In 2007 a cast of the Borghese Hermaphrodite was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to West Wycombe Park. It had originally been brought to West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood, second Baronet, in the mid-eighteenth century.
Hermaphroditus is a figure from classical mythology who has the physical attributes of both the male and the female sex.
The original Borghese Hermaphrodite sculpture was dug up in Rome in the early seventeenth century and presented to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had a special room dedicated to it in his Villa Borghese. The sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini made the uncannily realistic buttoned mattress for it in 1620.
The figure soon became famous. The English courtier and writer John Evelyn bought a reduced copy in ivory in Rome in the 1640s. A copy made for Philip IV of Spain inspired Velazquez’s unambiguously female Toilet of Venus – but this painting would itself become embroiled in gender politics when it was slashed by a Suffragette in London in 1914.
The West Wycombe copy reflects the second Baronet’s fascination with the celebration of sexuality in the ancient world.
The original was sold by Prince Camillo Borghese in 1807 and transferred to the Louvre. There it inspired Algernon Swinburne’s controversial 1863 poem ‘Hermaphroditus’, which explores the sensation of feminine and masculine feelings in the same body.