As befits what was at its time the finest private collection of ancient marbles in Britain, if not anywhere, this two-volume study is both a thorough piece of scholarship and a visual delight. The first volume traces, in nine chapters, the history of the collection (and the family who created it) from its origin in the last quarter of the 18thcentury to its sale, mostly in a single afternoon at a Christie’s auction in 1930, to its current dispersal among collections and museums across the globe. The account is assiduously researched from extensive original documents including photographs, proposed plans and elevations, sales agreements, paintings showing interior views of the house, and an annotated list of works in Lansdowne’s own hand. All of these resources are clearly listed, separated by type, after the exceptionally complete bibliography. The second volume is a catalogue of over 500 pages. Each piece is fully discussed (description, condition, provenance, commentary) and provided with its own bibliography, photographs usually with multiple views, and newly drawn images for most statuary indicating restoration. This catalogue also includes a full complement of concordances, indices, glossary, and chronology. It is impossible to imagine anything missing here. The quality of production is outstanding. The authors’ deep familiarity with Roman sculpture, the British collections of this era, and the contexts of their assemblage and dispersal, comes through clearly.
There has been growing interest of late in the great British collections of ancient sculpture, mostly assembled, like this one, during the height of the British Empire and variously dispersed in the 20thcentury.1 As noted above, the Lansdowne Collection was the greatest of these by many accounts, including those of such early students of Classical statues and relief as Adolf Michaelis, author of the seminal and still useful Ancient Marbles in Great Britain. It was assembled by members of the Petty-Fitzmaurice family, Irish nobility of considerable wealth who had, by the time in question, become politically powerful in England. The collection was mostly the work of William Petty-Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), Second Earl of Shelburne and, from 1784, (First) Marquess of Lansdowne (after a family holding near Bath), from which his extravagant London town home and the antiquities mostly housed there eventually took their name. (To avoid confusion, I will refer to the first Marquess as Lansdowne, even relating events occurring before he received that title.) This honor followed a distinguished military and public career, although one sometimes compromised by his sympathetic attitude toward the colonies. Lansdowne was briefly Prime Minister (1782-1783), and negotiated the terms of the Peace of Paris, which ended the American War of Independence. Thereafter, he remained influential but held no further high government office; rather, he turned his energies to the refurbishment of his London residence, the primary subject of the work under review.
The house on Berkeley Square was designed by the Adam Brothers — the most prominent practitioners at that time in the highly popular Neo-Classical style of architecture and design. The structure was originally commissioned for another client, John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, who in 1765 sold it unfinished to Lansdowne, who moved in shortly thereafter. Work proceeded along the original plan laid out by the Adams, including the provision of several pieces of ancient sculpture placed strategically to complement the interior decor. These form the core of what would become a collection of well over one hundred pieces (117 are catalogued here), mostly acquired by the First Marquess during and following his Grand Tour of 1771. Although the journey lasted barely half a year, it entirely framed what the Lansdowne collection would come to be. As seems to have been typical of the times, among the key players in such assemblages were the Rome-based dealers Thomas Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton. Lansdowne executed a bulk purchase (55 objects) from the former, but although some very significant pieces were later acquired from him, Hamilton played the larger role in the further development of the collection as well as in the continuing work on the interior design of the house and its programs of display. Lansdowne seems to have had many changes of mind here — at one point, to Hamilton’s chagrin, he decided to dedicate the great gallery he was having built for his sculptures to a newly found passion for collecting books and manuscripts. The story continues with the Marquess vacillating among Sculpture Gallery, Library, and Sculpture Gallery cum Library, on which he settled, for the time being; plans were drawn up and often discarded. Once (1786) he even proposed selling the sculpture collection altogether, but Hamilton prevailed upon him not to do so, convincing him that prices at that time were too low. Upon Lansdowne’s death in 1805, the collection was very nearly what it would continue to be. The 19 th century saw several modifications to the interior arrangements of the house, the most significant of which was the sale of the Lansdowne book and manuscript selection to the British Museum and the consequent reversion of the great space it occupied to its originally intended function of sculpture gallery.
The story ends with the 6th Marquess, Henry William Edmund Petty-Fitzmaurice, who sold both the house and the sculpture collection in 1930. The books, as mentioned, and paintings (including the “Virgin of the Rocks” in the National Gallery presumably by Leonardo) had been sold off a century earlier. Most of the antiquities sold quickly; those that did not were transferred to the family’s country house. Many of those that did, including some of the most important pieces, were eventually purchased by such super-wealthy American tycoons as William Randolph Hearst and John Paul Getty and are now displayed in U.S. museums. The Lansdowne Herakles, likely the best-known and surely one of the best preserved (and least restored) pieces from the Lansdowne collection, is now conspicuously displayed in the Getty Villa at Malibu, and is reported to have been among Getty’s own personal favorites, by some accounts the very favorite, among those in his possession.
Having recently reviewed the volume on the Ince Blundell Hall collection of statuary noted above (n.1), a number of comparisons come to mind. There are important differences between the two collections themselves. Lansdowne’s, of course, was always agreed to have been of much greater quality. He operated at a very different level of society than Henry Blundell, who, though wealthy (not nearly so as Lansdowne), was barred from public life by his Roman Catholicism. He had neither the extent of wealth, nor the collections, and not even the opulent London townhouse, of Lansdowne. However, the Blundell family’s consequent relative independence from political vicissitudes may have lent some stability. The family’s estate, and collection, remained intact and in their hands until 1959, when it was purchased in toto by the Augustinian Canonesses of the Mercy of Jesus who, with the Blundell family, arranged for the sculptures to be housed in the Liverpool City Museums, where almost all of them still remain together.
Yet, similarities remain. First is the dominant role in the genesis of both collections not just of the Grand Tour but of two primary players in fixing up “tourists” with Roman statuary for their town homes and country estates: Richard Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton. Particularly the latter, who was literally digging statues out of the ground and selling them for considerable profit, including works from Hadrian’s villa, which provided important pieces for Lansdowne. One is struck then by the importance of what we would today consider illegal excavation and commerce in antiquities, perfectly permissible with papal approval at that time. Second is the role of restoration— it is clear that customers greatly preferred, if not required, complete statues, though more completely preserved works with fewer restorations were more highly valued. The enthrallment with perfection even, if not especially, in a statue fragment would appear later, in the Romantic period, and would sharply increase the familiarity with Greek originals, that came only in the succeeding century. The emphasis on completeness no doubt derived from the equally important issue of subject matter; customers seem to have much preferred works that could be thought to illustrate prominent figures from well-known mythic and historic narratives, familiar to the elite through their Classical educations. Especially desirable, and equally moralizing, were works that represented figures like Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, who were thought to exemplify virtues promoted by the military/political elite, conflated in Britain as in Rome.
Subject matter seems in fact to have been much more important than quality, style or authorship. It should be noted, however, that the identification of Roman ideal statuary as perhaps copying the works of famous sculptors listed by Pliny and other ancient authors would not become widespread until the work of Brunn and especially Furtwängler a century after Lansdowne’s time. Even the idea of stylistic development, originating with Winckelmann’s History, was a recent development in Lansdowne’s day. The attitudes and preferences of these collectors should not therefore be expected to align with those of later times, but it is equally true that the objectives served by such collections changed less than we might think. What mattered, in the end, for British collectors, just as for the Roman nobility of nearly two millennia earlier and, for that matter, American tycoons of a still more recent era, was the enhancement of domestic space, with functions both public and private, as a visual expression of the tastes, erudition, and status of the family there housed. Statues such as those from collections like Lansdowne’s, Blundell’s and others have therefore been privileged to live not just one but several lives, establishing an imagery of influence and prestige that is both consistent and malleable, adapting to the shifting values and social structures of succeeding eras, but conveying a message that is, at its core, quite the same.
1. One might note the catalogue of ideal statuary from Ince Blundell Hall, which appeared in this same year (2017): Elizabeth Bartman, The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture, Volume III – The Ideal Sculpture. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2017; reviewed: M. Fullerton, “Ideal Statuary Collected for Ince Blundell in the Late 18th c., and the Criteria of that Age,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 31 (2018) 674-677.