Online Review: Book

Lord Elgin and Ancient Greek Architecture: The Elgin Drawings at the British Museum

Debbie Challis

114.3

By Luciana Gallo. Pp. xvii + 344, b&w and color figs. 201. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $150. ISBN 978-0-521-88163-0 (cloth).

Collecting, diplomacy, and archaeological tourism have recently received greater scholarly attention. Gallo’s book fits into these areas of study and contributes significantly to the history of neoclassicism and taste. Her account of the Elgin expedition in Greece is a major contribution to understanding the cultural transmission and impact of the sculptures from the Acropolis, and from ancient Greece more generally, in the 1800s. She contextualizes the expedition—organized and funded by Elgin while he was ambassador to the Ottoman Porte—alongside the work of earlier artists and architects who traveled to Greece in search of aesthetic inspiration and knowledge. Gallo unpacks the contemporary politics around the British, French, and Ottoman empires at this time, though more analysis could have been made of European attitudes to the “Orient” and to the Turkish and Greek people.

This book has a refreshing focus on the broad aims of the Elgin expedition, rather than the usually narrow concentration on the acquisition of the infamous Elgin marbles. Gallo stresses that this book is not another study of how those antiquities where acquired (1). Instead, the emphasis is on the architectural and archaeological drawings made for Elgin and his aims for the expedition. She introduces artists whose work has frequently been overlooked, with high-resolution reproductions of their work and analysis by contemporary scholars. Along the way, Gallo debunks myths that have grown up around the Elgin expedition, such as the allegation that he acquired sculpture to furnish his own newly built home (20–2). She also makes her feelings clear about the removal of the sculpture by using the word “looted” to describe the removal of the metopes (87).

Gallo considers the historical and cultural precursors to Elgin’s expedition, much of which has been covered in detail elsewhere, before moving on to more original content concerning the motivations for, and practicalities of, the expedition. Taking into account aesthetic interest and archaeological knowledge in the late 18th century, she outlines a compelling case for Elgin’s pedagogic aims in organizing such an expedition and claims that the outcome was an innovative project. She draws attention to the artists and draftsmen in Elgin’s expedition, such as the painter and etcher Feodor Ivanovitch, who was held by the Russian court as a child, and from there, moved to royal households around Europe before arriving in Rome in 1791. Rather belatedly, Gallo examines the direction of art history at that point, referring to Winckelmann and other formers of taste, though studies elsewhere have made more nuanced reflections on connections between art historical investigation and antiquarian collecting (e.g., V. Coltman, Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain Since 1760 [Oxford 2009]). A careful history of the drawings exposes the system of patronage and captures Elgin’s dependence, from Constantinople, on Giovanni Battista Lusieri in Athens. Gallo also draws attention to the wider focus of the Elgin expedition outside Athens, since drawings were made in Sicily, in Attica, and across the Peloponnese. The narrow emphasis on the actions of Elgin and his agents in Athens has obscured this wider picture.

The brunt of the book is in the chapter “Critical Analysis of the Elgin Drawings,” in which Gallo places the work in the context of European scholarship, drawing on French, German, and Italian commentators, as well as British influences such as the Society of Dilettanti. She assesses the contribution of the drawings to archaeological knowledge, noting where there are improvements on previous drawings as well as inaccuracies. Most interestingly, Gallo considers how the drawings contributed to later fiercely argued debates—such as those about polychromy (101–2)—and influenced neoclassical architecture in details such as the door of St. Pancras Church by Henry William Inwood (fig. 100). This overview of the drawings also makes greater sense of Elgin’s collection of architectural fragments. The reproduction of the drawings, maps, and sketches best describes how extensive this expedition was. Gallo concludes by pointing out that the acrimonious debate about both the acquisition of sculptures (and other objects) and their aesthetic status has obscured the achievement of the drawings and the expedition (170). Full appendices, including transcripts of letters in original languages, supplement the main text. These letters back up Gallo’s main points about the aim of the expedition and allow a greater glimpse of the political conditions in which it took place.

Work on Elgin’s expedition will be, for the foreseeable future, overshadowed by the controversial manner in which the sculptures from the Acropolis were acquired, though this book goes some way toward giving a fuller perspective. It is useful for scholars of classical art and archaeology, architecture, neoclassicism, the reception of classical antiquities, and museum studies, as it provides fuller context around the Elgin expedition. Gallo’s study illustrates that this expedition was about more than acquiring objects; it was a bid to disseminate knowledge, increase scholarship, and influence taste. Gallo’s text is dense but accessible, and, despite the prohibitive price of the book, it is suitable for an interested nonacademic reader. The narrative is centered on a European context, with Italian, German, and French scholarship referenced (texts are translated in the main body of the book, and the original language appears in the footnotes). However, despite the quotation from Giorgos Seferis opposite the title page and references to the use of antiquities by Greeks in the appendix, Greek voices are strangely absent.

The image of the tightrope walker by the Hephaisteion among crowds of Greeks and Turks (fig. 44) points to another image and use of antiquity, which could be explored further (e.g., the folk stories around the Acropolis in Y. Hamilakis, “Stories from Exile,” WorldArch 31 [1999] 303–20). The level-headed analysis and quality reproductions make it a perfect companion to visiting the antiquities split between Athens and London and understanding the reasons for, while not condoning, their split.

Debbie Challis
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
University College London
London WC1E 6BT
United Kingdom
d.challis@ucl.ac.uk

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1143.Challis

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