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Nathaniel Marchant was an English gem engraver, renowned for his superlative intaglios, cameos and medals. Between 1773 and 1789 he lived and worked in Rome, where he built up a considerable reputation selling his works to Grand Tourists. He then returned to London, becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1791. In 1792 published a book, A Catalogue of One Hundred Impressions from Gems, Engraved by N. Marchant, which includes a description of an engraved sardonyx depicting 'Priam at the feet of Achilles supplicating the redemption of Hector's body.' In the Iliad Homer recounts how Achilles was moved by Priam's plight and returned the King his son's body, even calling an 11-day ceasefire in order that Hector could receive the full burial rites. Achilles was a popular subject among Classical artists, and Marchant's design is derived from a 2nd century sarcophagus, from Tyre, Lebanon, which is also illustrated here.
The present example is a facsimile of the original sardonyx gemstone, either produced by Nathaniel Marchant himself, or by James Tassie (1735-1799) or his nephew William (1777-1860) who took over his uncle’s business. James Tassie had been the first to achieve the method of recreating gems in paste, developing a special enamel well suited to replicating the fine detail and texture of these intricate carved pieces. His reproductions were prized as of exceptional quality, and he was commissioned by Catherine the Great to amass a collection of 15,000 gem facsimiles. There are many examples of his work in the British Museum, including a facsimile of another gem carved by Marchant. These documented works by Tassie show striking similarities to the present group, and in particular to the cameo by Marchant and the cameo with a Greek inscription. The use of a ridge around the edge of the cameo, the inclusion of the original inscriptions, and the distinctive matt texture all suggest that these two examples were created by Tassie.
This set of gems was previously in the possession of Sir Thomas Downing Kendrick (1895-1979). A renowned archaeologist and art historian, he was Director of the British Museum from 1950 until his retirement in 1959.
Literature: Nathaniel Marchant, A Catalogue of One Hundred Impressions from Gems, Engraved by N. Marchant, London: 1792, Cat. No. LV, p. 22
Provenance: Sir Thomas Downing Kendrick (1895-1979), Director of the British Museum
Measurements: Each Between ¾” (2 cm) and 2" (5 cm) Long