Hidden mythology: Polesden’s garden sculpture

Garden sculpture and statuary are often so much a part of historic houses’ gardens that we often forget to take a closer look.  Aside from being another beautiful adornment to ornamental gardens, garden sculpture often has its own hidden messages.

Here at Polesden, our garden sculptures vary from quirky griffins, to towering columns, cute little lions and mysterious urns carved with hidden mythological stories…

On the south lawn – which slopes down to the most beautiful view in Surrey – are four of these mysterious sculpted urns.

South Lawn, Polesden Lacey

South Lawn, Polesden Lacey

You may have just strolled past these four urns, noting their size but not much else.  Next time you relax on a deckchair on our south lawn, take a closer look at them, and you’ll see a variety of fascinating, hidden mythological and biblical stories.

So, what is an urn exactly?  An urn is a large sculpted vase which traditionally contains the cremated ashes of someone.  Our urns at Polesden don’t function in this way, they are more decorative, but an urn still inherently represents the cycle of life.

One urn depicts the mythological story of Apollo and Daphne, one shows the Rape of the Sabines, another depicts the Labours of the Seasons, and the fourth remains a mystery.  (The fourth urn has carvings of a man with a fork of lightning and a cockerel; three men hauling in a net; a man drinking, and a man on a boat.  This may be a story from the Bible or from Babylonian mythology, but do leave a comment if you recognise these motifs!!)

All this gets you thinking.  Why put these particular stories on an object (an urn) that represents the cycle of life?  To answer this, I think we need to remind ourselves a little about the stories themselves:

Apollo and Daphne is about Apollo’s love for, and pursuit of Daphne, and in return, about her hatred of him which drives her to beg to be turned into a tree, in order to escape his advances.

Apollo and Daphne, South Lawn Urn (see Daphne's arms turning into branches)

Apollo and Daphne, South Lawn Urn (see Daphne’s arms turning into branches)

Okay, on to story number 2: the Rape of the Sabines is a tale of the very first Romans abducting the nearby Sabine women to have as wives, so they could ensure the continuation of the Roman race.

Rape of Sabines urn, South Lawn (see the two Roman soldiers grasping the Sabine woman)

Rape of Sabines urn, South Lawn (see the two Roman soldiers grasping the Sabine woman)

Story number 3: the Labours of the Seasons, is an age-old motif connoting the cyclical nature of time and humans’ place within it.

Labours of the Seasons

Labours of the Seasons urn, South Lawn (see the gathering of food and firewood which are typically seasonal activities)

Got all that?  So all three of these stories are centred on the cycle of life, whether that be Daphne ending one life as a nymph and beginning another as a tree; or the Romans’ ensuring their own dynasty after death, or the continual cycle of the Labours of the Seasons.

So now it might be a little clearer why these stories were chosen to decorate urns.  All these stories are depicted in a circle, around the circular shape of the urn.   An urn is a marker of the end of a life, but these stories remind all, that life is cyclical and with every end, comes a new beginning.

So, make sure you take a look at these urns before the autumn covers come on in late October, it just goes to show, there’s always more to see at Polesden…

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