3. The Discovery of the mosaic, 1727
The rediscovery of the villa, 1727:
In the 11th-14th centuries a medieval linear village developed covering the 500 yards of ground from the site of the Roman villa east towards the present day Littlecote House. Poll Tax records suggest that these village buildings were abandoned c.1379 when the area was turned into a deer park. It is thought that the cottages were re-built at Chilton Foliat north of the river.
Around 1650-1715, over the remains of the east end of the Roman riverside building, a brick-built cottage was developed into a well-appointed house, probably the hunting lodge for Littlecote Park.
The hunting lodge can be seen in a contemporary painting of Littlecote, 1701-1720:
“Prospect of Littlecote (1701-1720)” © Royal Armouries
It was in the garden of this house, whilst digging post holes for a fence, that William George, variously identified as the estate steward or as the gamekeeper and woodman to Francis Popham (born 1682, then owner of Littlecote), first uncovered the Orpheus mosaic in 1727. The finding was immediately recognised to be of importance.
The Society of Antiquaries of London recorded the discovery at their meeting in April 1728, and the antiquarian Roger Gale referred to it as "the finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England".
In 1730 the Marquis of Hartford, then President of the Society, commissioned George Vertue, the eminent Court artist of the time, to make an engraving of the floor from remarkably detailed drawings by Samuel Lysons.
Just when George Vertue produced the engraving is not known, but it must have been between 1730 and his death in 1756.
William George made coloured drawings (now lost), from which his widow later made an intricate piece of needlework in his memory. The embroidered panels within the work described its discovery and iconography (not absolutely accurately!).
Mrs George’s needlework which hung in Littlecote House pre 1985
Trying to find the exact whereabouts of these various items recording the Orpheus mosaic has been surprisingly complicated!
Mrs. George’s needlework: This hung in Littlecote House until 1985, when it was sold to a private buyer by Sotheby’s on behalf of Peter de Savary. Pauline Mobey contacted Sotheby’s, who promised to pass on her details to the buyer, but she has heard nothing since and its whereabouts are unknown.
George Vertue’s engraving: Monochrome copies of the print exist in the V&A (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O567630/print-vertue-george/) and (in Nov 2019) was on display within our Prints and Drawings study room, the Ashmolean and the Bodleian. A framed copy once hung in the Diamond Hall at Littlecote.
A large work, it is in two parts and in the margins are notes by Dr L Ward of Gresham College.
William Fowler produced a later coloured version which is in the Bodleian.
However, during the original restoration, it was known that Bryn Walters worked from a hand-coloured engraving which he says was the only one that George Vertue produced. Pauline Mobey found a blog written by the Bodleian Library in August 2020 which confirmed they held it and the blog ( http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/sackler/2020/08/ ) included a photo:-
A print of the George Vertue engraving made by the antiquary William Fowler 1761-1832 (Bodleian Library)
The Orpheus mosaic – from Bryn Walter’s postcards of c.1980
This shows the original George Vertue engraving (Bodleian Library)
The two columns of text on the original George Vertue engraving were written by Dr L. Ward and George Vertue. The text was carefully transcribed in 2012 by Pauline Mobey from a framed copy of the colour print that used to hang in the Diamond Hall at Littlecote (it disappeared soon afterwards). It is reproduced in full in the Appendix below.
The Roman site was purposely covered:
After its discovery and recording, the mosaic was reburied and declared lost. Several oak trees were planted across the site.
Transcription by Pauline Mobey of the text on the George Vertue coloured engraving, c.1730-55:
ORPHEUS MOSAIC – CONTEMPORARY DESCRIPTION
by Dr L Ward of Gresham College
This pavement was first discovered by Mr William George, late steward to Edward Popham esquire, the present possessor of Littlecote Park. It lay about five feet under the surface of the earth, which when exposed by digging disclosed this curious monument of Roman grandeur, the largest and most beautiful of the kind that has hitherto appeared in Great Britain. The length of it was forty one feet, and the breadth twenty eight in the widest part, and the whole was not only beautified with a great variety of different colours, but likewise disposed in the shape of many emblematical figures, partly human and partly of brute animals. By the size and form of it, together with the several figures there exhibited, it seems to have been the area of the heathen temple; for it consists of two parts, as those buildings usually did, namely a templum and sacrarium, which answered in a good measure to the nave and choir in our Christian churches. And the figures are so situated that most of them appear in front at the upper end of each part.
The templum, or outer part, is ornamented at the lower end with a border, in the center of which is placed a carchesium, or large cup with two handles which used to be filled with wine at their sacrifices and other religious ceremonies. Hence that of Vergil, in describing the funeral obsequies performed by Aeneas to the memory of his father Anchises, in Sicily:
Hic duo rite mero libans carchesia Baccho Aen V.77. This cup is supported by two sea monsters, one on each side, with fins on their shoulders like wings and fishes tails. Behind each of these is a dolphin, and two conchae, or shell fishes. Opposite to this border, at the upper end, is another like it, which has also a cup of the same form, supported by two panthers.
The emblematical figures which adorn the sacrarium seem most probably relate to the worship of the Sun. In the center stands Orpheus playing on his harp; who was said to be the son of Apollo, the god of music, by the muse Calliope. Around them are placed four female figures, each riding upon a different sort of animal. These might be desined to represent the four seasons of the year by the ancients called Horae, and reckoned among the attendants of the Sun. Thus Ovid Met II.24. In folio Phoebus claris Incente smaragdis; A dextra laevaque Dies, Mensis et Annus, Saeculaque et positae spatiis aequalibus Horae. And as they accompanied him in his annual course, the animals on which they sit, are here described as running full speed, to denote the swiftness of his motion. They are likewise distinguished from each other by different characters or attributes. One of them sits on a deer, holding a flower in her right hand, which may denote the spring. The next rides on a panther, with a swan on her right side, a summer bird, and sacred to Apollo, Aelian De animal, II.32.XIV.13. The third is placed on a bull, with a bough in her right hand, resting on her side, which might possibly be intended for a vine branch, as an emblem of autumn. And the last, which is carried by a goat, has nothing in either hand, to denote possibly the barrenness of winter, when goats especially browse on the bark of trees. It may be farther observed that the two first of these female figures are naked downwards to the waist, as representing the two warm seasons of spring and summer. Whereas the two last are wholly covered, except their arms, which very well suits with the seasons of autumn and winter, as distinguished by the ancients, who describe one as cold and dry, and the other as cold and moist. Hence Ovid said Met III 729 frondes autumno frigore tactas and Ausonius, Edyll VIII 40 autumnas pruinas. These figures are incompassed on each of the three sides on which it is not joined to the templum, with the face of the Sun emitting bright and extended rays in the form of a semicircle. This representation of the Horae, or four seasons, in the manner wherein they are here situated, I do not find to have been hitherto observed upon any other ancient monument, which renders this pavement very singular and curious. And as all the emblematical figures in the Sacrarium plainly relate to Apollo, under the image of the Sun, he may justly be esteemed as the principal deity to which this sacred building was consecrated. But as those in the templum seem to relate partly to Neptune & partly to Bacchus, it may perhaps not improbably be esteemed as a sort of Pantheon.
As to the time this temple was erected, there are some circumstances which may afford light into this inquiry. For there was an earthen urn dug up at the same place where this pavement was discovered, in which were found coins of the emperor Vespasian. And in the year of our Lord 77 Julius Agricola, being then consul at Rome, at the expiration of his office, was sent by that Emperor as legate into Britain. This was the year before the death of Vespasian who died in 79 and was succeeded by his son Titus. Before the arrival of Agricola the Ordovices, a people of North Wales, has destroyed a considerable body of the Roman forces that lay on the borders of their country. This obliging him immediately to march his army against them, he gave them a total defeat and cut off almost the whole nation. And after several other victories by which he reduced the province to a peaceable state, he applied himself to remove the occasions of war by redressing grievances. The next summer he again brought his army into the field, and having subdued all those who opposed him, and wasted their country, he employed the following winter by endeavouring to cultivate those rude nations in the arts of peace, and teach them to build temples, courts of justice, and houses. Ibidem c21. Agricola continued his command in Britain for seven years & was then recalled by the Emperor Domitian. But the account which the historian gives of him after the second winter, related chiefly to his further marches, and conquests of a great part of the island northward as far as the Grampian mountains in Scotland, where he engaged with & defeated Galgacus. And after he left Britain, the Roman historians give us little or no account of their affairs here, till the reign of the emperor Hadrian. But from what has been said above, concerning the coins of Vespasian found in the urn, and none of a later time, as likewise of the endeavours used by Agricola to engage the Britons to erect temples and other buildings; this may not improbably be thought to have been the pavement of some temple which was built here while Agricola resided in Britain.
This curious piece of antiquity is now unhappily destroyed. But before it met with that misfortune, Mr George had taken an exact draught of it upon several sheets of paper, in which all the parts and figures contained in it were expressed in their proper colours. And from that drawing his Widow afterwards made a beautiful carpet of it in needlework, reduced to the size of near one inch to the foot of the original, from which this print was copied.
L.W. and Geo: Vertue Sculp.
NOTES by Pauline Mobey, 2012:
Dr Ward’s description (above) appears in the margins of the print of the Vertue engraving, of which a framed copy hangs in the Diamond Hall at Littlecote.
Note that the Vertue engraving was made from the needlework, not William George’s drawings, and perpetuates the errors made by Mrs George, eg she says it was found in 1730, not 1727, and the owner of Littlecote at the time was not Edward Popham but his father Francis Popham Esq (not Sir Francis). His son Edward succeeded in 1735.