I was asked this morning, and have been before, how it is that the Royal Academy owns a great Michelangelo sculpture.
The answers lies with Sir George Beaumont, an old Etonian baronet, who learned to paint at school as a pupil of Alexander Cozens and spent six weeks in 1771, when he was eighteen, staying at the home of the Reverend Charles Davy at Henstead in Suffolk, painting and drawing the Suffolk countryside. He went on the Grand Tour in 1782, when he acquired Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel, now in the National Gallery.
The story of how Beaumont acquired the Tondo is told by Alison Cole in her monograph on it. Beaumont went to Rome in 1821. He made friends with Canova, who presumably alerted him to the existence of the Tondo in the collection of Jean-Baptiste Wicar, who had been a member of Napoleon’s Commission des Sciences et des Arts, which had been in charge of appropriating works of art from Italy and the Netherlands to enrich the Louvre and other French museum collections.
On 19 May 1822, Beaumont was able to write to Sir Thomas Lawrence, the then President of the Royal Academy, how ‘I am going this morning…to see a fine collection of drawings in the possession of Mr Vicari [Wicar], who was in great power during the French Revolution & made ample use of it, I am told all the treasures of Italy were at one time at his command, & it is from him that I have procured M. Angelo…’
Not long after, he wrote to his friend William Wordsworth, ‘How I long to show it to you’. He bequeathed it to the Royal Academy, died in 1827, and it came to the Academy following his wife’s death in 1829.