Museum lion gets nip and tuck

Local sculptor and moldmaker John Phillips

Local sculptor and moldmaker John Phillips in his Germantown studio with the new, improved lion’s head he fashioned using a cast of the original, damaged head and guidance from archival photos. The muzzle received the most attention; the brow the least.

When Penn Museum’s main entrance courtyard reopens late this fall, visitors won’t notice any dramatic changes. A few unruly magnolia trees will be gone, and tidy, low hedges will better define the formal landscaping. But much will be the same, including the majestic marble urns and mischievous bronze satyr that have welcomed Museum-goers for half a century. The reflecting pool will be back, too, though the marble coping around it will be new. The pool’s lion’s head fountain will also be new. Sort of.

The marble lion’s head presented a dilemma for Museum staff. “His condition was terrible,” says Senior Research Scientist Ann Brownlee, the Museum’s point person for the renovation project since it began in the spring of 2003. Showing the effects of time and acid rain, the once-regal head was badly deteriorated. “We were concerned,” says Brownlee. “We’re a museum and he’s an accessioned object. We needed to take care of him.”

Entrance of Penn Museum

An archival photograph from c. 1913-16 shows the original marble lion’s head fountain at the head of the reflecting pool in Penn Museum’s main entrance courtyard. By 2003, when renovations began on the courtyard, acid rain and the passage of time had left the king of the beasts in a distinctly decrepit state.

Their solution was to make a cast of the damaged head and commission local sculptor and moldmaker John Phillips to create a new mold with subtle refinements that would bring back the lion’s bold features while remaining true to the original. “We wanted to smooth it out but keep it as close as possible,” says Brownlee, who hunted down archival photos of the courtyard to give Phillips a better sense of how the lion appeared in its prime.

Phillips, whose previous jobs have included recasting the Benjamin Franklin sculpture at the Philosophical Society, left the muzzle largely unaltered. “It was underneath, so the weather didn’t get to it,” he says. After firming up the bridge of the nose and the brow areas, Philips turned his attention to the jowls, rounding their contours to breathe life into the sculpture. His final challenge was getting the Museum committee to agree on which of several versions they preferred.

Cast in stone—actually a mix of Portland cement, sand and titanium dioxide—the new fountain head will stand up better to the ravages of time and weather, delighting visitors for many years to come.

Originally published on September 9, 2004