Everyone who visited The Huntington noticed him. Standing eight feet high, on a two-foot pedestal, the figure of the god of the sea, Neptune, loomed large over all who passed in front of the Library building. But few are aware that this imposing figure was once in the collection of the Hofburg, or Imperial Palace, in Vienna. And only the most devoted Huntington fans will remember he was purchased by Henry E. Huntington as one of a pair, along with a figure identified as “Zeus.” Since Zeus is shown holding his thunderbolt, these two figures may have been two of a set of four sculptures representing the elements: Neptune for water and Zeus for fire.
“These are high-quality works from the turn of the 18th century,” said Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art. They flanked the south facade of the Library until 1984, when Zeus was fatally wounded by a falling tree. A resolute Neptune has stood alone since, enduring a great deal of sun, wind, and rain.
As part of a sweeping outdoor sculpture conservation initiative that has already seen the renovation and treatment of the bronzes in front of the Library and the 30 stone works in the North Vista, the masterfully carved 18th-century god of the sea is finally getting his due.
Last week, a conservation team lead by Rosa Lowinger spent three days relocating Neptune to a central spot in the landscaped circle near the entrance of the Huntington Art Gallery. The move was a feat in itself, as Roger Green of Exclusive Welding, Inc., designed a special box to protect the statue before it was forklifted its new location, where a shorter pedestal now allows for a better, perhaps more human, perspective of the sculpture’s mightiness.
Now better sheltered from the south to reduce exposure to the elements, Neptune enjoys a setting more befitting a stand-alone work. The conservators will now work to restore Neptune’s trident (lost in the December 2011 windstorm) and give him an overall renovation and makeover. Stay tuned for updates as refurbishment progresses, or drop by to see for yourself.
Thea M. Page is art writer and special projects manager at The Huntington.