved for ennobling portraits and morally uplifting stories generally from mythology, the Bible, or classical literature. Indeed, as soon as it was shown publicly, audiences were shocked and appalled. A discerning Lady Elizabeth Webster, wrote in her journal after visiting the sculptor Sposini’s studio: “..the sculptor [is] a man who has made a lasting monument of Lord Bristol’s bad taste, and the merit of originality is not his. Pitt is represented as the infant Hercules struggling the serpents, the heads of which are the portraits of Mr. Fox and Lord North, the Coalition; Pitt’s head is of the natural size upon the body of an infant. The whole performance is like some of the uncouth decorations in the middle ages of our English Cathedrals. The idea was taken from a caricature.” Moreover because “the English artists all to a man refused to execute this puerile conceit,” Bristol had to inveigle a copy-artist of classical sculpture based in Italy to do the work.
First-hand accounts of the cheeky and no doubt expensive commission posit that the Earl may have gotten his idea for a marble sculpture by coming across the portrait of Emperor Caracalla as the infant Hercules strangling serpents from 193-200 AD at the Capitoline Museum in Rome on one of his over six trips to Europe spanning twenty-five years. [Fig. 3.]
Another source of inspiration may have been the painting of The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle by the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds on commission for Catherine II of Russia and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1788. [Fig. 4.] But allusion of the infant America struggling to free him/herself from British patriarchy was probably already well known by the Earl of Bristol through various forms of popular culture circulating within Europe at the time.
In 1782 for example, the Frenchman A.E. Gibelin drew France represented by the goddess Minerva, protecting the infant Hercules from an attacking Lion, symbolic of Britain. Hercules battles the snakes “Saratoga” and Yorktown” representing the American revolutionaries’ military victories that convinced the French government to formally recognize their cause. [Fig. 5]
Interestingly, the Infant Hercules as “Young America” becomes a term used in the 1840 and 1850s to point to the challenges the new nation was having appeasing factions within its own country. In a Harper’s Weekly cartoon on September 1, 1860 we see that the French parent Minerva has given way to Columbia, mother of the Republic, who watches over her infant seated on the ballot box struggling with the snakes of disunion and secession on the eve of the Civil War: “Well done, Sony!,”she says, “Go at it while you are still young, for when you are old you can’t.” [Fig. 6]
Four years later an engraving by William Sartain of Philadelphia shows that Minerva nee-Columbia is now the American bald eagle watching over Young America seated on a bear rug (symbolizing Britain) crushing the snakes of Rebellion and Sedition. [Fig. 7] In this context, the infant Hercules embodies the idea of the Union who is trying to stop the dissolution of the United States. The snakes may also reference the contentious “copperhead” democrats who opposed the idea of civil war and wanted an immediate peace settlement with the Confederacy.
Finally, in 1906—closely echoing the Spencer House sculpture with human-headed snakes—a satirical cartoon by Frank A. Nankivell for Puck Magazine captioned “The infant Hercules and the Standard Oil Serpents,” shows President Theodore Roosevelt as the demigod fighting the serpents John D. Rockefeller the founder of Standard Oil, and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich the powerful Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee [Fig. 8] Aldrich was often the targeted in the satirical press for favoring the interests big business over social reform, and his head placed on all manner of creatures from spiders, to giant octopus, and serpents to signify that his influence was far reaching, controlling, and not to the trusted.
My initial obsession with an ugly sculpture from the eighteenth century found by happenstance in London, led me to twentieth century American politics and banking reform. Along the way I investigated ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the British peerage and Parliament, France and the War for Independence in the United States, and the American Civil War. Such is the nature of art history; crossing continents, touching multiple disciplines, wending its threads through the course of human events. To quote Beverly Sills “Art is the signature of civilizations.”
Postscript: For those wondering how an ugly sculpture that was created by the 4th Earl of Bristol ended up in Spencer House, the answer is simple. It was bought at auction in 1990 as an example of an eighteenth century English folly.
Thanks go to William Weston for taking me on a tour of Spencer House and Cristina Alfonsín the collections manager at the Rothschild Foundation who manages the collections there for sending me the known history of the Spencer House sculpture.
Fig. 1. Pieratoni (called ’Sposino’), An Italian Marble Group of William Pitt the Younger as the Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents Fox and North, c.1790. Marble 70.2 x 70.7 x 46 cm. Spencer House Limited. Object catalogue created by Tate London on the occasion of the exhibition Rude Britannia. British Comic Art, 9 June - 5 September, 2010
Fig. 2. Thomas Rowlandson, The Infant Hercules, Hand-colored etching, published by William Humphrey of London February 3, 1784. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Fig. 3. Detail of Caracalla in the Guise of the infant Hercules Strangling Serpents, marble, Capitoline Museum, Rome 193-200 A.D. Unknown photographer.
Fig. 4. Reynolds, Sir Joshua, Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents (detail), 1786, Oil on canvas, Collection of the Hermitage Museum; acquired from the artist by Catherine the Great.
Fig. 5. Antoine Esprit Gibelin, Libertas Americana, design drawing executed not later than September 1782 . Collection Library of Congress.
Fig. 6. Jacob Dallas (attributed to), Young America Rising at the Ballot-Box and Strangling the Serpents of Disunion and Secession, published in Harper’s Weekly, September 1, 1860. Collection Library of Congress.
Fig. 7. William Sartain, Young America Crushing Rebellion and Sedition, engraving c. 1864. Collection, Library of Congress.
Fig. 8. Frank A. Nankivell, The Infant Hercules and the Standard Oil Serpents, illustration published for Puck Magazine by J. Ottmann Lith. Co.,May 23, 1906 Collection Library of Congress.
 Earl of Ilchester (ed.), The journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland, (2 vols, London, 1909), i, 141.
 Earl of Ilchester (ed.), Ibid.. pg. 141.
 Interestingly, the Earl of Bristol tried two other portraits before he settled on William Pitt. The first was a portrait of Edmund Burke a leader in the Whig party who championed good manners and the importance of religion to maintain a sense of morality. The second thought had been Richard Sheridan and Irish satirist and also a ruling member of the Whig party whose accusation of corruption towards Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India was described by his allies as the “greatest ever delivered in ancient or modern times.” [John O'Connor Power, 'Irish Wit and Humour', Time, 1890. p.480. The Making of an Orator, 1906, pp. 187–194]
As Morrit of Rokeby reported: “…before the heads were finished he [Hervey] almost drove the sculptor [Pierantoni Il Sposino] mad by selecting for a model of Hercules’ countenance that of Mr. Pitt, and insisting on the Hydra being finished off with a triple likeness of Fox, North and Burke, which last he again cut off to make way for Sheridan.” [W. Partington (ed.), Private letter-books of Sir Walter Scott (London, 1930), p. 19 quoted in Ford, ‘Capricious patron’, p. 432 ]
 Reynolds was well known to the Earl of Bristol, having painted his brother the Augustus John Hervey in 1770. In fact, Augustus Hervey, the 3rd Earl of Bristol’s mistress Mary Nesbitt had been a former model for the artist and eventually his common law wife; staying together for eight years before his death. An interesting aside is that Mary Nesbitt after meeting Madame Tussaud in France helped her set up her famous waxwork museum!
 Standard Oil founded by Rockefeller in 1870, by the mid twentieth century owned every step of the oil products market energy supply chain becoming the the largest oil refinery in the World. Due to Roosevelt’s insistence, Standard Oil’s was investigated and ruled a monopoly by the Supreme Court in 1911. Senator Aldrich whose daughter married Rockefeller’s only son, was considered complicit by the popular press in having enabled Standard Oil to avoid reforms that would have allowed competition and dominate the energy industry.
 Maggion, Rosali. “The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women” Beacon Press: Boston, 1992.
 Spencer House can be visited by the public on Sundays when special tours are given. For more information go to http://www.spencerhouse.co.uk