Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.09

Ruth Guilding, Owning the Past: Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640-1840.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2014.  Pp. vi, 410.  ISBN 9780300208191.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Hans Christian Hönes, The Warburg Institute (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The very subtitle of Ruth Guilding's book promises answer to an important and basic question: Why did the English collect antique sculpture? The answer is given straightforwardly: The quest for prestige and the aim to increase one's social status (6) were the driving forces behind the acquisition of these "princely toys," (7) from the Renaissance to today. From Robert Walpole to William Weddell to Richard Worsley (to name just a few of the many protagonists discussed in this book), these collectors "were in the process of compensating for a change of status, or assimilating after one" (68). Statues, for them, were "badges of…upward mobility" (154). As for modern day collectors such as J. Paul Getty and the like (6, 329), collecting historical artefacts thus served as a means to compensate for the lack of one's own elaborate family and/or national history. Collecting is thus interpreted as a means for "annexing history" (22).

Admittedly, this is not the most surprising hypothesis. Modestly, the author does not try to overstate her originality, but concedes that her book provides more of a synthesis (6). Splendidly illustrated, its target audience is not only scholars, since it can also feature as a coffee-table book. Yet, it has much more to offer than one might expect from a mere "synthesis."

Although they follow a roughly chronological sequence, the chapters are predominantly thematically structured and discuss topics such as the "myth of ancestry," sexual "Libertinism," the role of contemporary sculpture, and the transformation from private to public collections. Admirably well organized, the book achieves a brilliant weaving of "distant" and "close" readings. Each chapter elaborates an overarching topic by means of several closely related case studies, ultimately introducing all the major collectors of the time. Often choosing examples that stand in as representatives for different social profiles (for example, William Weddell, Henry Temple, and Lyde Browne in Chapter 4 on the economics of "Buying and selling taste"), these case studies masterly map the respective topics.

From about the third chapter, the narrative centres on the hey-day of British Neoclassicism, between c. 1770 and 1840. Consequently, many protagonists such as Richard Worsley or Richard Payne Knight reappear in more than one chapter. Charles Townley, in particular, plays an important role in nearly all of them. Guilding makes brilliant use of this layout discussing the same collections and items from different perspectives, and progressively adding new nuances to the subjects. Johan Zoffany's famous painting, Charles Townley in his Library, is, for example, discussed in three different chapters (187, 221, 310). Alternately, it is presented as evidence for Townley's rise to a public man, as a representation of an intellectual coterie, and, most importantly, as a comment on the theories of primitive symbolism put forward by the antiquary Pierre d'Hancarville, portrayed at the centre of the scene—a connection often postulated but never sufficiently proven.

The book deals less with the history of museology than the social history of collecting. Consequently, it presents compelling insights into the dynamics of the circles of neo-classicist collectors. Brilliantly, the author analyses the constant competition among the collectors, who are always attempting to "lead the field." This setup was decisively enhanced by a close-knit club culture to which many important collectors belonged—the "Society of Dilettanti" being the best-known and most notorious example. These dynamics are omnipresent: whether it is Richard Worsley attempting to excel Johann Joachim Winckelmann's interpretations (212); Charles Townley trumping William Hamilton by hiring his amanuensis Pierre d'Hancarville and commissioning him to write a new art history, bluntly contradicting the one he wrote for his former patron (183); or Henry Blundell, in turn, outplaying Townley by undertaking a desexualising restoration of the statue of a hermaphrodite, as a material contradiction to d'Hancarville's sexualising theories on the origin of art (195).1

Convincingly, Guilding works out how readily these collectors adopted a very speculative hypothesis, sometimes bluntly lacking scholarly rigour, in order to carve a more spectacular theory of history, suitable for supporting their respective aims and their private mythologies. (220) Again and again, the author works out the playful self-awareness (sometimes even turning to a "self-parody") and the necessarily subjective perspectives of these collectors, aiming to create their own interpretation of the past.

Such a perspective on the social status of collecting naturally marginalizes other aspects of this practice. Although the author, as mentioned, interprets collecting as a means for "annexing the past," not much is said about the philosophy of history informing the aesthetic arrangements of such past within the realm of the collections.2 "The past" often appears to be simply a given, and the attempt to inscribe oneself into a line of tradition the only logical option. Hints and references to the construction of time and the narratives put forward by the arrangements of the exhibits are often rather hermetic. One reads that "Worsley grouped his collection in symbolic and associative arrangements," but does not learn much about the shape and nature of the latter. In other cases, such as Thomas Hope's, a connection to the writings of Pierre d'Hancarville is only vaguely postulated (226, 308).

In general, the contemporary view of the relation between past and present is described as linear and binary. When a collector such as Viscount Palmerston bought and arranged items in pairs, Guilding reasons he did so in order to gain "the pleasure of drawing a comparison between the prowess of the ancients and that of the moderns" (165). Such a neat and unproblematic connection is also suggested in Chapter 8 on contemporary sculpture and its place in collections of antiques. This is even more surprising as Guilding repeatedly mentions practices that sparked musings about more dynamic and intricate interactions of past and present, such as the popular torchlight visits (235, 272, 280), often described as a quasi-magical, but only momentary time travel. This is just one of numerous examples of pivotal discourses (the debates on the aesthetic and historical meaning of rough vs. smooth surfaces of sculptures would be another one) whose scope and significance are only indicated.

The focus on the big, impressive and expensive marble statues literally dwarfs the discussion of equally, if not more, important genres like coins and vases, which were major sources for the construction of the mythographic systems of authors like Richard Payne Knight or Thomas Hope. The book's focus on Graeco-Roman antiques also marginalises the importance of non- and North-European artefacts, although they were the focal point of many attempts to write a universal world-history of symbolism, tracing the art of all countries back to one single origin. A side glance at antiquarians dealing predominantly with material found in the British isles might have also proven profitable for another reason. Generally, these collectors, often associated with the Society of Antiquaries—not the Society of Dilettanti—came from a lower socioeconomic background than the Grand Tourists who were able to afford Graeco-Roman sculpture.3 For the purpose of a book interested in the collectors' aspirational quest for a higher social status, it might have been valuable to take into account which other options for developing a social profile were available, and which identity politics were associated with them.

Lastly, one might wonder whether the book's focus on collectors does not tend to overlook other protagonists in the antiquity business, such as, for example, antique dealers, but also antiquaries that were not closely associated with actual collections. A closer look at literary texts, in particular, might have helped to enhance not only our understanding of the collectors' self-images, but also of the actual interactions that took place in the gallery spaces. Joseph Spence's highly influential dialogue Polymetis, for example, is but briefly mentioned (156).

These criticisms are, however, to be understood as a suggestion for future inquiries rather than as an actual critique of Guilding's admirable synthesis. Most of the issues I have addressed are mentioned in one way or another during the course of the book; yet, a more opinionated, pointed argumentation might have been useful at times. Nonetheless, the book covers an impressive range of material and contains a wealth of new observations, no matter how conventional the narrative might appear at first sight.

The scope of archival research undertaken is especially impressive. Even chapters such as the one on sexual Libertinism, where Guilding builds largely on the findings of Viccy Coltman and Jason Kelly, still present highly interesting quotes from unpublished correspondences that make very worthwhile read. The range of illustrations is equally compelling and even entertaining: numerous photographs showing modern day aristocrats among their pricey possessions from the past are surely among the most original and surprising features of this book. Sadly, they are not matched by an equally comprehensive overview of the research literature; non-English books—for example, the seminal writings by Pascal Griener4—go largely unmentioned. But, again, these are only minor criticisms that should not hinder the appreciation of an admirably written, beautifully produced, and extremely informative book.

Table of Contents

Annexing history: Lord Arundel, Lord Pembroke and their ancient marbles
Atavism in a Palladian frame: myths of ancestry and new Romans
Temples of liberty and other polemics
Buying (and selling) taste
Competing for reputation
A partial enlightenment
The connoisseurship of libertinism: a diversion
Recreating the antique as neoclassical ideal
Memorials, souvenirs and speaking stones
The romantic museum: antique sculpture in the public realm


1.   For a similar interpretation of the narratives of these authors as "counter-histories," aiming to outdo one another, see my book Kunst am Ursprung. Das Nachleben der Bilder und die Souveränität des Antiquars (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014).
2.   On these questions, see: Wolfgang Ernst, Historismus im Verzug. Museale Antike(n)rezeption im britischen Neoklassizismus (und jenseits) (Hagen: MRM, 1992).
3.   See Rosemary Sweet, Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Hambledon, 2004).
4.   E.g. Le Antichità etrusche greche e romane 1766-1776 di Pierre Hugues d'Hancarville (Rome: Edizioni dell'Elefante, 1992), and La République de l'oeil. L'Expérience de l'art au siècle des Lumières (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010).

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