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Poaching antiquities has a long tradition; little did I know someone in my own family tree was involved.
I was going to write a follow-up post on the history of ancient Delos after my visit there this past spring, but I went down a rabbit hole and found out more about my own family history. And yes, it was somewhat shocking.
Let’s start with where I started...
As I was looking through my photos from the magical island of Delos, I found this one and recalled the moment I took it and what I thought…specifically, how lucky was I to be in the presence of such history, artistry and beauty. Apparently another woman on our tour did not think so as I overheard her say: “Why do I want to take pictures of piles of rocks?!!!”
The winds and rains and heat and passage of time has eroded much of the intricate sculpture on many of the Greek statuary that I saw, but the faces of bulls and the fruit garlands strung between them on these plinths were still visible - and beautiful. And the archaeologists working here thought so too since they were lined up along one of the pathways, making sure that visitors could enjoy them as they made their way through the maze of broken marble, dating from over two thousand years ago.
But I am not the only visitor who was charmed by these plinths and their decoration.
There are four such Delian sculptures, identified as “altars” or “votives”, in the British Museum - I wish I could show them to you but you’ll have to go to their website (or follow my links) to see them yourself. Two were purchased from a J Waring in 1847; this one taken from Delos by a Colonel Rook in 1815 (Provenance from the BM website states: “Register records that the marbles were collected about 1810 by Col Rooke in the archipelago, chiefly at Delos. They became the property of his brother Mr William Rooke, who gave them to Mr Impey, who transferred them to the Trustees on condition that they brought them to England and paid warehouse charges. See Letters on Antiquities and Additions to Antiquities 1825-26.”; and not least, this one, pilfered either from Delos or the neighbouring island of Rheneia by none other than Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin (now known as Lord Elgin of ‘Elgin Marbles’ infamy) in 1802 and purchased by the British Museum in 1815.
Lady Elgin, with whom Lord Elgin soon had a bitter divorce (perhaps due to his obsession in bringing literally tons of “marbles” from the Acropolis back to England in 1803 and beyond, just about putting him in the poor house), wrote in her diary while she accompanied her husband on a cruise through the Aegean, eyeballing ancient antiquities and taking the smaller ones on board:
The island of Delos is quite a desert, not even a shepherd on it. It was formerly accounted so holy that the Delians were compelled to go to the opposite island of Rhenea, whenever symptoms of death appeared, or the hour of childbirth approached. That place is full of beautiful marble altars and sarcophagi. E. brought one of the former on board; it is round, and adorned with festoons of fruit and flowers, pendent from bulls’ heads.
In fact, while on this trip Lady Elgin, otherwise known as Mary Hamilton Bruce, Countess of Elgin, was heavily pregnant with her first born. By 1807, however, her husband divorced her, claiming adultery (a huge scandal in those days) and suing her lover (who would become her new husband) for a large sum of money - to make up for that which he hadn’t yet been able to secure from the British Museum for the purchase of his “marbles”.
The ship, called Narcissus, on which the Elgins sailed through the Aegean on the way to Constantinople was led by a Captain Donnelly. On board was a physician named Richard Thompson, who likely also had an interest in archaeology, but more importantly, came in handy after the ship left Delos to sail to Paros.
From Delos the Narcissus sailed on to Paros, arriving on July 14th. Lady Elgin was much struck by the picturesque quality of the island, but Dr. Thompson had to deal with one of the marines who admitted to having drunk water from a stagnant pool on Delos while rounding up the Maniot pirates. He had been spitting blood since then so that eventually Dr. Thompson administered “Cerupa Acetat or sugar of lead in small doses” which, soon after landing on Paros, brought the sailor to the doctor’s cabin “complaining of something in his nose, which appeared to me on slight examination, to be clotted blood, however to the astonishment of every person on board, the Surgeon’s assistant extracted a large leach out of his nose, and a few minutes later another from his mouth, they had lived thirteen days in his stomach”
Anyway, back to stolen antiquities.
Captain Donnelly was also not averse to taking a little something for himself from the Greek islands and beyond. He likely got the idea from Lord Elgin that these ill-gotten gains (in those days, just relics waiting to be carted away by anyone with the means and inclination to do so) might fetch a reasonable amount of money. There are letters that survive from Donnelly to a certain George John, 2nd Earl Spencer and First Lord of the Admiralty, residing now in the British Library, that outline his interest in having the Earl purchase these objects. Earl Spencer had also been a Trustee at the British Museum since 1791 and there is evidence that he gifted a number of sculptures to the Museum soon afterward.
The sculptures acquired through Earl Spencer which landed in the British Museum came just after another significant Museum purchase - the Townley marbles, a group of classical sculptures that had their origins in Italy. Indeed, some of Donnelly’s sculptures had suffered damage in transit and were discovered languishing in the basement of the Museum, under the so-called Townley Gallery.
Charles Townley (seated, in profile; 1737-1805) is known simply as a collector of classical antiquities — perhaps the most pre-eminent as his collection formed the foundation of the classical Roman inventory in the British Museum. He was born into England’s upper crust and at the official age of adulthood (21 years) inherited his family’s estate, Townley Hall, in Burnley, Lancashire, although his father died when he was just three. Rather than marrying and starting a family, he spent much of his 20s improving the estate and then in 1765, after visiting Rome and Florence, he began studying ancient art. He started his collection in 1768 with a sculptural marble group known as Astragalizontes, that is, boys playing dice (with knuckle bones). The original sculpture had been fashioned by the famed 5th century BCE sculptor Polycletus but copied by Roman artists in later centuries. He likely obtained a Roman copy.
Throughout the 1770s Townley added to his collection, often through the association with others who were acquiring the pieces illicitly. One was Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish neoclassical history painter, archaeologist (apparently untrained) and art dealer, who spent time in Rome excavating important sites like Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, Ostia and one of Rome’s famous seven hills called the Caelian Hill.
For example, Townley acquired two statues from Hamilton in 1776 after a period of negotiations that took one year. As he was no longer in Rome, Townley was keen to see a drawing of the Venus in question (no photos then) and the letters indicate that Hamiton was hampered by the sculpture’s “heat” - the British Museum’s entry under Curator’s Comments for the object known as the Townley Venus reads thus:
On 10 February (TY 7/605), he hinted that he could offer Townley a better Venus than the one then recently acquired by the Duke of Hamilton (A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain (Cambridge, 1882), 300, no. 1), and on 27 March, specified a large Venus, almost seven feet high, ‘in two pieces, being originally made to join at the middle where the drapery finishes’. It was still to be cleaned, but he would send a sketch and the price if Townley did not object to the height (TY 7/607). It seems likely that Townley expressed an interest, for on 12 June Hamilton wrote that the Venus could not yet be drawn, being covered up in a stable, but he hoped to make space in a secret study, then occupied by other contraband. Meanwhile, Townley could regard the statue as his. On 27 July, Hamilton sent a sketch, promising a finished drawing if required. The price could not be lower than £800 (TY 7/613). Townley hesitated over the purchase of the Venus and also of the Thalia (1805,0703.33), which was under offer at the same time. By 29 August, Hamilton had received Townley’s letter of 8 July accepting the Thalia, and Hamilton encouraged him to acquire the Venus also: he was unlikely to obtain anything better since the Pope had the pick of new finds (TY 7/615). On the following day, replying to a letter from Townley of 30 August, Hamilton suggested a round figure of £1000 for the Venus and the Thalia together. He would also consider Townley’s suggestion of shipping the two pieces of the Venus separately (TY 7/616). On 4 October, Hamilton confirmed prices of £700 for the Venus and £300 for the Thalia, a total of £1000 (TY 7/617). Townley seems to have suggested that the Venus should be sent on approval, for on 8 October Hamilton declined to do this, since the Venus had to be smuggled out and could not therefore be returned (TY 7/618). This seems to have persuaded Townley to visit Rome and to see the Venus for himself before making up his mind on such an expensive purchase.
Oh, I forgot to mention, Charles Townley is my 1st cousin, 6 x removed. So, he’s the eldest son of my mother’s fourth great grandfather’s brother.
Charles was a member of the Society of Dilettante from 1786 onwards and became a Trustee at the British Museum in 1791. Indeed, he was one of the professionals who argued on Lord Elgin’s behalf when the latter was trying to convince the government to encourage the British Museum’s purchase of his marbles. He was described as being “a man of graceful person and polished address, with a kind of ‘Attic irony’ in his conversation” and had lively dinner parties at his home at 7 Park Street, Westminster, in London, overlooking St. James’ Park. He’d be in the company of artists like the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pre-eminent British sculptor Joseph Nollekens and others. He was generous about allowing visitors to view his collection (of course!) and often employed students from the Royal Academy to draw or paint his objets d’art.
When he died at the age of 68 in 1805, his collection was purchased by the British Museum for a sum of 20,000 pounds and a gallery was constructed in which to house them that opened the following year. He had no heirs as he remained single. Indeed, when the Gordon Riot (Protestants/Anglicans protesting against the Catholic Relief Act) took over London in 1780, resulting in days of violence, property destruction and civil unrest, Townley fled his downtown home in his carriage along with his bust of Clytie, who he referred to as his wife.
Clytie was an oceanic nymph who was in love with Helios, the sun, whose love was unrequited, so she was left staring up at him personified as the flower heliotrope. But clearly she was as close to a wife that Townley was to come.
And we have circled back again to flowers. And myth. The magical spring flowers of Delos.
And the Delian altars…
And guess what? The famous English garden designer of Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville West, and her husband Harold Nicholson also visited Delos in 1935. And today, you can visit their Delos Garden, which was re-visioned by the contemporary garden designer, Dan Pearson. The garden’s reincarnation was completed in 2020 and opened to visitors in the spring of 2021. You can see the brief here, on Pearson’s website.
Do you see it? The same altar that we started with on Delos. Harold Nicholson’s great grandfather was Commodore Gawin William Rowan-Hamilton, who served in the British navy during the Greek wars of independence and is now seen as a heroic figure. As he was fighting off the Turks, “he would land on an island or a piece of the Turkish-occupied mainland and quietly liberate an antiquity or two, sending them back to his liberal father-in-law in Ireland, Major-General Sir George Cockburn, a flamboyant antiquary who had made a collection of Greek statuary at Shanganagh, his castle outside Dublin.” And in 1936, when the contents of the castle Shanganagh were sold, Nicholson brought four altars to Sissinghurst - he must have seen the same altars I saw on the island and in his efforts to bring Delos to England, either by serendipity or design, he acquired those that had been taken over a century earlier by his great-grandfather.
Gardens and myth. Antiquities and origins. What’s yours is mine.