top of page
A Cenotaph to Canova

A Cenotaph to Canova


Charles Heathcote Tatham (1772-1842)


Pen and ink and wash on card, unframed

481 x 644 mm

Higher res images available on request

This newly rediscovered drawing by Charles Heathcote Tatham, designer and architect, is a homage to the friendship and influence of Antonio Canova, the greatest sculptor of the Napoleonic age. Exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in 1823 (cat. 954), it shows Tatham’s talents as a neoclassical architect as well as lauding Canova’s contributions to European civilisation, not only as a superlative neoclassical sculptor but as a cultural diplomat who negotiated the return of the Papal treasures looted by Napoleon.

Tatham trained as an architect, initially (but unhappily) in the practice of Samuel Pepys Cockerell and then (successfully) with Henry Holland, with whom he worked on Carlton House, Woburn Abbey, and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, among other prestigious commissions. His later solo commissions included sculpture and picture galleries at Castle Howard, Yorkshire and Brocklesby Park, Lincolnshire and various small buildings, mausolea and alterations for wealthy and aristocratic clients.


However, it was through his published engravings of antique fragments and neoclassical designs that Tatham achieved his most lasting impact. In 1794, Holland encouraged the nineteen-year-old Tatham to travel to Rome to complete his architectural education (while also sourcing and dispatching designs, casts and original pieces back to his master in England). Tatham spent two years in Rome, drawing the architecture and antiquities he encountered. On his return, they were published as Etchings of Ancient Ornamental Architecture (London, 1799-1800). This and subsequent volumes were widely used, copied and reproduced by architects, interior designers and furniture makers, including Thomas Hope, one of the key creators of the ‘Regency’ style.


While he was in Rome, Tatham naturally gravitated towards the community of English artists and collectors, and it was through them that he met Canova. They became close friends, bound by a shared love of antiquity and a concern for respecting the purity of classical models, a defining attribute of neoclassicism. Sig. Antonio Canova, Rome, was among the subscribers to the first edition of Etchings. It is more than likely that the two men maintained and renewed this relationship on Canova’s visit to London in 1815 when he was riding high on the success of his campaign to restore the treasures looted by Napoleon, a campaign in which the British had played an important supporting role.


Canova’s death on 13 October 1822 caused an international outpouring of grief, as Europe mourned its greatest sculptor. Tatham must have been personally devastated, grieving not only for the loss of an inspirational artist, but also a close friend. It is likely that he embarked on this design for a cenotaph to Canova soon after the sculptor’s death, as a form of personal tribute. The design was finished in time for the opening of the Summer Exhibition on 5 May 1823.


Tatham’s cenotaph showcases his neoclassical architectural skills whilst also paying tribute to Canova’s achievements. Its form derives from a Roman triumphal arch, on the top of which a statues of Canova reclines, chisel in hand. His three-quarter profile is remarkably similar to Canova’s self-portrait bust (1812, Tempio, Possagno), and his pose recalls Canova’s sculpture of the reclining Paulina Borghese (albeit much less seductive), one of his most celebrated pieces. He is flanked by the dejected figures of Fame.


In the second register are three sculptural relief panels (Canova was also renowned for his relief sculpture) each depicting a significant episode from his career. On the left, Canova shows a cardinal, or possibly Pope Pius VII, his statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa. During two decades of warfare, Napoleon had systematically plundered and desecrated the museums, palaces and churches of Europe, sending thousands of its treasures back to Paris where he converted the former palace of the Louvre into the vast, all-possessing Musée Napoleon. After his troops had overrun Rome in 1796, Napoleon had removed the Apollo Belvedere, one of the Vatican’s greatest treasures, and dispatched it to Paris. Pius VII subsequently acquired Canova’s Perseus (loosely based on the Apollo), and displayed it on Apollo’s vacant pedestal. Canova’s sculpture was so revered as a work of pure neoclassical art, that when the Apollo Belvedere was eventually returned (thanks to Canova’s efforts), Perseus was retained as its pair.


The central scene has fewer identifying features, but almost certainly refers to Canova’s pivotal role in returning the Apollo and other stolen Papal treasures. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Canova's immense cultural stature led to his appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Pope and he was sent to Paris to negotiate with the assembled European powers for the return of the looted artworks. He carried out this difficult mission with consummate skill, securing the return of thousands of artworks and precious objects. The British were key supporters of Canova in this negotiation: the Duke of Wellington added his support to Canova’s arguments, and the Prince Regent personally paid the packing and shipping costs of returning the Papal treasures.


In the right hand relief, Canova presents the designs for the funerary monument to Archduchess Maria Christina, daughter of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, to her widower, Duke Albert of Teschen (after whom the Albertina museum is named).  Along with Paulina Borghese, this monument was widely considered to be his masterpiece (Augustinerkirche, Vienna). Canova based the design on his unrealised design for a monument to Titian. It depicts a funeral cortege approaching a void that leads unmistakeably to the cold silence of death, one of the earliest instances of a funerary monument in which mourning is expressed in a secular idiom. The monument’s figures are just recognisable in the drawing, but the presence of the Gaddi torso confirms the identification of the scene. This famous antique fragment was purchased by Maria Christina’s brother, Leopold I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, though Tatham takes some artistic licence, since the Gaddi torso was located in Florence, rather than at the Habsburg court in Vienna.

Below the reliefs are three elegant female figures, allegories of the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. They surely also allude to The Three Graces, another of Canova’s most lauded sculptures. The first version had been made for Josephine, estranged wife of Napoleon, but Canova had reprised the sculptural group for John Russell, 6th duke of Bedford for his sculpture gallery at Woburn Abbey. Canova had travelled to England in 1819 to supervise its installation in a purpose-built niche.


These allusions underscore the reverence with which Canova’s works and actions were held by Tatham, but we should not ignore the influence of Tatham on the great sculptor. Besides the friendship between the two men that flourished in the 1790s, the young architect’s promotion of antique ornament on his return to London had helped to disseminate the taste for neoclassicism among the British elite that would make them such enthusiastic patrons and supporters of Canova. It was a relationship of mutual esteem and benefit.


Besides being seen by the Royal Academy’s visitors in London, the reach of Tatham’s Cenotaph to Canova extended to Rome. It influenced the design of a proposed cenotaph to Canova in the Eternal City, intended to complement the monument erected in the Frari in Venice, Canova’s home city. In 1823, Canova’s friend and patron Elizabeth, dowager duchess of Devonshire, who was resident in Rome, launched a competition through the Accademia di San Luca for a cenotaph to Canova which she hoped to install in the Pantheon. Canova’s great rival, Bertel Thorvaldsen was put in charge of the project and a design was worked up in consultation with the Accademia, but on the duchess’s death in 1824 the project was abandoned.[1] Some years later, a smaller monument by Giuseppe de Fabris was placed in the Sala della Promoteca in the Palazzo del Campidoglio.


Several designs for this cenotaph were engraved by Bartolomeo Pinelli, and were formerly in Thorvalden’s personal collection (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, E956-8). They appear to show successive designs for the Roman cenotaph. The author of the two earlier designs (E958 and E957), is unknown, but there are several resemblances to Tatham’s design that are too close to be coincidental. In what is probably the earliest design (E958), Canova’s pose is almost identical to Tatham’s design, though he is incongruously dressed in contemporary clothing. The two mourning figures of Fame are included, although turned to face outward. In the second design (E957), Canova is seated upright, but the naked male figures of Fa me are replaced with clothed female figures. Both feature a band of three reliefs depicting scenes from Canova’s life, just as in Tatham’s design. The scene which depicts Canova presenting Perseus is virtually identical, with the same procession of figures tailed by a Swiss guard.


The third version (E956)is certainly by Fabris, since it is engraved ‘Giuseppe Fabris inv. e modelli’. It draws on the earlier designs, retaining Canova’s reclining pose but replacing the flanking figures with the three graces, and the relief panels with a continuous frieze. A scaled-down version, without the frieze, was eventually installed in the Campidoglio in c. 1832.


This raises some intriguing questions. Did Tatham, who was a member of the Accademia di San Luca, revise his design into a format more suitable for the Pantheon, and submit it to the Duchess of Devonshire’s competition? Was Tatham the author of the two anonymous designs engraved by Pinelli? Or was Tatham’s design altered, or even plagiarised, by Thorvaldsen, in his capacity as overseer as the project? We may never know the answer, but like Tatham’s often-overlooked but important influence on the formation of neoclassical taste in Britain, the influence of his design on the cenotaph to Canova in Rome is a testament to Charles Heathcote Tatham’s enduring contribution to Anglo-Italian cultural exchange.



[1] Christopher Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe (University of California Press, 1998), pp. 197-200.

bottom of page