BMCR 2005.08.14

Greek Art in View: Essays in Honour of Brian Sparkes

, , , Greek art in view : essays in honour of Brian Sparkes. Oxford: Oxbow, 2004. xvii, 172 pages : illustrations, map, portraits ; 25 cm. ISBN 1842171372 $55.00.

[A list of contributors and articles appears at the end of the review.]

This small book presents us with a variety of essays about Greek archaeology and history on topics that have been central to the work of Brian Sparkes. As with most collections of Festschriften and conference proceedings, the individual articles vary in quality. Here the overall quality is very high, and a number of the contributions will be required reading for anyone working in Greek archaeology in general and Athenian vase painting in particular. There are underlying connections among the articles and some basic themes that keep repeating themselves either explicitly or implicitly. One is the question of whether or not the visual image represents the literal vision. Another is the question of the nature of the Attic vase painting, especially important in Robin Osborne’s article.

After a brief introduction by the editors which summarizes Brian Sparkes’ career and the contributions to the present volume, we are treated to a delightful article by the honoree. Originally Sparkes’ 1988 inaugural lecture had limited distribution and now, revised, it gets a deservedly wider audience. Sparkes examines “portraits from the archaic and classical periods on vases and sculpture to show that before 400, portraits were generic rather than individual” and that “the artist and the public … were more interested in what the individual was than who he was” (17).1 Even such individual portraits as the well known busts of Themistokles and Perikles are idealizations rather than representations. (Sparkes reminds us that busts are Roman copies and that the Greeks made full statues.) Alexander is probably the first person to have “sat” for a portrait. Thus Sokrates’ bust becomes a transitional piece, given the individuality of the subject as known from literary evidence. Sparkes traces this development in sculpture to the decline in the polis, which in turn leads to a rising interest in individuality.

K. W. Arafat, “Sculpture Gone to Pot,” investigates the interrelation between painting and sculpture in a wide ranging article that gradually centers on a Middle Protocorinthian aryballos (Oxford G 146) which has challenged scholars for decades. Arafat suggests that the “Athena” figure is indeed derived from a statue. Comments on Attic vase painting and sculpture would have been helped by a consideration of workshop models (see below).

Sue Blundell, “Scenes from a marriage: viewing the imagery on a lebes gamikos,” sets out to interpret the red-figured vase in the University of Mississippi collection 1973.3.91, previously published by Robinson and by Reeder.2 Blundell creatively imagines the events of the wedding morning and their relationship to the vase in question. Unfortunately, most of this is speculation built upon speculation to the point that any valid analysis has clearly been lost and the author is indulging in fantasy that reveals more about her perceptions in the 21st century than any solid information about ancient Greece. Iconography is, in the absence of clear literary texts, a difficult subject which should be approached with a modicum of caution. Yet here the text is littered with “may have”, “may well”, “may relate”, “may invite” “possibly”, “perhaps” “if”, “seems to” “suppose” “suggests” ,”in all likelihood”, “we can speculate” and “we imagine.” Each of the statements becomes the basis for more speculation with very little to anchor it in the recognized iconography of other vases or in literary texts. The degree to which this leaves recognizable scholarship can easily be seen by comparing it with other articles in this collection or with the work of Oakley and Lissarrague in Reeder’s Pandora.3

Jenifer Neils’ brief study “Kitchen or Cult? Women with Mortars and Pestles” starts with an unpublished kylix in the collection of Nicholas Zoullas on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (L. 1982.110) by the Painter of Munich 2660, a follower of Douris. Neils deftly examines the imagery of women using pestles ( ὕπερον) to make bread in a waist-high mortar ( ὄλμος). With well-chosen comparanda Neils suggests that this is not kitchen activity that is being shown but ritual food preparation.

John Oakley’s “New Vases by the Achilles Painter and Some Further Thoughts on the Role of Attribution” should be required reading for anyone working with vases. Oakley starts with an explication of some new attributions of vases by the Achilles Painter. He ends the exposition with an attack on M. Turner’s position on attribution as an archaeological tool. Then there follows an updated list of new attributions for the Achilles Painter, Near the Achilles Painter and the manner of the Achilles Painter. This is then followed by some updates on vases attributed to the Achilles Painter and new attributions to potters working in the Achilles Painter-Phiale Painter Workshop.

Oakley has returned, as have a few others, to the need to work on specific vase painters and to understand their activities and artistic directions. This activity has languished, with few exceptions, since the death of Sir John Beazley because there has been no one willing to continue his work who has both the desire and the authority to make attributions and rule on those of others. Yet this is an essential task if we are really to have a working database of vases that we can rely on. There are those who have dismissed “connoisseurship” as a self-indulgent activity, but, when grounded in keen observation as it is here, its results are solid and advance our understanding and knowledge. We need more, not less, of this type of activity. What is also implicit in Oakley’s lists is the concept of the workshop as the viable unit of production, and again more, not less, attention needs to be paid to the workshop as the unit of production in which painters and potters are components.

This brings us to Robin Osborne’s difficult essay, which is probably the most important essay of the collection. “Workshops and the iconography and distribution of Athenian red-figure pottery: a case study” is both a challenging and, in my opinion, an incorrect reading of the entire vase material at our disposal. Rather than launch into a complete counter article let me summarize Osborne and then indicate the main areas where I would challenge his construction. The article is by its own admission a negative one asking whether the concept of the workshop has any significance for either iconography or distribution of vases. Suggesting that present arguments about workshops derived from Beazley’s lists are largely circular, he falls back on Webster and Tosto to dismiss any evidence from black-figure.4 Turning to red-figure Osborne examines the Penthesilean Workshop, as developed by Beazley on the basis of multiple hands on individual vases, and its origins in the Pistoxenos Painter’s style as developed by Robertson, including tracing its origins back to Euphronios as “potter.” But Osborne suggests that “we move on to dangerous ground here, particularly when it comes to asking about workshops and iconography, since style and iconography are arguably not independent” (80).

This leads him to “ask whether there is any perceptible difference between the distribution and iconographic choices of this workshop and the distribution and iconographic choices of works attributed to other painters specialising in cups in the same period” (81). Osborne proceeds to develop the evidence for distribution and then for a selected set of iconographical criteria, which he admits affect the results, and reaches the negative conclusion that “Attic pottery workshops in the fifth century a) did not necessarily serve markets peculiar to them and b) did not specialize in particular scenes. Introducing consideration of workshops therefore seems unlikely to prove either enlightening in considerations of trade in Athenian pottery or a distorting factor in tracing the change of iconography over time” (87). This leads Osborne to conclude that trade was not a matter of direct relationships between potter and client but was in the hands of middlemen.

Turning to the consequences of these conclusions, Osborne sets up a three-part model for pottery workshops designed to indicate that there is little we can learn from whatever workshop-view we may take. First there is the relationship of one painter and one potter, second one potter who supplies a number of painters and, third, a fluid arrangement with potters and painters in a constant state of flux with no lasting relationship thus negating any analysis of style or iconography.

In criticizing this view I would start with an objection to the basic assumption that ἐποίησεν refers to the potter. A series of notes by R. M. Cook with rebuttal by Robertson and counter by myself finally lead Robertson to accept that “epoiesen” usually referred to the workshop when applied to pottery.5 Removing the potter from the equation and substituting a workshop owner realigns the entire problem. Moreover there is a lot more to be gained from the study of black-figure workshops than Osborne will allow. Using Tosto’s minimalist analysis distorts the situation. The specialized products of the Nikosthenic workshop were only a small part of the entire production — an add-on if you will.6 The majority of the vases produced in the Nikosthenic workshop seem to be kylixes and then amphorae. By considering only the signed vases, the size and extent of the workshop is grossly distorted.

Further, Osborne ignores the evidence from trademarks assembled by Alan Johnston, which shows definite trade patterns centering on workshops and specific locations.7 Third, Osborne considers the use of multiple hands painting vases, particularly kylixes, indicating that the tondos are the most important part of the vase. However, an examination of the bilingual kylixes will surely bring this into question since these are good indications of workshop practice and iconography.8 Finally, whether trade was in the hands of middlemen or not is surely irrelevant to vase production, if the middlemen were the means of communication between the workshop and the clients. What is important is whether or not the workshops had knowledge of client preferences and took that into consideration, as must have been the case for the Nikosthenic workshop. This is enough to show that extreme caution is warranted here, as is confirmed by the treatments of workshops found in other articles in this collection.

Dyfri Williams, “Sotades; Plastic and White,” looks at several different types of work signed by Sotades. The treatment of the plastic vases with pygmies and the treatment of the white ground cups is excellent. Williams ends with the connections between Sotades and Hegesiboulos. He follows Robertson in commenting that “we should certainly have assigned [both cups, i.e. one of Sotades and one of Hegesiboulos] … to one workshop, almost certainly to one potter”9 were it not for the epoiesen signatures. Williams then goes on to list other “potters” who share vases and suggests a succession of one after the other. This would be a lot simpler, and the entire article falls into place with a nice economy of explanation if we take “epoiesen” to refer to the workshop owner (be he painter or potter or neither). We then have the entrepreneurship of Sotades and possibly a partnership with Hegesiboulos, and the two cups in question may well have been potted by the same person whether he be one of the owners or a hired potter.

In two short essays first Ian Jenkins presents nine miniature pieces of sculpture belonging to Her Royal Majesty from the collection in the Swiss Cottage Museum, Isle of Wright. They vary from heads to a drapery fragment and a column fragment. All are from the East Greek area and date from early Hellenistic through to late Roman. Then John Camp, “Athenian Cobblers and Heroes,” nicely discusses Agora I 7396, a dedication stele by the cobbler Dionysious. Camp examines the shoes depicted and the possible association with the known cobblers Simon and Silon.

Alan Sommerstein’s “Argive Oinoe, Athenian epikouroi, and the Stoa Poikile” is a tightly argued examination of Pausanias’ description of the stoa and the reported painting of the battle at Argive Oinoe during the Corinthian War. He shows that Oinoe, which is in Corinthian territory, was part of Argos during the period of the War, thus validating Pausanias’ description.

John Wilkins’ “Eating fish in Greek Culture” centers on the interrelation between the Attic ceramic dishes commonly referred to as “fish-plates” and the discussion in Athenaeus of these pinakes, to give them their ancient name. In addition to illuminating the role of fish-eating in antiquity the examination pays another dividend. Black glazed examples do not have fish illustrated upon them, but the red-figure ones from the fifth and early fourth century do. Many of these were made for export, and the type of fish illustrated varies from place to place. It would seem, pace Osborne, that in the red-figure period at least some producers of pottery were still concerned about catering their products to particular overseas markets and knew the preferences for fish in the Black Sea as opposed to those of Spina. Mythological representations seem to be localized as well.

Paul Cartledge brings this volume to a close with his account of the trials and tribulations of working with educational television, in this case the BBC. He notes the difference between ‘academic’ history and ‘popular’ history, the latter being horribly exemplified by the movie “Gladiator.” Trying to find a middle ground between the two, which he calls “public” history, Cartledge very reasonably points out that professional historians (and archaeologists) have a responsibility to communicate not only within academia but in a reasonable way to the general public. That popular ideology can interfere with this is one of the risks of such activity. As a nice touch Cartledge ends where Sparkes began with a discussion of Sokrates. Here, the academician has a nuanced view, noting both Sokrates’ intellectual and moral position but also his anti-democratic qualities. While there is at least an understandable basis for the attitudes of the Athenian in 399, this can disappear in the final “popular/public” product because the producers have absolute control of the end product. Any balanced view can easily disappear in “narrative” television.

The book is well produced. I noted only that on p. 80, fig. 6.1 is referred to in the text as 9.1. It is a bit disappointing that the editors did not take the time or space to present a complete bibliography for Brian Sparkes and settled for mentioning only his major publications.

In short within these covers there are a wealth of ideas and enough provocative material to keep scholars coming back to this volume for years to come. That is how is should be in a tribute to Brian Sparkes.


Introduction, Simon Keay and Stephanie Moser

1. Brian Sparkes, “So few people look like themselves.”

2. K.W. Arafat, “Sculpture gone to pot.”

3. Sue Blundell, “Scenes from a marriage: viewing the imagery on a lebes gamikos.”

4. Jenifer Neils, “Kitchen or Cult? Women with mortars and pestles.”

5. John H. Oakley, “New vases by the Achilles Painter and some further thoughts on the role of attribution.”

6. Robin Osborne, “Workshops and the iconography and distribution of Athenian red-figure pottery: a case study.”

7. Dyfri Williams, “Sotades: Plastic and White.”

8. Ian Jenkins, “Marble Sculpture from Cnidus and Halicarnassus in the Swiss Cottage Museum, Isle of Wight.”

9. John Camp, “Athenian cobblers and heroes.”

10 Alan Sommerstein, “Argive Oinoe, Athenian epikouroi and the Stoa Poikile.”

11. John Wilkins, “Eating fish in Greek culture.” 12. Paul Cartledge, “The Greeks for All? The media and the masses.”


1. This is actually in reference to Thackeray’s Meditations at Versailles: ‘Ludovicus Rex’, which shows in sequence the royal costume, the little king, and the costumed royal presence, figure 1.21, but clearly applies to the situation at hand.

2. D.M. Robinson, AJA 30 (1936) 507-19 and CVA Robinson Collection 2 (USA 6 36-38. Pls. 50-51); and E. Reeder, Pandora. Women in Classical Greece, 1995, no. 57.

3. John H. Oakley, “Nuptial Nuances: Wedding Images in Non-Wedding Scenes of Myth” and François Lissarrague, “Women, Boxes, Containers: Some Signs and Metaphors” both in Reeder (note 2), 63-73 and 91-101, respectively.

4. T. B .L. Webster, Potter and Patron in Classical Athens, (1972) and V. Tosto, The Black-figure Pottery signed Nikosthenes Epoiesen, (1999). For the former see my review AJA 77 (1973) 447-449.

5. R. M. Cook, JHS 91 (1971) 137, Robertson, JHS 92 (1972) 180-183, Eisman, JHS 94 (1974), 172.

6. See my ‘Nikosthenic amphorai: the J. Paul Getty Museum Amphora” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, 1 (1975) 48-63 and the literature cited there and now Eisman, “Trade Patterns in the Ancient World” in N. Pappas (ed.), Antiquity and Modernity, Athens institute for Education and Research, Athens 2004, 13-26.

7. A. W. Johnston, Trademarks on Greek Vases, 1979.

8. Beth Cohen, Attic Bilingual Vases and their Painters, 1978, and my review AJA 85 (1981) 502-3.

9. Robertson, The art of vase-painting in classical Athens, 1992, 185-6.