Three virgins seeking a home to grace

Dan Cruickshank suggests settings for Canova's masterpiece
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The battle to keep Antonio Canova's The Three Graces in Britain was long, arduous and expensive. In the end £7.6m, raised through private, institutional and government sources, had to be paid to the company that had purchased the exquisite Neo-Cl assicalsculpture from the Marquis of Tavistock. If the desperate bid to pay the asking price had failed, this European masterpiece would now be lodged in Los Angeles in the Getty Museum.

This, however, is only the beginning of the story: now that The Three Graces has been saved for Britain, what is to be done with these three chaste and perfect Grecian women? Surprisingly, especially considering their value, this question is unresolved. The sculpture is on display in the entrance foyer of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a cluttered and station-like position that does little to reveal or accentuate the work's great and subtle charm.

For want of a better idea, the current proposal is that the Graces should reside in the V&A for seven years and then be transported to Edinburgh, where they will be lodged for the next seven years and then brought back to London again. A wandering life seems to be the Graces' fate, with an occasional holiday abroad. This is highly unsatisfactory, not just because each time the Graces are moved they risk injury, but also because they deserve - in fact, demand - a purpose-made and permanent architectural setting.

A brief consideration of the origin and history of The Three Graces reveals not only the sort of treatment to which they are accustomed, but also gives a strong clue to the sort of treatment that they ought to be receiving now.

The version of The Three Graces that has been acquired for the nation was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford in the autumn of 1814. When visiting Canova's studio in Rome, the Duke saw the first version of the statue, which had been commissioned by the Empress Josephine in June 1812. The Empress had died in May 1814, so Bedford assumed he could snap up the orphaned Graces. However, Eugene Beauharnais, Jose-phine's son, made a claim for the sculpture, which eventually found its way to the Hermitage in StPetersburg. Not to be thwarted, Bedford persuaded Canova to carve a second version, with subtle variations, for the same price as Josephine's. Canova set to work in the summer of 1815 and the finished sculpture arrived at Woburn Abbey, Bedford's countryhouse, in the summer of 1819.

By this time, Bedford had decided to house the Graces in a Neo-Classical temple; here, he would contemplate his perfect Grecian women. He commissioned Jeffrey Wyatville, the fashionable architect, to design a Temple of the Graces to be located in the existing sculpture gallery at Woburn. Wyatville's temple featured a top-lit and coffered rotunda. The gallery was made Neo-Classical with the addition of eight antique columns, and for the next 170 years the Graces presided in splendour in their miniature Pantheon.

The current Marquis of Tavistock's decision to sell the Graces to the highest bidder was painful, not least because it suggested that, wrenched from their purpose-built setting, they would never look as good again.

Setting is all important for such chaste, white and exquisitely composed Neo-Classical sculpture. The scale of its setting, its detailing, the colours cast upon the sculpture and the angle from which light falls all matter tremendously. The architect John Soane understood this when creating his museum in, and behind, his house on London's Lincoln's Inn Fields, an enterprise contemporary with Wyatville's work at Woburn. As the 1835 guide to the Soane Museum explains, the sculptures on display are "considerably enhanced by the exquisite distribution of light and colour which ... sheds the most exquisite hues, and produces most magical effects ... Life and colour are so intimately conjoined that we cannot separate them without losing one ... even the most breathing sculptures require some aid from those ethereal tints which at the same moment rescue them from the characteristics of death, and reveal those of life, beauty and intelligence ... Colours are the smile of nature."

Wyatville's domed temple was no doubt fitted with amber glass to shed the same sort of Mediterranean glow over the marble that Soane achieved with his range of subtly tinted glass in his museum - a wonderful expression of this cultivated sensitivity to setting.

So where and how should the Graces be displayed? Since the marquis made millions by the sale of the statues and gave years of anxiety to those who cared for their future, it would be inappropriate, no matter how tempting from an aesthetic point of view, to return the statue to him to display in its original setting. There is, however, another solution: build an exact replica of the Woburn sculpture gallery, complete with Wyatville's domed temple. As for a permanent setting, Edinburgh would be a sensiblechoice; much of Scotland's annual arts grant was donated to saving the Graces, and a new Neo-Classical gallery would make sense in the "Athens of the North". Here it would seem neither forced nor themed.

Yet, if the dominant idea is that the Graces should be shared equally by London and Edinburgh, why not build such a gallery halfway between the two? Located in the countryside, the museum might be seen as some sort of Neo-Classical Greenhenge. Not far from Leeds - the halfway point - is the 17th-century Temple Newsam House, now a museum; could the gallery be housed in its grounds?

The successful campaign to save The Three Graces for the country must be followed by a campaign to house this expensive investment in style. A site should be secured and a competition for the design of the exterior of the gallery launched.