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Elizabeth Angelicoussis’s new book is a work of extraordinary worth and of great interest for the field of ancient sculpture and the history of collections. Its focus is one of the most important eighteenth-century British collections, initiated in 1771 by William Petty-Fitzmaurice, the first Marquess of Lansdowne (1737–1805), and inspired by Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798), whose position as a brilliant art dealer and antiquities connoisseur is well-known. Angelicoussis’s detailed and fascinating reconstruction enables us to retrace the labyrinthine sequence of events that led to the creation of the Lansdowne collection, alongside the story of the construction and multiple transformations and adaptations of Lansdowne House, the palace in London where the collection was finally displayed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
This intriguing story begins in 1771 when the first Marquess of Lansdowne visited Italy as part of his Grand Tour. In Rome, he became acquainted with two of the most important and prestigious art dealers of the time: Thomas Jenkins (ca. 1722–1798) and Gavin Hamilton, both skilled businessmen and intellectuals. They persuaded the marquess to purchase a number of sculptures that had originated in scattered local collections or had been dug up in the Roman countryside and reassembled following the period’s taste, even from combined fragments of different statues (8).
Lansdowne House (known as Shelburne House until 1784) was erected in the1760s for John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute, by the famous neo-Palladian architects the Adam brothers, Robert and James. The first Marquess of Lansdowne moved to the palace in 1768 but the work was completed according to the original design. Following the example of many other contemporary palaces, the marquess placed ancient sculptures throughout the building to decorate the rooms and the staircase. The design for the house presented by Robert Adam to Lord Bute had included a library; however, in 1772, as agreed with Hamilton, the marquess decided to devote the funds formerly designated for the library to building a statue gallery to display the sculptures purchased in Rome, especially those from the pantanello at Villa Adriana (26) and from Tor Colombaro, the site of the so-called Villa of Gallienus (30–31).
The architect and designer Francesco Panini (ca. 1725–1794) was in charge of the decoration of the new wing when the marquess changed his mind. Indeed, when in 1774 Hamilton was excavating the Villa of Antoninus Pius at Monte Cagnolo, the marquess stopped acquiring marbles. Instead, he reverted to the original plan of building a library and asked French architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau to draw a new plan according to the taste of the time. At this point, he once again asked Hamilton to provide ancient sculptures for his garden, but in 1776—at the date of his purchase of the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci—he again felt tempted by the idea of establishing a statue gallery and commissioned a plan from François-Joseph Bélanger. However, by the 1780s the international political situation made traveling to Italy more difficult, so the marquess now requested the Italian architect Joseph Bonomi the Elder to design a plan for. . . a library! It was only with Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the third Marquess of Lansdowne and grandson of the first marquess, that all the sculptures forming the family collection were finally displayed in a gallery, which was completed by Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, between 1818 and 1821 (65).
A century later, Adolf Michaelis, who visited the collection in 1861, 1873, and 1877, recorded the ancient sculptures in the palace in his Ancient Marbles in Great Britain (1882), before the collection was auctioned by Christie’s after an effective media campaign in 1930 (81). The renowned art dealer and consultant Ludwig Pollak tried to preserve the collection in its entirety by having it transported to Prague for the eightieth birthday of the president of the Czech parliament, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, but he was eventually forced to abandon this plan, thus presenting an opportunity for several dealers, especially Joseph Brummer, who bought nineteen lots from the estate. As Daniella Ben-Arie points out in her essay concerning the auction of 1930 and its buyers (81–116), not all the sculptures were sold in 1930 at the Christie’s auction; surprisingly, the Herakles (cat. 14) was shipped to the United States only in 1951, when John P. Getty bought it for his villa and then became extraordinarily fond of it (112).
The first book in this two-volume set, concerning the history of the collection, is enriched with many illustrations, including drawings that depict Lansdowne House through the ages and old photos from several public and private archives. Angelicoussis concludes her meticulous reconstruction of the history and fate of the Lansdowne collection, now scattered around the world, by highlighting its contrast to the Townley collection, the other renowned collection of ancient Roman sculpture in eighteenth-century Britain, which was acquired by the British Museum in its entirety (119). According to Angelicoussis, the Townley collection eventually saw its fame and prestige obscured by the original Greek sculptures of the Parthenon (the Elgin marbles) that eclipsed all other Classical artworks in the British Museum, whereas the individual pieces from the Lansdowne collection are considered gems in their numerous museums and private collections, large or small.
Many collections of antiquities, especially the ones assembled during the Renaissance, have been lost completely, together with the records concerning the pieces, their display, and the events that led to the collections’ dispersion. We owe it to the hard work of scholars that in a few cases it has been possible to retrace the entire history of a collection and reconstruct its catalogue. In the case of the Lansdowne collection, Angelicoussis’s contribution includes a full catalogue. In the almost five hundred pages of the second volume, she lists and discusses 117 sculptures. Each item is presented in detail, including technical facts (location, measures, and a proposal for dating), an account of the scholarly literature, information on provenance and state of preservation, and a description. A discussion frames each artifact within the history of ancient Roman art, especially in light of its relationship with ancient Greek models and widespread sculptural types. Numerous illustrations of each item include both contemporary and historical photos and drawings, reconstructions of restoration processes, and archival files. Together they offer a magnificent, vivid depiction of the prestige of the Lansdowne collection, thus completing the narrative of the first volume (which in turn is illustrated by ninety-six images that enhance our appreciation of the saga of the family, the architectural history of the palace, and the display of the collection). In the second volume, appendix 1 provides a useful instrument to scholars interested in the collection: the author lists all the references to individual pieces of the Lansdowne collection found in a variety of literature and documents produced between 1762 and 1930 (447).
Elizabeth Angelicoussis is well-known for her studies on collecting antiquities, among which her two volumes of the Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani of Great Britain—focusing respectively on The Woburn Abbey Collection of Classical Antiquities (1992) and The Holkham Collection of Classical Sculptures (2001)—are particularly noteworthy. With this book, Angelicoussis addresses the challenge of reconstructing a collection that is no longer in existence. Her aim, as stated in the epilogue, is to give it a second life, so as to allow the extraordinary “vision” of Gavin Hamilton to be appreciated in all its known components, including sculpture, painting, ornament, and architecture. At the same time, Angelicoussis’s work is a remarkable contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the practice of collecting antiquities in Great Britain, and in Europe more broadly, during the eighteenth century. By writing this book, Angelicoussis sets a powerful example of a method that combines a respectful and learned devotion to connoisseurship and an honest openness toward the realm of cultural history.
Myriam Pilutti Namer
Adjunct Lecturer, Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice