Chiswick House breaks the mould

'Lost' sphinxes come a step closer to returning home

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The ‘lost’ sphinxes of Chiswick House are being painstakingly recreated so they can once more stand guard at the entrance to the Grade I 18th century Neo-Palladian villa.

An authentic ‘Lost Wax’ casting process has been used to produce the new castings, which have taken twelve weeks to reach this stage. The process involves creating a negative mould of the sphinx from an existing original cast lead sphinx inside the house. Molten wax is then poured into the mould, to create a hollow wax copy.

These wax replicas are then ‘invested’ (coated in a hard ceramic mixture) and placed in a kiln. After two days, the wax melts out and vaporises leaving a hollow form inside the ceramic shell into which the molten lead is then poured. After cooling the ceramic casing is broken away to reveal the new lead casting inside.

Conservator Rupert Harris commented, “This has been an exciting project, although something of a jigsaw. Some sections of the original sphinx which is inside the house were missing, so we needed to model these missing details onto the original before we could make the silicon rubber mould.

“However, we were lucky in that there were two stone sphinxes of the same style in the garden and these were used as reference for the missing detail, for example where the ends of the saddle and tail were missing on the original.”

Ricky Pound English Heritage said, “The historic sphinxes indicated to 18th-century visitors to Chiswick House that they were entering a place of wealth and mystery. In Classical Mythology, the sphinx was the gate-keeper to the city of Thebes, challenging anyone approaching with a riddle. Perhaps at Chiswick too, the sphinxes had connotations of guarding a secret, within the house and gardens beyond.”

Howard Simmons, Assistant Chief Executive at London Borough of Hounslow added, “Chiswick House is at the heart of the community, so we are delighted that the regeneration project is underway. It is a long term project but we believe the results will be worth the wait and will benefit the whole community.”

The new lead sphinxes are being created to be placed on the stone gate piers at Chiswick House, where once two originals stood, commissioned by the first owner, Lord Burlington, when the house was built in the 1720s. However, after being relocated within the expanding grounds at Chiswick, the originals were removed at the end of the 19th century and are thought to have been taken to Green Park.

The project is part of an extensive regeneration project at Chiswick House, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The re-installation of the sphinxes has been made possible through the generosity of the Wolfson Foundation, who have pledged up to £600,000 toward the regeneration of the gardens at Chiswick House. The sphinxes, which will weigh 280kg each, are scheduled to be installed at Chiswick House towards the end of May.

May 3, 2006