We all know what can be said about the ancient marbles scattered throughout the great houses of England; that they are lifeless copies of equally bloodless and lifeless originals; that their very placement appropriately reflects how little worthy of attention they are, standing in dark rooms like warehouses, as Adolf Michaelis put it, perishing in damp summer houses, lying about disorderly in the corners. But such opinions about such pieces were not always so and it is among the many virtues of this study, the latest in the interesting Oxford series Classical Presences, that it shows what passion they could so often arouse when, from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, they were the interest of collectors whose collegiate pastime of shagging, to borrow their language as recaptured by Viccy Coltman, was now transformed into what she calls a homosocial, lubricious sensuality. Something of this sexual energy is represented, for those who know how to read the gestures, in many group portraits of the period, most famously that by Johannes Zoffany of Charles Townley’s library at 7 Park Street, Westminster—it is now 14 Queen Anne’s Gate—where the glances and pointings of Townley and his friends unite the statuary and people in a chorus of salacious connections. But more explicitly and crudely the phallic proclivity of these gentlemen, again to quote Coltman, is there in letters exchanged, as in one in 1772 written by Richard Cosway to Townley—here reproduced in full—in which the sexual exploits of people in both Italy and England, all named, are described in the direct Anglo-Saxon language of sex, “most amusing” as the Sotheby’s catalog put it when it was sold in 1992, “but completely unquotable”.
And if so in life, so too in the appreciation of art; thus this same Cosway could propose a lecture on Venus’s arse; that Thomas Orde, when once the doors of the Tribuna at the Uffizi were thrown open and the Medici Venus stood before him, rushed towards her, hoping that she would answer the kisses, as he put it, “that I could not help printing all over her delicate form”. And if so for art, so then back again for life, as when one T. Assheton wrote to Townley, that the sight of this statue—the same Venus—would give him what Assheton wrote of as “some yammering (according to T. Booth’s Phrase) after a Tuscan whore”.
The description of the collecting of classical sculpture in England that Coltman lays out here begins in a more distanced way with an account of the “loving labours of a learned German”, that is to say the magnificent volume by Adolf Michaelis about collections in England, published in 1882. It was this catalogue, “a dry but I hope not useless work”, as Michaelis put it, that made public more than two thousand specimens of classical art, arranged collection by collection and by the taxonomies of the time, in ways that later scholars of this subject were only too pleased to use as a model; here Coltman speaks with special praise of the publications of the Danish classicist Frederick Poulsen. The end comes in the 1950s with Cornelius Vermeule and his new interest in Michaelis, but by then the strong-box of works of ancient sculpture, again to quote Michaelis, had long been broken into by what a writer in the Times in 1883 referred to as the “non cloyed appetites and long purses of the American millionaires…looting what had been held, as it were, spellbound”. The final words of this history belong to Vermeule, looking back in 1955 to what had happened in the previous 35 years in the liquidation of collections in Great Britain from the time of the Hope sale in 1917 to the 1948 auction of pieces from Rossie Priory in Perthshire. “It may be said” he commented “that never was Britain’s artistic heritage”—and this is what he is prepared to call these statues—”sold so cheaply”. One piece, it might be noted, a Narcissus, now in Liverpool, was acquired at that sale for the princely sum of thirty pounds.
But for all that Coltman says throughout this study about Michaelis, it is history rather than historiography that she is essentially concerned with and the bulk of the chapters here deal, in a scrupulously archival way, with the record of discussions and correspondence between these profligate collectors, at home and abroad. Certain names occur throughout; the dealer Thomas Jenkins; Gavin Hamilton, his rival in Rome for the attention of visiting gentlemen; Townley and the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, who served both as agent and dealer, most notably for Thomas Anson of Shugborough. And if these figures are known to scholars of the period, as are the collectors, Henry Blundell, the Marquis of Lansdowne and the like, what Coltman brings out in the chapters of this book is the particular texture of the precarious and competitive enterprise that sculpture-collecting—she makes of this one word—come to be in its political, social and economic meanings. Questions of conservation are clearly laid out, as are also those of restoration and the treatment of surfaces; here expectedly she speaks of the work of Bartolommeo Cavaceppi and his assistant Carlo Albacini. And what is so valuable in her account is not only the vividness of the narrative but the many specific details in this history, the whole question of tinge restoration, as Townley called it, to blend the old and new parts, the levels of authenticity in such restoration or what has been called recently by Gerard Vaughan the distinction between fake and partial fake, the capture by the French of the British commercial vessel the Westmorland as it was on its way from Livorno to London, even the threat of the hostilities with the American colonies, which led Hamilton to seek the protection of Spain when in 1779 he was arranging the transport of pieces for Townley. Beyond this there is also much information that Coltman has brought together about the display of these pieces, whether in metropolitan or provincial properties, and here, beyond reproducing several of the still surviving sculpture galleries from new and old photographs—a nice instance is the gallery at Newby Hall done by Robert Adam in ca. 1767 for William Weddell—she also lays out a number of plans, one by John Carr for this same Newby Hall, another by John Towneley (sic), the uncle of Charles, of the property of Lady Glynn in Whitehall, another by Charles Townley for a greenhouse at Woburn. About Townley himself Coltman emphasizes an interesting aspect of his life, that he was a Catholic, as was Blundell, enjoying thereby a far greater degree of religious freedom in Italy than in England. And if we want to recognize something more in his appreciation here we can turn to his correspondence, where he chose to speak of his collection as his church, court and Parliament, his pagan gods and goddesses the objects of adoration—these phrases are found in a letter to Richard Payne Knight, now in the Townley archives in the British Museum—for this confessor general to all the convents and seminaries in London.
It is details such as these and many others that Coltman has been able to bring to light in her reading of archives from Rome to the Huntingdon in Pasadena, from Bassano del Grappa to the West Sussex Records Office, that sharpen the familiar tale of this history of acquisitiveness. And anyone seriously concerned with the history of the lure of classical sculpture, to quote the subtitle of the magisterial volume on this subject by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, will wish to delve into the materials here to examine the particular reasons for these many gentlemen to collect antiquity, thereby, as Thomas Jenkins put it, “producing a continuation or connection with ages in which such interesting works were produced”. This is all immensely interesting to know but it must be said that the narrative Coltman has laid out is not always easy reading, not only because of the wealth of detail she includes but because at moments she moves at a very fast pace—and often in one sentence—between the language of eighteenth-century correspondence, the facts of collecting and the patterns of historiography that so often have given us our accounts of these objects. But it would be churlish to complain of this difficulty, just as it would be churlish to regret the absence in this story of the engaging if mischievous dilettante Thomas Patch—also a dealer in these materials—who, in a painting rescued and restored in 1961 by Sir Brinsley Ford, represented just such a gathering of like-minded gentlemen, seen in a gallery furnished with figures of classical sculpture, most notably the Medici Venus. Patch himself, dressed in seaman’s trousers, has climbed up to measure with his dividers the distance between the nose of the Venus and her wrist. Next to him is the British resident in Florence, Sir Horace Mann, who points at the piece known as Arrotino, the Knife-grinder, while to the far left, next to the group of the Wrestlers, is the antiquario of the Galleria of the Uffizi, Raimondo Cocchi, and then sixteen more figures, accompanied, as the recent catalog of the Ford collections puts it, by a languid dog, perhaps the one that belonged to Patch. The original owner of this picture was Robert Lowther, who was indeed in Florence in May, 1760, and is perhaps one of the figures shown. And if both the style and the narrative of this picture suggest a certain element of caricature, the amused self-narrative of the self-assured, as we might put it, this too—as in the famous caricature of the School of Athens by Sir Joshua Reynolds—was deeply part and parcel of the social actions around these pieces of sculpture at that time, originals and copies alike.