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Fantastic Finds: Henning Mould by Stella Hook

These are 1/20th scale plaster moulds made by John Henning (1771-1851) of a section of the Parthenon frieze.


Built in ancient Athens, 447 - 432 BC, the 160 metre-long sculpture once adorned the inner chamber of the Parthenon – a grandiose temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. The frieze depicts the people of Athens partaking in an religious procession in honor of Goddess Athena. In the early 1800s Lord Elgin imported significant parts of the frieze to Britain, where they became known as the Elgin Marbles.

John Henning was a Paisley-born sculptor who specialised in the reproduction of ancient Greek relief sculpture. He is best known for the scale models he created of the Parthenon frieze.

The son of a carpenter, Henning was initially apprenticed in carpentry but began making wax portraits of friends and family, which turned into a business in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1811 he moved to London and was granted permission by Lord Elgin to draw and model the famous, ancient Parthenon frieze. Benjamin West, the President of the Royal Academy of Arts objected to Henning’s being allowed to study the sculptures, stating: “My Lord, to allow Mr. Henning to draw from your Lordship’s Marbles would be like sending a boy to the University before he had learned his letters.” These objections were on the grounds of elitism and classism, however, Elgin decided to grant him permission regardless.

Henning studied the stones for over twelve years, recreating part of the sculptures that had been damaged from earlier drawings of them made by Jacque Carrey prior to their being damaged in an explosion in 1687. From his studies, Henning created slate moulds 1/20th the size of the original pieces, from these moulds, high-quality plaster casts were made. Friezes by Henning were sold to illustrious company including King George IV and can be found adorning London masonry such as the Hyde Park Gate and the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall. His creations were celebrated in the art world and initially financially successful, until mass produced copies of them began to appear from the continent.

Unfortunately, Henning was unable to copyright his work and the inferior copies made from his moulds flooded the market. As a result, he was not able to attain a significant number of commissions, struggled financially, became poverty-stricken, and eventually died a pauper’s death in London on the 8th of April 1851 and was buried in St Pancras Cemetery, Finchley.

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