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Alfred Waterhouse
Design drawing for the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum 
Sepia pen and watercolour : no dimensions given
London, British Architectural Library

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Young-Hunter, Mary Ethel
"A grand staircase, probably of the Natural History Museum in London"
In short
 
Mary Ethel Young-Hunter, an English painter born in New Zealand, produced this painting in 1905, the very year that her only child, a daughter, was born.
This grand staircase is probably inspired by one of the two staircases of the Natural History Museum in London. 
The two bronze statues are copies after the Praying Boy from the Altes Museum in Berlin, a Greek original to which the arms were added in the 17th century, and the Flying Hermes from the Barghello Museum in Florence by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor active in Florence in the 16th century.
 
About Mary Ethel Young-Hunter
 
English painter
Napier, New Zealand 1872 – 1947 Carmel, USA
 
Mary Ethel was the daughter of Edward Ethel (born in Wales, who died in New Zealand in 1882) and Edith Towgood. 
Her widowed mother brought Mary and her three sisters to live in England, where Mary later attended the Royal Academy Schools. She studied in Newlyn (S. of Penzance in Cornwall) possibly with Norman Garstin (1847 – 1926), before her marriage.
In 1899 she married the Scottish genre and portrait painter John Young-Hunter. He had studied in London with Lawrence Alma-Tadema and with John Singer- Sargent. His father, Colin Hunter, was also a painter. 
 
She exhibited at the Royal Academy and worked as a portraitist in Scotland and England until 1915, when the family (the couple had a daughter, Gabrielle, born in 1905) went to the United States, living first in New York City and subsequently in Taos, New Mexico. 
 
The couple divorced in 1921:
- Mary moved to Berkeley, Californa, building a home in Carmel where she subsequently died;
- John changed his style and subject matter, becoming known for his pictures of the American West.
Around 1900 Mary and John produced paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite style which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and other London galleries.
 
About our painting: the grand staircase of the Natural History Museum in London?
 
Our painting is signed and dated 1905. It was painted the very year that our painter’s only child, a daughter called Gabrielle, was born in Wickhambrook in Suffolk.
 
At first sight it looks like one of the two grand staircases of the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum in London. But does it represent one of those staircases, be it with some differences, or is it just inspired by it? The huge, cathedral-like Central Hall (or Hintze Hall) has a grand staircase on either side. Today each is decorated with a statue: the dark one of the standing Richard Owen (who supervised the move of the Natural History Museum, which had originally been part of the British Museum, to its present location, 1804 – 1892) and the white one of the seated Richard Darwin (1809 – 1882).
 
The Museum exhibits a vast range of specimens from various segments of natural history within five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology. 
 
The original design for the Museum had been made by Francis Fowke. After his sudden death in 1864 Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905) completely revised these plans into a Romanesque building. The Museum openened in 1881. 
 
The two large bronze statues are copies after two very well-known originals: the Praying Boy from the Altes Museum in Berlin and Giambologna’s Hermes. 
 
The Praying Boy (128 cm H.) was discovered in Rhodes, at that time in Venetian hands. The statue arrived in 1503 in Venice and was sold during a few centuries from one famous collection into another: the Gonzagas in Mantua, King Charles I of England, Nicolas Fouquet (the dishonest finance minster of King Louis XIV of France; he had the arms added) and finally King Frederick II of Prussia (1712 – 1786), who bought it in 1747. In 1806 it was seized by Napoleon, but returned to Berlin a few years later, where it was placed in the Altes Museum. The Russians under Stalin also temporarily abducted it.
It is thought it was made by a Greek sculptor from the school of Lysippos, possibly Teisikrates, around 300 BC.
A copy of it stands for example in a niche overlooking the Grand Staircase of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. That staircase does not look at all like the one in our painting.
 
The Hermes (Mercury) is Giambologna’s (circa 1524 – 1608) most famous statue (180 cm H.). He made several versions of it, the most famous one in 1580 for the fountain of the Villa Medici in Rome. It stands today in the Barghello Museum on Florence. It must be one of the most copied statues of all times.
 
I did check in vain if our painting could not represent the pre-second world war interior of a Berlin museum.  
 
Why should you buy this painting?
 
Because this early Edwardian painting shows a grand museum interior, possibly the original decoration of one of the two monumental staircases of the Natural History Museum in London: with an imposing chandelier hovering above two copies of very famous statues, the Flying Hermes and the Praying Boy.
 
 
 
 
 
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