If whilst wandering around the statue lined halls of many an English country house, you may have developed the impression that they were built around their priceless antiques and collectables, then you were probably right. Many neoclassical houses were built inside out to house vast collections of sculpture and paintings that were amassed on the Grand Tour. Ruth Guilding’s ‘Owning the Past’ is a fascinating account of two hundred years of English ‘marble mania’, during which there was a veritable stampede to Italy by English aristocrats and aristocratic wannabes, as they sometimes bankrupted themselves in the mad panic to amass classical statuary, is an insightful study of the phenomenon. It tells us a lot not just about these great collections and why they were acquired, but also about the worldview of the English elite and the legacy of that worldview today.
So why were the English so obsessive in their desire to collect classical statuary?
The key seems to be in the way that they thought about themselves as individuals and as a society. Every human age, particularly when catalysed by great wealth, has a need of a self defining narrative – a need of a worldview. The rather grandiose Georgian worldview – shaped by long periods of peace and prosperity and the expansion of the idea of the British imperium – was that they were latter day Romans and the rightful heir to their learning, civilisation and empire. Tellingly they even referred to the start of the Georgian era as the Augustan Age (also known as the Age of Enlightenment, the Neoclassical Age or the Age of Reason).
Some have seen in this an example of Georgian ‘cultural hegemony’. ‘Cultural hegemony’ is the Marxist idea that describes how a ruling elite may seek to impose its own worldview on a people or peoples for its own ends. Certainly the Georgian identification of themselves with the Romans was a powerful and pervasive ideology that dominated English culture and politics throughout much of the 18th century. Georgian Kings were often presented as Roman Caesars – on coinage for example – complete with crowns of laurel leaves. Similarly Sir Robert Walpole – who presided over this era – had himself depicted in marble, dressed in a Roman toga emblazoned with the Order of the Garter, gazing down at the classical masterpiece of the Laocoon in Houghton’s great Marble Hall. The links made between England and the power and glory of Rome were obvious for all to see.
The building of neoclassical palaces filled with classical statues and paintings and prints of classical themes – in conscious imitation of the villas of Pliny or Virgil – is a powerful visual representation of this worldview. No matter that this imitation was based on Andrea Palladio’s mistaken belief that the Roman nobility on the Palatine hill lived in temples. His error in conflating sacred and secular architectural paradigms has served to enrich centuries of architectural vocabulary the world over.
This worldview is also evident in the laying out of sweeping Claudian landscape gardens dotted with more classical references of statuary and temple follies. The messages are also there to see in the portraiture of the period. In both the swagger portrait of the heroic gentleman invariably positioned beside a classical fragment; or a pastoral portrait of a noble couple surrounded by their dogs and horses in an Italianate landscape, with their classical pile in the background. The subjects of these paintings wish to be identified with antiquity as modern Roman patricians, complete with all their noble virtues.
One can hardly fail to note in all this that the worldviews of earlier eras were more obviously consistent and homogenous than our own fast changing and culturally fractured society, where as soon as a unifying aesthetic like modernism or postmodernism appears, it is almost immediately challenged.
But the single most important feature of this Georgian worldview was the rite of passage of the Grand Tour, which was as much a shopping trip as a liberal education. So important was the Grand Tour in the education of a gentleman that Dr Johnson was able to comment that:
“A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”
Of course what may enrich one culture may more than likely end up depleting another, in the mad obsession to collect. And some Italians were as upset with the British for the greedy wholesale purchase of their heritage, as the Greeks now are with regard to the Parthenon marbles. So in 1760 Paolo Paciaudi complains:
“I am enraged by the fact that those damned Englishmen are taking with them all these magnificent antiquities.”
This civilising form of tourism certainly seems to have worked for some. Ruth Guilding describes how Thomas Coke – who later became the Earl of Leicester – was sent on the Grand Tour to improve his morality and taste. We don’t know how it affected his morality, but he certainly returned with an enormous collection of highly covetable marble statuary, and commissioned William Kent to magnificently house them in the newly designed Neoclassical temple of Holkham.
The edifying value of a classical education may have waned in recent years with the teaching of Latin and Greek at British schools giving way to economics and computer studies, but there was more than a whiff of it with the recent surprise loan of the Ilisos – jewel of the Parthenon marbles, and long considered too fragile to move – by the British Museum to the Hermitage in Russia. The British have of course long since abandoned the notion of themselves as the cultural and imperial heir to the Romans; and the classical period of ancient Greece and Rome is now understood as the fount of a wider Western civilisation. But at a time of increasing political insecurity, with the impending return of a new Cold War, the opportunity to present a cultural symbol of British and European values of democracy and liberalism to Putin’s Russia, must have seemed irresistible to the British Museum.
But I suspect that the scholars of the British Museum may have overestimated the degree to which classical symbolism may resonate on the modern mind – in Russia or anywhere else. Ruth Guilding has a fascinating photograph of Adolf Hitler posing in front of the Discobolus. Far from reconsidering his fascist manifesto and promptly marching out of Poland as a consequence of this confrontation, Hitler used the preternatural beauty of the Discobolus as an icon of his Aryan creed of hatred. Recent images of the technology proficient but progress denying so-called Islamic State, destroying the relicts of ancient civilisations, also casts doubt on their power to civilise, in the face of a determined ideology.
Already by the 1740s this establishment worldview of Britons as latter day Romans was being elegantly challenged by the Tory Temple family at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire. Whereas all the innumerable classical elements at Stowe had been an expression of the Temple’s initial loyalty to the King and his government, the building in 1741 of a neo-gothic Temple of (British) Liberty was an expression of opposition to Walpole’s Whiggery. To underline the point, an inscription was placed over the door from Corneille’s Horace, “Je rends graces aux Dieux de nestre pas Romain” (“I thank the gods that I am not a Roman”). For the Temple family, the neo-gothic style symbolised English liberty that stood in stark contrast to Roman tyranny, or the tyranny of Walpole. It is indeed a great pity that rarely has subsequent political dissent been quite so refined and quite so erudite.
It is curious that the descendants of the very Saxon tribes – that had been subdued by the mighty Roman Empire over a thousand years previously – were attempting to annex the civilising Roman heritage for themselves. Hardly original though – the Romans themselves had done much the same. They had after all annexed Trojan Aeneas in order to create a legitimising link between themselves and the heroes of Greek history/mythology. The Romans could in this way justify their wholesale absorption of almost every aspect of Greek culture, politics and learning.
Similarly the German tribes who had created the long lasting Holy Roman Empire, had also attempted a fairly comprehensive annexation. And in the 20th century, whilst his ally Musolini was – with some justification – claiming ownership over the Romans, and raiding Roman symbolism for his fascist agenda, Hitler was busy building on 18th century art historian Johann Winckelmann’s depictions of Greek antiquity as an ideal of otherworldly perfection. Winclemann’s image of ancient Greeks as tall, blond Aryans had powerfully influenced the whole Romantic movement and its poets including Goethe, Holderin and Byron, leading to European support of Greek liberation from the Ottomans in the 19th century. In the construction of the Nazi worldview, Hitler quite simply annexed Greek antiquity, with the absurd fiction of the ancient Greeks as the Aryan ancestors of modern Germans.
Clearly many nations have wished to be identified with their heroes; and when you’re cynically raiding history for the construction of your worldview myths, you can pick and choose either tyrannical imperialism or democracy – it’s all there…
But there were clearly other factors also driving the over heated market for marble statuary among the English elite. Ruth Guilding describes how the concepts of ‘taste’ and ‘connoisseurship’ had entered the market for antique sculpture – a market rife with snobbery, pride and perilous competition. Money could of course buy you access to social status and respect when combined with good taste, and some like the fabulously rich commoner William Weddell greatly benefited from his world-class collection. Of course when any market becomes as heated as this one, the object becomes commodified and traded like anything else – a continuing theme in today’s art market, The recent sale for example of Weddell’s Newby Venus for a record price of $13m to the Emir of Qatar, is – in the 21st century – less likely to do with romantic worldviews than basic trophyism and investment value.
In the exclusively male club of collectors of antique sculpture, the latter’s role as a kind of upmarket pornography was always another good reason to collect. Ruth Guilding describes, rather disconcertingly, how J. Paul Getty, the 20th century American collector, enjoyed running the palm of his hand over the smooth cold marble of the female nudes of his collection. And it was entirely for the purposes of private titillation that Georgian gentlemen would keep under lock and key their collections of more obviously erotic material of say bestiality, masturbating Pans, oversized phalli and curvy bottoms. Women were to be spared the potentially corrupting influences of such material which apparently only men were psychologically able to handle.
A notable exception to this gender discrimination was Emma Hamilton whose none-too-respectable performance of her famous ‘Attitudes’ for mostly male private audiences in Naples, was a creative expression of the erotic potential offered by classical statuary. The Pygmalion parallel offered of bringing desirable statues into flesh and blood, provided a pseudo-legitimate opportunity to gawp at another man’s near-naked wife with impunity.
In fact Ovid may have been inspired to write his story of Pygmalion when he saw the sculptor Praxiteles’ breathtakingly beautiful statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos. And these latter day English collectors would have been aware of Pliny’s story of:
“a certain man [who] was once overcome with love for the statue [of Aphrodite of Knidos] and . . . , after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, he embraced it and . . . it thus bears a stain, an indication of his lust.”
A popular if unlikely story that during the Renaissance was cited as evidence of the superiority of the art of sculpture over painting.
A great many English country houses may have been built specifically to house collections of marble statuary, but sadly these days if their halls are statue lined, they are more likely to be plaster caste copies than the priceless marble originals. ‘Owning the Past’ is the fascinating story of a rather elitist and scholarly obsession with another civilisation’s relicts. Relicts that Georgian England was to heavily imbue with political and social symbolism, as the civilised and visible connection between themselves and the Roman Empire, in the construction of their own worldview. The is the story of how both the state and the rich and powerful elite attempted to annex – at great cost and not always successfully – these objects both to their collective culture and individual dynasties for posterity, almost as soon as they were dug up from the ground. A beautiful and often ruinous obsession that was as ideological, as it was financial and even salacious in motivation.
‘Owning the Past: Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640 – 1840’
by Ruth Guilding, published by Yale University Press
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