Classical sculpture and the modern world - an interview with Elizabeth Bartman
Author of the newly released catalogue The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture, Elizabeth Bartman, discusses the history of the collection, sculptural restoration and how the qualities of the collection transcend into modern life with Chrissy Partheni of the World Museum, Liverpool.
You have described yourself as an archaeologist of the storeroom, can you explain what that means?
Unlike most archaeologists who literally dig beneath the ground to find the remains of now-dead people, I explore museum basements and galleries, studying works of art for previously overlooked evidence of the past.
When and how did you become interested in Henry Blundell’s collections?
Almost 20 years ago I met Jane Fejfer, a wonderful Danish archaeologist who had been working on Blundell’s ancient statues; there were quite a lot of them and she suggested that I might also want to study them. One trip to Liverpool convinced me that the collection was a treasure, largely forgotten by scholars.
What three words sum up Henry Blundell’s collections of classical sculpture?
Under-appreciated, immense, encyclopaedic
How do Blundell’s collections relate to other 18th century collectors of antiquities and practices of restoration?
Blundell’s ancient statues represent a cross-section of what was being excavated and collected in the 18th century by English gentlemen making a “Grand Tour” to Italy: they are Roman works made to decorate houses, villas, and public spaces in the first centuries CE and so represent mainly gods, goddesses, and mythical heroes. Many of them would have been found in a damaged state, but because Blundell and contemporaries wanted them as works of art to ennoble their own houses, they were restored into complete figures by skilled Italian sculptors before being sent home to England. Blundell was not as wealthy as some of the collectors with whom he competed for works, so he may not have been able to afford some of the most famous finds of the period. But he does seem to have had a passion for the antique that not all of his peers shared—he returned to Italy multiple times and continued to add to the collection over 30 years. Ultimately he ended up with some pieces that today we would consider rare masterpieces.
In your book the descriptions and personal appreciation of different busts or statues reflect the process of your research. Can you talk about the stages and processes involved with researching the collections? Where has the research taken you, were there any particular highlights?
When I began this project nearly 20 years ago, I thought it would be a straightforward catalogue of about 100 ancient Roman statues that examined their date, style, and meaning. Some other scholars, mainly Italian, had recently made great strides in discovering where statues like Blundell’s had been found in the 18th century, and the possibility of contextualizing these works was very exciting. However, at the same time, I realized that although these statues had started life as Roman works, the restoration they had undergone had given them a second life and that they were as much artworks of the 18th century as of antiquity. So then I wondered what meanings they had had for Blundell and his contemporaries: how did these statues relate to what was then known about antiquity from reading ancient Latin and Greek texts or modern books like Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Seen from this perspective, “Grand Tour” marbles such as Blundell’s document the way that people of the period thought about the past, something which in turn has affected how we today think about the past.
How do you think your book will help further research into classical sculpture and the particular collections?
By publicizing Blundell’s marbles with new photographs, my book will make accessible works that have been largely forgotten; it will be exciting to see others incorporate them into their own research. I hope also that my book will encourage the recognition that most statues belonging to what we might call the “old European collections” have been restored—here I mean not just the English country house collections like Blundell’s but also those of the Louvre, Vatican, and other museums formed prior to the 19th century. Sometimes the restoration is so subtle as to be barely detectible, but failing to recognize it leads us to a false interpretation of the antiquity we naively believe it represents.
How do you think general visitors can engage with Henry Blundell’s collections?
Those who know something of classical mythology will recognize familiar subjects like Jupiter and Diana. Those who don’t may appreciate the skill of the ancient sculptor who has carved figures who seem alive and poised to move out of still, “dead” marble. Not all of the statues depict serious subjects; in fact some like the satyr wrestling with a beautiful hermaphrodite are quite playful and help bridge the centuries that separate us from the ancients.
Your work and previous role with the Archaeological Institute of America supports and encourages young researchers. What do your think are the challenges classical studies and archaeology face today?
Training to become a professional archaeologist typically requires years of education that can be long and expensive. Although the general public has an enormous interest in archaeology, funding can be problematic, especially for those at the initial stages of their careers. And of course the future for foreign archaeologists to work abroad in war-torn areas such as Libya or Syria is very uncertain. As in all fields of the humanities, archaeologists need to fight increasing specialization to focus on the big issues.
Is there a particular contribution classical studies and training can make to society today?
I firmly believe that the great works of classical literature and art tackle issues that transcend the society that created them and remain as relevant today as they were centuries ago. We may need a bit of guidance in studying them, but understanding where we as human beings come from is critical to understanding where we are today.
What is the next project/publication you are working on?
I am now working on a book about the sculptural restoration of ancient statuary. I intend this to be a wide-ranging study that looks at the history, philosophy, and techniques of restoration from the Renaissance through the early 19th century. It will focus on Rome, which naturally excelled in giving new life to the thousands of statues found in its soil, and will make use of some exciting new technologies such as 3-D digital modelling.
For more on the Ince Blundell Sculpture Collection visit the Liverpool World Museum website or read the blog post by Chrissy Partheni Curator of Classical Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool online.
Find The Ince Blundell Collection of Classical Sculpture on our website
Follow us for more updates and sign up to our mailing list