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The story of the great Augustan collectors of antiquities

An explanation, an adoration and a lament

Collecting antiquities was reserved for only the most learned of 17th-century Englishmen and, during the following 100 years, it became a passion that was taken up by a broad group of the rich and fashionable. Those with less wealth but more enthusiasm—the triumvirate of Charles Townley, Richard Payne Knight and Sir William Hamilton—turned antiquities into a subject of museological study and Lord Elgin’s energy in securing the sculptures from the Parthenon for the British nation marks the zenith of the fashion. The acquisition of the marbles for the British Museum also heralded a reaction away from classicism.

Through a series of biographies Jonathan Scott makes a masterful examination of the rise and fall in taste for classical sculpture. He also examines the activity of dealers, among whom Matthew Brettingham, Gavin Hamilton, James Byers and Thomas Jenkins are the most prominent, and examines the passion for the collecting of gems and the cheaper alternative of forming a paper museum such as that made by Pompeo Batoni for Richard Topham, the MP for Windsor. He writes in a straight-forward manner which gives helpful analysis and maintains a welcome equilibrium between surviving sources. It must have been difficult to balance fulsome archives, such as the recently accessible Townley Archive at the British Museum, with tantalisingly non-existent papers that must at one time have shed light on the Holbech Collection at Farnborough Hall in Warwickshire.

The detailed accounts of collectors are full of eccentricities. Holbech cut one bust in two to give him a pair of reliefs which would maintain the desired decorative symmetry for his entrance hall. Despite his large income, James Smith Barry, who one visitor thought “would be happy if he had only £500 a year instead of £25,000”, became reclusive and overspent on his grandiose schemes. Henry Blundell bought indiscriminately—he wrote “If I lay out £1,000 it is no great affair … the money is no object to me”—and used his large collection to create the most effective interior. The Pantheon, now sadly empty, was built beside his house at Ince near Liverpool and filled with the majority of the 599 sculptures that he owned at his death in 1810. Having spent £4,662 on paintings and antique sculptures, Thomas Mansel Talbot left them in packing cases for 15 years before exhibiting them in a newly built orangery at Margam Abbey in South Wales, but the collection was soon moved to a newly-built house in the 1830s by his son.

Dr Scott’s book is an explanation, an adoration and a lament for a particular kind of country house taste. Although the subject has never been examined in this way before (and it has a particular poignancy with the sale of the Newby Venus last year), he has found a number of books especially useful for his research. The German Adolf Michaelis who, as Dr Scott comments, must have appeared an incomprehensible figure to the noble owners of antiquities, recorded British collections in a detailed catalogue published in 1882. John Ingamells’ Dictionary of visitors to Italy written from archives accumulated by the late Brinsley Ford yields much information about Grand Tour collectors, but, perhaps, the book he might have considered more closely is Taste and the antique by the late Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny published in 1982. Haskell and Penny chart the reception and influence of individual sculptures on taste and one of the most important pieces of evidence for admiration is the manufacture of copies. Although Dr Scott devotes some pages to copyists and restorers (the ubiquitous and over-zealous restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi frequently appears in his pages) there are many interesting figures that are absent. Francis Harwood, Giuseppe and Giovanni Battista Piamontini and Bartolomeo Solari fail to get a mention and the decorative schemes for Joseph Leeson, First Earl of Milltown at Russborough and Charles Compton, Seventh Earl of Northampton at Castle Ashby are similarly overlooked. In Dr Scott’s words, “Most of the clients of Brettingham, Jenkins and Hamilton were simply followers of fashion, impelled by an acquisitive ardour” and as such the more straight-forward method of ordering a copy, rather than searching for a original, might have been examined in greater detail. That said, Yale University Press has supported their author with their customary style and produced an attractive book. Despite some concerns The pleasures of antiquity is essential and entertaining reading for those interested in the antique and in the history of taste.

The writer is the Curator, Gainsborough’s House

o Jonathan Scott, The pleasures of antiquity: British collectors of Greece and Rome (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003), 340 pp, 210 b/w ills, £40 (hb) 0300098545