Origin: Irish / British Period: George III Provenance: The Cooper Penrose Estate, Woodhill House, County Cork, Ireland and thence by decent Date: c.1800 Width: 11” Length: 40” or 28.5” at base Height: 13.5” (all at extremities)
In original unrestored condition, the generously sized recumbent carved wood, gesso and parcel gilt lion beautifully modelled in the neoclassical style, gazing forward with a ferocious expression and ready to pounce, the muscled body with a richly carved mane and well articulated paws extended upon a scrolled plinth base, surviving from the very early part of nineteenth century Britain, and probably Ireland, descending from a well known eighteenth century Irish estate.
The condition of the piece is sound and stable with no major losses or cracks. There are a few small chips to the gesso surface, as pictured, which are historic. The piece has a lovely undisturbed patina to the surface and hasn’t been cleaned. There are no signs of restoration other than a possible small part to the scrolled base, which may be slightly later.
Although it is slightly unclear as to whether this was one of a pair it is possible the lion was a support for a coat of arms, hence the erect tail and upward glance. In this instance it may well have been originally mounted on its hind legs, which would go someway to explaining the accumulation of dirt on the face and also the position of the tail. He sits very happily horizontally, so this remains somewhat of a mystery.
Historic Woodhill House, in Montenotte, was the family home of Cooper Penrose in Cork. Now demolished, the house was once an important centre for patronage of the arts. Painters and sculptors worked at Woodhill, while large art galleries displayed paintings by Irish and Continental artists.
From the outset, the great advantage of Woodhill was its excellent location, on an elevated south-facing hillside, with its own landing stages and storage yards on the banks of the river Lee below the house. In 1770 Cooper Penrose set about transforming house and gardens, and the main work was completed five years later. Although Abraham Hargrave has been tentatively identified as the architect, Woodhill was probably designed by Michael Penrose, an amateur architect and relative of Cooper Penrose. It was noted for its wide cantilevered staircase, cut-glass chandeliers in ballroom and drawing room, and stuccoed ceilings. Late nineteenth-century photographs show the house as a two-storey Palladian structure, with one-storey wings connected to the main block by curving screen walls, embellished with oval windows. The gardens included lawns surrounded by trees, with sculptures at intervals. The “Philosophers Walk” was bounded by a wall of red brick and was adorned with ‘domes’ (perhaps niches) containing antique bronze busts. The house was a centre for music, entertainment and hospitality. There was a tradition of an annual servants’ ball, when servants from neighbouring houses were invited to a dance in the ballroom. Wealthy, educated, travelled and a liberal Quaker (so liberal that he was eventually read out of meeting by his community) Penrose allowed European influences to infiltrate his lifestyle so that he brought home pictures and sculpture from the continent while also patronising Irish artists such as James Barry and Nathaniel Grogan.
A hand-written letter by a direct descendent of Cooper Penrose, accompanies the sale of the piece which reads:
“This lion was part of my childhood and I remember many happy hours spent astride it, at Woodhill, Burton-on Trent, Staffordshire. I know very little of its history other than it has been passed down many generations of Penroses and is austerely held by my mother, Ann (nee Nicholson((, widow of John Denis Fitzgerald, descendant of Cooper Penrose.
It was one of many other items inherited from an original collection created by Cooper Penrose, resident of Woodhill House, Co.Cork, Ireland. It was our side of the family that held the most sizeable chunk of this collection until 2007 when we were approached by Peter Lunay?, director of the Crawford Gallery in Loic. He was looking to acquire items to perpetuate the memory of Cooper and his arts patronage in Cork.
Although sad to see the collection diminished further we considered it appropriate that it should go back ‘home’. This it did and now occupies two fine 18th century rooms in the Crawford.
The lion stayed with us but now, sadly, also needs homing, as none of us have room for him.”
The Cooper Penrose Collection, which the descendant mentions here, consists of paintings, furniture, ceramics, books and other items, which gives a unique insight into the social and cultural life of this leading ‘merchant prince’ of eighteenth century Cork. The surfacing of this lion on the open market is thus a rare opportunity to purchase a museum quality piece with a rich history that has slipped through the clutches of being held in a public collection.
This piece has the royal flush, superb decorative merit, imposing size, immaculate provenance and untouched originality; a winning hand, quite simply.