Marble-mania: when England became a spiritual heir to the ancients

A review of Owning the Past: Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640 - 1840, by Ruth Guilding. Treats include an illustration of a pair of cleaning ladies in the hall at Castle Howard

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Owning the Past: Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640–1840 Ruth Guilding

Yale, pp.412, £55, ISBN: 9780300208191

Phrases such as ‘Some aspects of…’ are death at the box-office, so it is not exactly unknown for the titles of scholarly works to promise far more than they actually deliver. Most unusually, the actual reach of Ruth Guilding’s mighty and compelling new study is far wider than the already large subject of ‘Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640–1840’.

There are all sorts of ways in which the author goes beyond her ostensible brief, but it should be stated at the outset that she does indeed examine both why the English collected and what they collected. Guilding begins her introduction with a quote from J. Paul Getty — here rather oddly described as being ‘Anglo-American’, which better fits his knighted son and namesake — on the joys of collecting, and goes on to explain that his passion for Greek and Roman marble antiquities was a traditional one.

In view of the fact that in this country Greek and Latin formed such a large part of the academic curriculum during the period she covers, this is hardly surprising, but in addition there was a persistent wish here to see ourselves as the spiritual heirs of the ancients. Dr Johnson observed 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.’ The next best thing was to transport solid chunks of the ancient world to these shores.

Over the two centuries that are Guilding’s principal focus, marble reigned supreme, but what was most readily available and most admired shifted dramatically, and it was arguably only with the arrival of the Elgin Marbles that England could claim to house the crème de la crème. In Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny’s pioneering Taste and the Antique (1981), the catalogue section, which is an anthology of what were deemed to be the 95 greatest hits of classical sculpture until around 1900, does not include a single piece in the UK — or the US, for that matter.

At the same time, seen from a 21st-century perspective, one of the most fascinating paradoxes of all this marble mania is that it has in effect been supplanted by an equivalent reverence for ancient bronzes — the Riace Warriors, the Dancing Satyr of Mazara del Vallo, and so on. It is no coincidence that the Getty’s 2015 blockbuster is Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, which will also be shown at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Guilding also devotes exemplary attention to where collectors put their antiquities, and how they almost invariably designed their houses around them, while at the same time exploring the effect they had on contemporary sculpture. She necessarily ranges from homegrown talents such as Nollekens, who blended ancient and modern by carving a trio of goddesses to accompany an ancient statue of Paris himself and thus created a scene of the Judgment of Paris for the Marquess of Rockingham, to such continental superstars as Canova, whose Three Graces for the Duke of Bedford inhabited a temple at Woburn built expressly for them by Jeffrey Wyatt. Finally, she devotes a short but spicy chapter to what she terms ‘The Connoisseurship of Libertinism’.

Some academics give the impression they have taken some kind of Hippocratic oath that requires them to be dull as ditchwater, but happily Dr Guilding is not of their number. On the contrary, her narrative — and her prose — are both full of zest (characteristically, she describes the Countess of Arundel in Daniel Mytens’s portrait of her as resembling ‘an entomologist’s specimen pinned to a card’).

As an added treat, the illustrations include photographs of — inter alia — the daughter of the Duke of Northumberland astride a motorbike in the entrance hall at Syon, Adolf Hitler with the Discobolus in Munich in the Olympic year 1936, and a pair of cleaning ladies — accompanied by their buckets and leaning on their mops — in the hall at Castle Howard.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £48 Tel: 08430 600033. David Ekserdjian curated the 2012 Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy and is an expert on the Italian Renaissance.

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