BMCR 2007.05.39

Fabricating the Antique: Neoclassicism in Britain

, Fabricating the antique : neoclassicism in Britain, 1760-1800. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006. xii, 256 pages, 4 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226113965 $48.00.

Table of Contents

What is neoclassicism, and why was it so popular among English aristocrats? These are the questions tackled by Viccy Coltman’s Fabricating the Antique: Neoclassicism in Britain, 1760-1800. Eschewing visual or stylistic criteria, Coltman proposes a new understanding of neoclassicism as the material trace of mental habits and frames of reference inculcated by the British educational system, honed on the Grand Tour, and applied to all subsequent spheres of life. She asks how the antique was reproduced, copied, and purchased in forms ranging from antiquarian books and prints to imported statues and “Etruscan”-inspired vases. Historians’ traditional focus on architecture, history painting, and modern sculpture thus takes a back seat to scrutiny of “the imitation antique objects and interiors of elite British drawing rooms and the ancient artifacts collected during the forty-year period from 1760 to 1800.” In particular, Coltman isolates the private library and sculpture gallery as the primary loci where British patrons sought to colonize antiquity “through the regimes of collecting and of representation.” A stimulating, if at times challenging, book, it is sure to spark discussion among historians and classicists alike.

Coltman explains her approach in an introduction entitled “Getting Into the Classical Mood”:

This account of fabricating the antique intends to rewrite neoclassicism in Britain, not as an ahistorical decorative style but as a style of thought. Our terminology comes from the German sociologist Karl Mannheim; our methodological framework, from the sociology of classical education. The chapters that follow will investigate the proposition that “Classics formed part of the style of the English gentleman” by focusing on the culture of education, imitation, and competition through which the thought styles of a classical education were inculcated. By situating classicism as a style of thought and neoclassicism as the material application of this process, this study will show how together, they shaped the lives of the peerage of eighteenth-century Britain both intellectually and physically. (11, emphasis in original)

The book is thus framed as a revisionist history that relies on Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural habitus to distinguish between classicism (the theory) and neoclassicism (the practice). That is a promising perspective, although questions do arise. While rejecting the view that British neoclassicism lacked intellectual ambitions, Coltman maintains that in Britain “The antique was never called upon as a charged ideological force from which to mount a political or cultural project as it was in contemporary France and Germany” (9). That comparison, though, is largely based on later, Napoleonic developments and downplays recent scholarship on British cultural politics. Specialists might also take issue with the implication that modern tussles over the date of Charles Townley’s Clytie are at odds with eighteenth-century attitudes, since evidence suggests that scholars and collectors were keenly interested in authenticity, even if their methods or conclusions differed from ours.

Coltman begins her study in the library, which she aptly terms the “backdrop for the aristocracy’s intellectual property” (17) and a literary “repository for the antique” (20). Instead of analyzing actual book collections, she turns to Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), itself a “miniature library” (24) built of “textual fragments,” to dissect the classical mindset. Gibbon’s opus exemplifies Coltman’s notion of classicism as “a learned process where [quoting Gibbon] ‘memory must be exercised, before the powers of reason and fancy can be expanded; nor may the artist hope to equal or surpass, till he has learned to imitate, the works of his predecessors'” (25). Classicism, then, is chiefly the creative emulation of approved models rather than a particular aesthetic. One thus wonders what made Gibbon different from previous generations of emulators, since both Rubens and Bernini began by copying ancient statues until their hands were numb, although their work is rarely considered classical or classicizing. In Britain, Coltman traces this emulative instinct to schools like Eton and Westminster, where, “For approximately twenty-one hours a week during an average of six years at public school, boys parsed, translated, and imitated the classical authors. These exercises implicitly patented the styles of thought that I am calling classicism” (30). They also prepared boys for the Grand Tour, an obligatory pilgrimage where books came alive and education took on a material aspect in the form of physical souvenirs and enduring visual tastes. Classicism and neoclassicism are thus two sides of the same coin: if the first is “the use and abuse of ancient learning” (23, 36, 37), the second is (to quote Gibbon) “the use and abuse of the materials” (37).

Chapter 2 considers how neoclassical culture turned books and ancient sites into commodities. Coltman discovers a variety of approaches. Country house archives, letters, and accounts attest to elite tourists’ bibliographic mania, buying all they could while abroad and urging friends to scour Roman shops for the latest treatises, museum catalogues, and views. Authors used their scholarly production (in Coltman’s terms, “the packaging of antiquity in book form” (45, 63)) for social advancement: architect Robert Adam conceived his 1764 Ruins of Dioclesian’s Palace at Spalatro as “a great puff” (46) to earn him both a place in the republic of letters and a profitable stream of commissions and residuals. The Bourbon monarchs sought cachet specifically by restricting publications on Pompeii and Herculaneum, while Baron d’Hancarville published meticulous measurements of Sir William Hamilton’s vases in order to outdo Caylus and Montfaucon and memorialize himself in imaginary tombs and epitaphs. Coltman observes that in each case the ancient monuments became “textualized” while the texts became “monumentalized,” an intriguing formulation that will prompt further research. Although a few key figures might deserve more attention (such as Piranesi, the greatest promoter/publisher of all, and the pioneering Dilettanti James Stuart and Nicholas Revett), Coltman’s chapter depicts the cutthroat market for prestige in which antiquarian publications took shape.

Chapter 3, one of the strongest in the book, traces the adaptation of Hamilton’s “Etruscan” pots to decorate English country house interiors. Coltman shows how heavily the artifacts were improved for eighteenth-century tastes — faces sweetened, figures slimmed, compositions adjusted within boldly patterned frames. This is exemplified in two plates after an Apulian lekane, the first in its “original” state and the second as improved by painter Laurent Pecheux in the style of Raphael. That was naturally the version enlarged on the wall of Newtimber Place in Sussex, fulfilling d’Hancarville’s hint that Sir William’s vases preserved the history of Greek mural painting. Coltman attends to the folios as commodities, and for every Old Etonian who griped about the price, she cites two entrepreneurs like Matthew Boulton who snapped them up as factory models. Some decorators used the plates themselves as wallpaper, while others copied figures into Raphael-inspired grotesques. Other Hamiltonian derivations ranged from custom silver urns for Nathaniel Curzon to paper-board snuff boxes exported back to Naples. But it was the Staffordshire industrialist Josiah Wedgwood who best emulated, not copied, the antique. Coltman’s interdisciplinary approach reveals the commercial and intellectual networks at play: Wedgwood’s hybrid vases, often painted on only one side, were “a conflation of quotations from a pattern book” (92), while the Hamilton volumes, like his wife Emma’s famous all’antica attitudes, “became a kind of elite performance in which truth and precision lay not in the relationship between the original and the copy but in the conviction of the performance and the skill of the operation” (96).

Chapter 4 turns to Pompeii and Herculaneum, challenging the view that their reception was uniformly positive. Many contemporaries found the paintings “miserable daubings” once sawed out of the walls and framed at Portici; whereas Neapolitans invoked Raphael and Domenichino, Cochin and Bellicard confessed in their unauthorized Observations upon the Antiquities of the town of Herculaneum (London, 1753) that the pictures were cold, sketchy, and unfinished, “much like our decorations of the theatre.” Vesuvian architectural painting struck puzzled critics as Indian, Arabic, Gothic, or Chinese in style, but it was erotic artifacts like ithyphallic tintinnabula that proved beyond the pale. One 1775 London review damned the Antichità di Ercolano for publishing “obscene trash” and lampooned the priests and lawyers who catalogued “what would be better consigned to oblivion” (108). Why, then, did English aristocrats copy these very paintings in their drawing rooms? Coltman suggests that contemporaries saw Pompeiians in their own guise, as “People of Fashion & fortune,” to cite Richard Fellows’ address to the Society of Antiquaries in 1771. As Peter Beckford observed, a British lady could almost make her toilet from the surviving artifacts, just as “a French cook might dress an excellent dinner with the utensils he will find at Portici” (110). These topoi evoke the new sense of immediate access to the past that motivated patrons (as at Ireland’s Castletown House) to blend the Herculaneum murals with motifs from Montfaucon, Raphael’s Logge, Hamilton’s vases, and a copy of Guido Reni’s 1614 Aurora. The very fluidity of models and labels (contemporaries described Adam’s “Etruscan” room at Osterley as Herculanean) suggests that “Grand Tour taste” would be as good an umbrella for such collages as “neoclassical.”

Chapter 5 focuses on northerners’ reception and reproduction of ancient statues. Revisiting Haskell and Penny’s Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (New Haven, 1981), Coltman reminds us of the vast industry of replicas in print, plaster, marble, and bronze. She emphasizes this trade’s competitive nature and investigates how particular facsimiles gained “cachet.” Some collectors copied pedigreed copies, while others destroyed their custom-made molds to frustrate potential rivals. Some held their reproductions superior to badly restored originals. Whatever the case, a choice collection of replicas installed in an elegant country house helped British aristocrats emulate the papal and royal sculpture collections of the Continent. Part art and part furniture, such suites were squeezed into matching niches in a dining room or gilded and skied atop tall columns as at Adam’s anteroom at Syon. As the century progressed sets of busts could be ordered en bloc (like Wedgwood vases) to adorn library bookshelves. Ably marshaling epistolary evidence, Coltman evokes a social world in which taste and status were demonstrated by which copies one displayed.

Chapter 6 examines those elite collectors who acquired actual ancient marbles. Although Henry Blundell joked that hunting statues was, “as it were, the sport of a day,” it was in fact a serious pursuit involving a network of excavators, restorers, advisors, and middlemen. Then as now successful dealers like Gavin Hamilton or Thomas Jenkins knew their clients’ tastes, budgets, and standards and proposed acquisitions accordingly, often stressing provenance or connecting their wares to ancient texts or admired heroes. Dealers happily converted generic figures into what seemed likely to sell: Blundell cites one female statue successively baptized as a Venus, a Hebe, an Isis, and an Ariadne. Serious collectors like Charles Townley naturally wished to be portrayed amidst their trophies, and Coltman analyzes Zoffany’s famous but imaginary painting of Townley and friends in his London study. Again plumbing period correspondence, Coltman suggests that Townley, excluded as a Catholic from public office, saw his sculptures as a virtual family that anchored his social position. She notes that the library was again the venue chosen for this fantasy, suggesting that collections were vehicles through which classically educated gentlemen “conversed” with the ancients across the millennia.

As this summary suggests, Fabricating the Antique offers a sophisticated and welcome look at British eighteenth-century antiquarianism, targeted to (art) historians but essential reading for classicists reliant on early collections and publications. Its emphasis on patronage and commercial networks is enhanced by rich citation of archival material and close readings of selected portraits, interiors, and objects. Design, layout, and illustrations are top-notch, although the text can be tough going in places where hasty editing overlooked stray or duplicate words, misspellings, odd phrasings, incorrect citations, and sentence fragments. Coltman has real skill at turning a phrase, but some readers may be distracted by the italicization of familiar words and the near-repetition of clauses, sentences, and even paragraphs in multiple contexts.

The key questions are whether the book delivers a wholly new perspective on neoclassicism, and to what extent its emphasis on education carries explanatory power. It is well known that most Grand Tourists (at least the male ones) were saturated in the classics and experienced Italy partly through that lens. Coltman stresses this point but adds little beyond citing textbook titles or schematizing a typical week at Eton, ca. 1770 (fig. 7). One seeks more hard evidence of what this class time meant to individuals encountering specific sites or processing their aggregate experience. What were schoolboys reading (and not reading), and how did that shape their taste for specific artifacts? How was mythology taught in British schools (as opposed to history or biography), and in what context? How did female patrons absorb the classical past? Absent such specifics, “antiquity” tends to become monolithic, eliding the changing reception of Greece versus Rome, to say nothing of the comparisons between Republican and Imperial, or pagan and Christian history, that were among Gibbon’s key concerns. Part of the problem may be Coltman’s intentional downplaying of “the content of a classical education” (12 and 29, emphasis in original) in favor of “the characteristics specific to what Bourdieu refers to as the intellectual universe of the English public school.” But content is precisely what we need to know if we are to get beyond generalities.

A second limitation is the loose chronological linkage between British classicizing education and the phenomena under study. No evidence is offered that a focus on the classics increased from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries or abated thereafter, when neoclassicism was on the wane. That would seem essential in positing neoclassicism as the inexorable fruit of a particular (and particularly British) pedagogy. Why did interest in antiquity surge throughout Europe between 1760-1800, and how did it differ from other recurring bursts of classicism? Those questions are not really addressed, and it is telling that many of Coltman’s best citations (even chapter titles) date from several decades after 1800. The study might have been enriched by consulting the pioneering work of M. L. Clarke, who argues that the classical obsession that took shape in British grammar schools in the sixteenth century “was not seriously modified until well into the nineteenth,” remaining “firmly established, unaffected by changes of taste and belief, by scientific discoveries or philosophical theories ( Greek Studies in England, 1700-1830 [Cambridge, 1945], p. 10). Clark shows that Milton performed the same exercises as Gibbon, except that “the speaking of Latin in school probably came to an end in the course of the eighteenth century,” as the language became divorced from students’ daily, lived experience ( Classical Education in Britain, 1500-1900 [Cambridge, 1959], 46). Finally, Coltman’s educational thesis does little to account for the agency of artists, architects, and craftsmen in “fabricating the antique.” Their lessons were of a different stripe, and even if they took southern tours they did so very differently from their patrons. Neither Matthew Boulton nor Josiah Wedgwood, that arch-emulator and neoclassicist, attended public schools or visited Italy. Some other mechanism must be found to account for their crucial role in developing (not just responding to) what we think of as “neoclassicism.”

Fabricating the Antique thus offers a rather specific view of British neoclassicism that complements but does not replace more standard narratives. Winckelmann is mentioned only in passing, while even within the British country house the focus is limited to a few room types. Yet that is also the book’s strength, and by zeroing in on lesser-known, largely commercial manifestations of a larger cultural phenomenon it will certainly expand and reorient scholarly discussion. The study is most persuasive when discussing specific cases of cultural transmission, like the Hamilton vases and their material reverberations, or the patronage networks behind particular British interiors. Even if some of its claims may be overstated, the book offers new paradigms for thinking about what classicism meant to its elite British consumers. At the end of the day, it reinforces the key truth that the eighteenth century saw antiquity in its own image, editing, improving, duplicating, and adapting it according to its needs. This should correct any lingering platitudes about neoclassicism as a simple “revival” or about the “influence” of antiquity on the eighteenth century. Unless we “get into the classical mood,” Coltman convinces us, we will not fully understand eighteenth-century patrons, their homes, or the ancient-inspired objects that fill them.