The Brighton Stag

A rare and beautiful bronze statuette of a stag was acquired by Brighton Museum back in the mid-1980s. Measuring 9cm long and 16.5 cm high, the mane is finely detailed, and it has a dark grey-green patina. Beneath its erect antlers are recessed eye-sockets which would once have been filled by some precious or decorative stone.

Romano-British bronze statuette of a stag, HA250572
Romano-British bronze statuette of a stag, HA250572

Saved from export

The stag was found immediately to the north of Brighton by a metal detector enthusiast; unfortunately it was not offered to Brighton Museum, and instead the finder decided to sell it at auction. The statuette appeared in Christie’s London sale rooms on 16 July 1985, and although Brighton Museum bid more than the expected price, the stag was sold to an overseas buyer.

In November 1985 the Reviewing Committee on the Export Works of Art determined that the item was ‘of national importance’, and subsequently the Minister for the Arts, Mr. Richard Luce, accepted the Committee’s recommendation to withhold an export license for six months to allow the Museum time to raise the sum necessary to purchase the stag.

The money was contributed with the generous assistance of the National Arts Collections Fund, the Purchase Grant Fund administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Friends of the Royal Pavilion.

The Stag in Art

From a very early stage, stags have often been represented in European and Asian art. Generally they appear as victims – the quarry of huntsmen, or of other animals. In contrast, Landseer’s famous ‘Monarch of the Glen’ is a proud and defiant beast which, in the words of Kenneth Clark, ‘epitomizes the self-satisfaction of the Victorian ruling class’.

But what are we to make of the Brighton stag? To modern eyes it appears neither as hunter or as prey, but calmly dignified. In early Britain this stag was probably used as a cult object in a temple; another bronze stag has been discovered near the Roman centre of Colchester together with a dedication to Sylvanus, the Roman woodland god. Sylvanus – and his stag – may well have been worshipped in the rural and forested areas of Roman Britain and Gaul.

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