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Working-class archaeologists and museum visitors
Visual culture often proved a significant avenue for lower-class people to access classical civilisation because those whose occupations involved farming, care of horses, mining, digging, gamekeeping, fishing, dredging and other outdoor pursuits were more likely to come across ancient remains in their neighbourhoods. The horde of Roman ceramics which the pottery workers of Staffordshire were encouraged to feel somehow prefigured their own trade was dug up by construction workers demolishing the Farewell Nunnery in 1747.In the mid-19th century, a hoard of 400 Roman silver denarii was discovered by brick-makers near Rossall Point in Lancashire; they were given to the Harris Museum at Preston (on which see further below p. 129-32).57 The miners of north-eastern England prided themselves on their knowledge of Roman Britain; their interest is reflected in the banner of the Fenhall Drift Lodge (Lanchester) miners, which depicts a 20th-century miner and a Roman soldier as equally at home in underground caverns south of Hadrian’s Wall.58 The earliest, precious examples of ancient Greek script in Britain were discovered by builders: two bronze plaques were found during the construction of the railway station in York, which opened in 1841. They were dedicated to the gods in the 1st century ce by a man called Demetrius.59 During the Crimean War, low-ranking British soldiers discovered ancient Greek artefacts when camped on the site of the ancient city ofTauric Chersonesos outside Sevastopol; drawings were reproduced in the Illustrated Loudon News.™
The Museum of the Caerleon Antiquarian Association,61 which opened in 1850, was built to house the Roman inscriptions and artefacts which labourers and farmers found locally.62 Caerleon is the site of the Roman Isca Augusta, the base of the Second Augustan Legion. Encouraged by the society’s founder, John Edward Lee (a landed proprietor), middle-class antiquarians including the vicar,
John Jones, received and sometimes grabbed Roman artefacts from the workers who dug their ditches and broke the stones for their roads. The famous Caerleon ‘labyrinth mosaic’ was discovered by grave-diggers at the parish church of St. Cadoc. Shards of Samian pottery were uncovered by builders digging a trench. A beautiful ivory tragic mask was found by a man digging a drain in the garden of Castle Villa, the residence of John Jenkins, manager and co-owner of the tin works in Ponthir.63 Paradoxically, Caerleon had been the site of an important Chartist uprising. Jenkins had even attended Chartist meetings, in order to ‘know his enemy’.64
Museums in Britain were visited by a wider class cross-section than their equivalents in France, Germany and Italy, where the admission of visitors to the princely galleries was closely monitored.65 There was a sense that art and archaeology somehow belonged to the nation rather than exclusively to wealthy individuals, and free admission was customary.
These were spaces where, in theory at least, people of all classes were offered the same experience, and permitted to see objects that in the past would have been the preserve of the few. At a time of wild disparities of educational provision, this was already a considerable, if grudging, concession.66
Lower-class visitors were drawn to museums out of curiosity; their memoirs often imply that what they saw nurtured an impulse towards self-education.
When Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach toured the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1710, he was shocked at the vulgarity of the visitors.67 Ralph Thoresby, whose collection at the Museum Thoresbyanum, founded by his father in Leeds in the late 17th century, included Roman British finds, complained bitterly about visiting plebeian hordes.68 A Prussian traveller was surprised in the 1780s that the visitors to the British Museum, founded in 1753, were ‘various... some I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes, for as it is the property of the nation, everyone has the same right... to see it, that another has’.69 Museum keepers expressed fears about the vulgar behaviour which they associated with the policy of free admission.70 In 1815, the museum’s Principal Librarian, Joseph Planta, complained to its trustees that ‘our popular Visitors ... in the fervour of independence, pride themselves in showing a disdain of order’.71 Gustav Waagen was distressed by the chaotic and filthy masses crowding the National Gallery.72
The desire to display objects from classical antiquity, especially after the British Museum acquired Sir William Hamilton's classical collection in 1784, and the Parthenon sculptures from Lord Elgin in 1816, was a motor behind the 19th-century emergence of municipal museums.73 A typical example is the Harris Museum in Preston. A combination of funds raised by the local people and a large bequest left in the will of lawyer Edmund Harris allowed the Preston Corporation to set up a library, museum and art gallery to honour the memory of Harris’ father the Reverend Robert Harris (1764-1862). The longstanding Headmaster of Preston Grammar School, he was himself the upwardly mobile son of a ‘goods carrier’. His success was owed to his talent for Classics, spotted in childhood.
The grand neoclassical building to house all three was designed by local architect Janies Hibbert and eventually opened in 1893. Besides finds illustrating local history from Roman Lancashire, the exhibits include plentiful British ceramics and hundreds of oil paintings, by (amongst others) George Frederick Watts and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. But the decor of the building itself was planned by Hibbert to edify his fellow Prestonians: it is a material monument to great artworks and authors of antiquity. The imposing pediment of the tympanum, supported by the six fluted Ionic columns of the imposing portico which faces into the market square, is filled by a sculpture, the work of Edwin Roscoe Mullins. It is partly inspired by those of the Parthenon and known locally as both ‘The Age of Pericles’ and ‘The School of Athens’. Pericles sits helmeted in the centre of 12 other figures representing philosophers, poets, orators and artists. Around the lantern the epigraph reproduces a sentence from Pericles’ ‘Funeral Speech’ in Thucydides. The sides of the building bear two inscriptions from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.14
Inside, more columns and mosaic floors create a classical aesthetic, enhanced by the plaster casts of famous ancient and Renaissance sculptures—Assyrian (the Nimrud frieze of Ashurnasirpal), Greek (the Parthenon frieze and metopes, as well as the frieze from Apollo’s temple at Bassae) and Florentine. Most jawdropping is the stained-glass window celebrating ancient Greek achievements in philosophy, science, art, literature, and riding horses bareback to the Parthenon (Figure 6.4). Commissioned in 1905, its creator was Henry Holiday, a colourful character who admired William Morris and campaigned for Irish independence, women’s suffrage, socialism and dress reform.7’ He believed that homo sapiens was being destroyed by sartorial uniformity and that we should all wear different clothes. He personally liked to wear an outfit of medieval chain-mail.76 But he was obsessed with Greek art, designing a frieze ‘Apollo and the Muses’ for Clifton Theatre,77 and for years keeping a cast of Praxiteles’ Hermes and an enormous model of the Acropolis he had constructed for himself in his studio.78
The lowest window panel portrays Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Homer, with quotations in ancient Greek from Sappho and the Iliad. The middle panel, with its Greek inscription ‘The Great Panathenaea’, is a vivid rendition of some Parthenon horsemen. The top panel portrays philosophers, artists and scientists, including Aristotle and Pheidias. The mill-workers of Preston, in the mid-19th century far-famed for their mutinous strike actions, could learn a great deal about ancient Greece in a single afternoon at their museum.
By Edwardian times the same could be said by the crofters, masons and fisherfolk of Aberdeen, after more prosperous citizens added to their Museum and Art Gallery a new hall to display casts of ancient Greek statues and a reproduction of the entire Parthenon frieze. But the story of the far-reaching visual impact of ancient material culture on Aberdeen extends far further back in time, to 1820. It was then that an impoverished Scottish crofter-turned-stonemason,
FIGURE 6.4 Photograph of window in Harris Museum, Preston, designed by Henry Holiday. © Edith Hall.
Alexander MacDonald (1794-1860), moved to the city. There was a supply of beautiful raw local stone in the form of granite, which could be made into mattesurfaced mantelpieces, paving stones and funeral monuments. But Alexander was frustrated because neither he nor anyone else could work out how to give the gritty local stone a sheen and polish equivalent to that which could be given to marble.79 In 1829 he read about an exhibition at the British Museum of ancient sculptures from Egypt, some of them from the Hellenistic period. They had been brought to Britain by the explorer Giovanni Belzoni, a former fairground strongman-entertainer.80
MacDonald travelled all the way to London to visit the exhibition and was astonished to see that the luminous statues made of granite—even those withrounded surfaces—were highly polished. The Egyptians and Ptolemies, mysteriously, had known how to do what no stonemason had done ever since. MacDonald set about trying to reproduce the lost art. But polishing by hand was far too laborious and time-consuming to be practicable. He did crack the problem of the rounded surfaces by using a wheel turned by two workers. But since everything had to be done by manual labour, it was too slow to be viable except for tiny pieces, and even they took days. The Ptolemies possessed enormous armies of slaves who could be kept at the lathe for entire lifetimes.81
The breakthrough came when MacDonald’s neighbour, who ran a combmaking factory, let him use power from his new steam engine. With the aid of steam power, which drove the cutting and polishing machinery, monumental polished granite artefacts became feasible again. The granite industry of Aberdeen was now unstoppable. Polished, shiny granite gravestones became the rage, and ever bigger monuments and edifices were built, constructed out of granite exported from Aberdeen and exported all over the British Empire. In London alone, think of Waterloo Bridge, or the terraces of the Houses of Parliament, or the reddish granite of the fountains in Trafalgar Square. The visual impact of the Ptolemaic statues was therefore instrumental in altering the mode of granite production, the appearance of British imperial cities, and in due course the entire economy of north-eastern Scotland.82
The ancient inspiration behind MacDonald’s granite was reflected in Alexander MacDonald’s son and heir, also named Alexander, a man who became obsessed with the Greek-themed paintings of George Watts, Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Alexander Junior spent some granite profits on his fine art collection, which he bequeathed to Aberdeen Art Gallery.83 The gallery contains some of the most famous Victorian and Edwardian painted images of ancient Greek stories, including Alma-Tadema’s tambourine-tapping brunette in The Garden Altar (1879), Waterhouse’s Danaides (1906) and Penelope and the Suitors (1912).84