Thursday 18 February 2010

Dilettantes and shopkeepers

This is an engraving after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) showing a gathering of the members of the Society of Dilettantes. This was an exclusive club of British aristocrats dedicated to the discussion of classical art obtained on the Grand Tour. The members of the society depicted are, left to right: Sir W.W. Wynn, Sir J. Taylor, Mr. Payne Galway, Sir William Hamilton, Mr. Richard Thompson, Mr. Stanhope, and Mr. Smith of Heath.
Sir William Hamilton (1730-1806) had assembled one of the world's finest collections of Greek and Roman antiquities as British Envoy Extraordinaire to the two Sicilies from 1764-1800 . Most of the antiquities he collected came from excavations in Italy, and he later sold most of them to the British Museum. The highlights of his vast vase collection were recorded in portfolios, which found their way into the great libraries of Grand Tour travelers and patrons, and provided inspiration to decorative art designers in England, such as Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). In the painting Sir William Hamilton and Society Dilettante, c. 1780s, he displays an item from his collection of ancient Greek and Roman pottery and the recently published book of engravings depicting his collection (the illustration is of a mezzotint, 25 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches by the English engraver William Say (1768-1834), after the original Reynolds painting).
Here is another depiction of the same collector:

In A Cognocenti contemplating ye Beauties of ye Antique (1801), caricaturist and printmaker James Gillray caricatured Sir William's attitude toward the affair between Emma Lady Hamilton and Nelson. Emma is the portrait of "Cleopatra" in the upper left, and Nelson is the adjacent "Mark Antony".

In this 1782 painting "Charles Towneley in his Sculpture Gallery" by Johann Zoffani, we see another collector of classical dugup art, Charles Townley from Burnley in Lancashire. Townley went on the Grand Tour in 1767, and visited Rome and Italy a number of times later, buying dug-up art and pieces knocked off monuments. In conjunction with various dealers he got together a splendid collection of antiquities which was deposited in 1778 in a house built for the purpose in Park Street, in the West End of London. His solitary publication was an account of a Roman cavalry helmet found at Ribchester. The Zoffany painting shows his collection (which was later bought by the British Museum). On the shelf at the back is the so-called Townley Vase, dug up in Italy about 1774 by Gavin Hamilton (relative of William).

in A group of Antiquaries, Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) gives a not very flattering portrayal of the milieu. This is one of a number of prints by Rowlandson on the theme of antiquaries and their fascination with death. Thjis is about the same time as Walter Scott's novel The Antiquary (1816) with its portrayal of Jonathan Oldbuck, devoted to the study and collection of old coins, a man with an irritable temper, due to disappointment in a love affair. What however is interesting about this book is that most of the antiquary's research is depicted as taking place outdoors, by the early nineteenth century the collector of mere "things" is now becoming much more interested in "place". This is a tradition which in Britain of course goes back to antiquaries such as John Aubrey and Stukeley, if not William Camden, and marks a break between the mere collecting of things as illustrations of the written history, to the investigation of the field evidence which was eventually to give rise to the modern discpline of archaeology.

Many archaeologists like to see people like Townley, Hamilton, Belzoni and other collectors and artefact hunters as part of the longer history of archaeology (thus opening the doors for collectors to say that in criticising the continuance today of nineteenth century no-questions asked trade in antiquities, archaeologists are "cutting at the roots of their own discipline"). Personally I think this is a mistake. Archaeology develops when we move away from the idea of collecting things to illustrate what we know from other sources, but when it begins to be realised that the position of these "things" in the ground and their associations and contexts are an independent source of information about the past. This does not go back to the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, Pitt Rivers was one of the pioneers, but was not really heeded by his immediate followers. Archaeology per se is a relatively young disciplne and has nothing whatsoever - I would argue - to do with mere collecting and mere typology.

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