A masterpiece by one of the leading artists of the eighteenth century – François Lemoyne’s Annunciation (1727) – has returned to Winchester College after ten years on loan to the National Gallery in London.
It is now on display in Treasury, the school's museum, which is open to the public, free of charge, from 2-4 PM every afternoon.
The Annunciation had been at the College since 1729 and originally hung above the altar in Chapel, as seen in this 1802 watercolour by James Cave (below). It was a gift from John Burton, headmaster of Winchester from 1724 to 1766. The painting illustrates a passage in St Luke’s Gospel, where the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. This subject was particularly appropriate for Winchester College, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the choice of a Catholic artist was unusual at the time. Lemoyne’s work is probably the earliest example, after the Reformation, of a foreign painter being commissioned to produce an altarpiece for an English church.
Winchester’s Annunciation was much admired in the eighteenth century. At least four engravings of it were published and there are numerous painted copies, one of them made as far away as Quito in Ecuador. Lemoyne’s picture was the subject of a poem printed in The London Magazine in 1733 and was used as an illustration in a popular devotional book. It also influenced other works of art, including G.B. Cipriani’s altarpiece for Clare College, Cambridge, painted in 1769.
The painting was taken out of Chapel in 1864 when the wooden panelling behind the altar was removed in preparation for William Butterfield’s restoration of the medieval stonework beneath. Unable to return to its original position, the Annunciation was hung in various locations around the College. It remained largely unknown until 2011, regarded by twentieth-century art historians as a ‘lost’ work by Lemoyne. The painting is now recognised as one of the major works of a key figure in eighteenth-century art and is the subject of a book by Mark Byford (The Annunciation: a Pilgrim’s Quest, 2018), who presented a lecture on the painting at Winchester College's Heritage Open Days in 2019.
In bringing the painting back to the College, it was important to all involved that the public could enjoy continued access to this artwork. Therefore a new home has been created for the Annunciation in the school's museum. Headmaster, Dr Tim Hands, said:
"We are delighted to welcome back this beautiful painting to Winchester College. This means Winchester residents have a new masterpiece on their doorsteps to visit and enjoy. It was really important to us that the public should be able to continue to see this important work of art for free and therefore I am particularly pleased that we have found it a new home in our Treasury museum."
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