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Spoils of travel

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The Pleasures of Antiquity: British Collectors of Greece and Rome

By Jonathan Scott. Yale University Press,2003. 340pp. £40

Somewhere in almost every home, either proudly displayed or mouldering in a drawer, are mementoes of holidays abroad - pots, beer mugs, prints and exotic shells. In an earlier age, and on an utterly different scale, the aristocratic holiday or gap year in Europe yielded wagon loads of antique sculpture, vases, reliefs, and architectural fragments.

It has often been claimed that the acquisitions of wealthy Englishmen, especially in the period 1715-1840, were for more serious motives than tourist souvenir-hunters.

Jonathan Scott is reluctant to make such claims, preferring to present the evidence of how Italy and Greece were plundered, and leaving others to judge the motives involved.

Then, as now, the main reason for acquiring trophies from abroad was to embellish the family home. Some travellers built or adapted special galleries for the purpose, starting with the first great collector, Lord Arundel, at the house off the Strand to which he returned after his trip to Italy with Inigo Jones. The best features of many country houses, as seen today, are these specially built extensions, as at Newby Hall in Yorkshire or Ince Blundell outside Liverpool. Other aristocrats chose to use their purchases to adorn the design of their new houses - for instance the Earl of Leicester incorporated four statues and eight plaster casts in the main hall of his seat at Holkham, most of them purchased in Rome by the son of the architect who supervised the work.

But some homeowners could barely remember what they had bought or why.

The second Earl of Egremont, who built the sculpture gallery at Petworth, left some of his antique sculptures in their packing cases, and Lord Tavistock never unwrapped the bas-relief that he had purchased. Objects were no good unless they fitted into a decorative scheme back home.

If antiquities were acquired primarily for architectural effect and pleasure, their exact date and authenticity hardly mattered.

Charles Townley, whose collection ended up in the British Museum, insisted that a sculpture was of no appeal to him if 'in the least scraped or pomiced to make it look pretty'.

Yet although he wanted the genuine object, he still failed to distinguish between Greek originals and Roman copies or imitations.

Dealers in Italy, who supplied travellers on the spot or traded through mail order, knew that most of their customers were neither expert nor fastidious, and would accept heavily restored objects, or even fakes, for the sake of uniformity and finish.

Inevitably Jonathan Scott's history leads towards the issue of Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles. He is dispassionate about the way in which Elgin's mission to Athens, starting from a desire to measure and make mouldings, soon extended to the removal of massive blocks of marble and their shipment back to England. The display of the marbles in London transformed appreciation of Greek art, but Elgin was never properly recompensed for his efforts and died heavily in debt.

The great virtue of this book is that it sets Elgin's venture in the context of the motives and actions of other British travellers. It is ironic that the argument about the restitution of art objects should have focused on him because he is one of the most sympathetic figures in the overall story. The history of the Parthenon marbles is a more honourable episode than the often causal and uneducated acquisitions made by many aristocrats on their sojourn abroad.

Robert Thorne is an architectural historian

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