Allegorical Tombs

… are apparently a Thing, and one which I have come across twice in as many days in Venice, though they seem to owe their origin to one Owen Swiny (MacSwiny, McSweeny, MacSwiney, McSwiny, and other variants), of Enniscorthy in Ireland. The spelling of Swiny’s name (I am going with the version used by the ODNB) is but one of the confusing elements in this story …

There is a wonderful exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, until 9 June, called (in English) ‘Canaletto and Venice’, but in fact about much more than that (Canaletto is a handy, indeed obvious, peg to hang it all on) – it is a survey of the development of Venetian painting in particular, but also of the fine arts more generally, in the long eighteenth century.

Canaletto’s 1744 view of the Salute, with the Dogana in the background. (Credit: The Royal Collection Trust)

Starting with Luca Carlevarijs (1663–1730) and the development of Venetian vedutism (which I didn’t know was a word), it ends with Canova and a wonderful display of twelve of Giandomenico Tiepolo’s haunting, tragi-comic Pulcinella prints from the collection of art historian Sir Brinsley Ford (1908–99), a descendant of both Richard Ford and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose ancestral art collection was described by Gustav Waagen in Volume 2 of Treasures of Art in Great Britain.

Pulcinella is hatched from a turkey’s egg, by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

But among all these wonderful works (including my favourite Canaletto, ‘The Stonemason’s Yard’, from the National Gallery, on whose website it is duly noted as being ‘not on display’), I was particularly struck by one picture, the ‘Allegorical Tomb’ of Sir Cloudesley Shovell (commander of the fleet lost in the Scillies disaster of October 1707). Because of the nature of Shovell’s sad end, I thought it was a bit tactless to have the allegorical monument consisting mostly of a huge basin of water  …

Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, ‘Memorial to Admiral Sir Clowdisley [sic] Shovell. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

And further on, there was another Allegorical Tomb, this time of Sir Isaac Newton, and belonging (who knew?) to our very own dear Fitzwilliam Museum.

G.B. Pittoni and others, ‘An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ (PD.52-1973). (Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum) Many of the paintings involved two or even three artists, doing the landscape, figures and architecture respectively.

The next day, on the third floor of the lovely Querini Stampalia Museum in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, I came across two more ‘Tombs’, this time in grisaille, in the collection formed by the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia (‘Carive’, the Venice Savings Bank, founded in 1822, now part of Intesa Sanpaolo, and distinguished in the past for having demolished Aldus Manutius’s workshop in the (now) Campo Manin to build its headquarters).

G.B. Pittoni, ‘Allegorical Tomb of Charles Sackville’.

Donato Creti, ‘Allegorical Tomb of Lord Wharton’.

These two smaller works represent the Allegorical Tombs of Charles Sackville, sixth earl of Dorset (1643–1706), and of Lord Wharton (Thomas Wharton, first Marquess of Wharton, first Marquess of Malmesbury, and first Marquess of Catherlough, 1648–1715). So what is/was going on?

According to the little booklet that describes the Carive collection: ‘An unusual story is associated with the[se] two works. Owen Swiny, an Irish playwright, actor and theatre director, conceived an ambitious iconographic project shortly after 1720 which was intended to pay tribute to exponents of Britain’s history from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries …’, suggesting that ‘he commissioned twenty-four paintings for the dining room … of Lord March, future Duke of Richmond, at Goodwood’.

A mezzotint showing Owen Swiny, apparently in an Elizabethan doublet, by John Faber Jr after J.B. van Loo (1752). (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

But why would a theatre professional commission a substantial body of work for an aristocrat? Owen Swiny (1676–1754), son of an Irish clergyman, entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1694, but by 1703 was busy in the theatrical world in London. The ODNB describes a complicated set of relationships with theatres and impresarios, plays and operas, texts and libretti, and profits and bankruptcy – this last in 1713, after which he was obliged to travel abroad.

Swiny fetched up in Italy in 1715, and by 1721 was living in Venice, apparently acting as an musical agent, recommending Italian operas (and singers) for performance in England. He also acted as an agent for works of art, and this is where the Allegorical Tombs come in.

He conceived a plan for twenty-four paintings, ‘intended to commemorate great men of recent English history, with particular reference to the revolution of 1688’ (ODNB). He drew up the subject list, and commissioned the artists, who included Canaletto himself, the uncle and nephew Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Giambattista Piazzetta (now there’s another one I’d never heard of, but boy, could he draw!), and Giambattista Pittoni.

The duke of Richmond apparently acquired at least ten of the paintings (though I can’t find out whether they are still at Goodwood), but Swiny’s cunning plan was to issue all twenty-four as a bound collection of prints, to which end he issued a prospectus (probably about 1730) addressed ‘To the Ladies and Gentlemen of Taste in Great-Britain and Ireland’, in which he explains the origin of the paintings (though interestingly he doesn’t give the individual names of any of the artists) and appeals for subscriptions to buy a set of the engravings.

It doesn’t appear that this volume ever happened – presumably there were not enough ladies and gentleman of taste around. He did finally succeed in producing a set of prints, by French engravers, in 1741: Tombeaux des princes et des grands capitaines et autres hommes illustres qui ont fleuri dans la Grande Bretagne vers la fin du XVIIe et le commencement du XVIIIe.

The ODNB says only nine prints were published, and the British Museum holds examples of all nine, viz.: Allegorical Tombs of William III, Mary II and Queen Anne, the duke of Marlborough, Sidney Godolphin, Archbishop Tillotson, Anthony Ashley Cooper (first earl of Shaftesbury, Chancellor of the Exchequer), the natural philosophers Boyle, Locke and Thomas Sydenham, the ‘English Hippocrates’ (all three in one allegory), Sackville, Newton and Shovell. According to the accession note, these are part of the contents of a ‘dispersed “volume containing 95 prints” after various artists, deposited by Evans [A.E. Evans and Sons, picture dealers] on 21 April 1859. It was registered as a volume of “prints published by John Boydell”, which implies that they are all Boydell reprints of earlier plates.’

Allegorical tomb of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, from the Tombeaux. (Credit: the British Museum)

This is all getting too complicated for my level of ignorance. Returning to the original pictures, apparently ten were/are at Goodwood? As mentioned above, Newton is in the Fitzwilliam: its provenance begins with one Sir William Morice, a descendant (presumably) of the Sir William Morice (1602–76), politician, who was a contemporary of many of the subjects of the allegories; it passed from him to a Captain Heatley who gave it to Ushaw College (a Catholic seminary founded in 1808) in Durham about 1820; the college sold it to the Museum in 1973.

Lord Wharton and Joseph Addison are in the UK Government Art Collection; the first duke of Devonshire at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham; Shovell is loaned to the current exhibition by the National Gallery of Art, Washington; John, Lord Somers (by Canaletto) is at Hinton Ampner (National Trust); the natural philosophers are in Bologna (though there is a subplot of a separate plate representing Boyle created for the Tombeaux). Among those I haven’t so far found are William III and his wife and sister …

Donato Creti, ‘Allegorical Tomb of Joseph Addison’. (Credit: the Government Art Collection)

One has to assume that this particular venture was not much of a money-spinner for Swiny. It is not clear how many of the pictures were ever completed, and his plan for a second sequence, on Marlborough’s battles, seems to have remained just a plan. He had returned to England by 1735, when he was given a benefit performance by Colley Cibber at Drury Lane; another followed at Covent Garden in 1736. He held administrative posts in the Custom House and the King’s Mews: these might have been sinecures acquired for him by his patron, the duke of Richmond – to whom he introduced Canaletto on his arrival in England in 1746.

Donato Creti, ‘Allegorical Tomb of Boyle, Locke and Sydenham’. I had assumed (as apparently have many others) that the Boyle in question was Robert (correctly described in the prospectus as ‘Hon. Mr Boyle’) , but the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, which owns it, identifies him as Charles Boyle (1639–94), politician and FRS?

‘Owen MacSwinny’, after an engraving by Peter van Bleeck. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

Swiny is known to have made a trip to Paris in 1749, making arrangements for a British tour by a French theatre group. At his death on 2 October 1754 (he was buried at St-Martin-in-the Fields) his estate was left in trust for the benefit of the Irish actress Peg Woffington, with whom, it appears, he (like many others) was hopelessly in love – though apparently he required her to convert to Anglicanism in order to inherit.

John Lewis, ‘Peg Woffington’. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

His own picture collection was sold, again for her benefit, the following year, and the ODNB tells us: ‘In eight months during 1757, according to an extant bankers’ account, the bequest yielded her an income of more than £8868.’ So it seems that in spite of a superficially insecure career as an ex-bankrupt entrepreneur of the arts, Swiny in fact had managed to make a comfortable living. What a shame no-one thought to create him an Allegorical Tomb.


This entry was posted in Art, Biography, Cambridge, History, Italy, London, Museums and Galleries, Venice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Allegorical Tombs

  1. Lucas Reta says:

    Yesterday I came across what seems to be an early version of the Allegorical Tomb of Sir Cloudesley Shovell owned by the NGA, which is currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    Although a darker, blurrier and narrower version of the final painting, it is almost as captivating as the one I later realized was the final version. I took note of it for further research, as it intrigued me greatly. Do you have any insight about what the painting depicts?

    I tried to make sense out of the whole scene, but a lot of it escapes me. Why are there what I imagined to be orphan kids being reprimanded by law enforcement in the background? Who is the old man in the stairs, resting, being consoled by a woman? Who are the people in the diverse crowd that is at the feet of the monument? What are the strange painted symbols (the five pointed star, the face cartoon) in the broken obelisk?

    I later attributed it to my ignorance about 18th century fashion, but at first I thought I was seeing some sort of afterlife scene where people from different ages had reunited to admire the tomb of Sir Clowdisly Shovell (sic). The man with the armor still clashes to my view.

    In any case, thanks for your article, it’s a shame this particular series of paintings wasn’t more closely documented, I’d be really interested in finding out what happened to the missing pieces.


    • Thanks for this very interesting message! I don’t know enough about the iconography of the period, but I had assumed that the image shows the whole world coming to marvel – several in ‘Eastern’ attire and at least one Black man. I think the old gentleman at the back may be a philosopher, but that’s just a guess. I particularly like the group of tourists listening to their guide, who is doubtless explaining the details of the allegory, while one of the party slips a coin to a beggar – that could be the Trevi Fountain today, as could the artist sketching with the man peering over his shoulder. As for the man in armour, I’m sure you are right, and that this is a scene ‘out of time’, across the ages – it’s interesting that the shield carried by the boy has a different device in the two paintings. I wonder if they were personalised for a potential owner? I am sure that the symbols on the obelisk must have a meaning, but I don’t know enough. Like you, I was surprised when I started trying to investigate the series that no expert seems to have written about them!


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