In terms of the visual consumption of ancient Rome, there has been no rival in Britain to the popularity of scenes of destruction of Pompeii, still a newly discovered wonder in the late 18th century. After Herculaneum began to be exhumed in 1738 by workmen digging trenches for the foundations of a palace for Charles Bourbon, King of Naples, Pompeii was also excavated. But the visualisation of the Vesuvius eruption fascinated Britons. By 1772, the Marylebone Gardens staged a spectacle entitled ‘The Forge of Vulcan’, in which a Vesuvius-inspired mountain
FIGURE 6.2 Cover of The Penny Magazine, no. 31, September 29th (1832), reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.
erupted, ‘with lava rushing down the precipices’.33 The English painter Joseph Wright, from Derby, visited Italy in the 1770s and, in 1775, made a preliminary gouache sketch, now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, of Vesuvius in the process of erupting. He painted the scene at least thirty further times.34 Wright’s moody, turbulent representations of the eruption, depicted in dark reds and black, were supplemented in the public imagination by the attractive engravings reconstructing the appearance of ancient Pompeii in William Gell’s two-volume Pompeiana: The Topography of Edifices and Ornaments of Pompeii (1817-1818), which was republished in an updated edition in 1832 and inspired scenic designers in the countless theatrical and operatic accounts of the destruction of Pompeii during the 19th century. Londoners were treated to a cataclysmic visual experience of Pompeii’s last hours when, in 1823, John Martin’s apocalyptic painting ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ was displayed in the form of a diorama at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly.35 Martin, who had been born into a one-room Northumberland cottage, and learned his craft painting heraldic devices as a coach-maker’s apprentice, was derided by John Ruskin, but he was the most
FIGURE 6.3 ‘March of Mind’by Robert Cruikshank (1826), reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum.
popular painter of his day: railings were used in art galleries to keep admiring crowds at a distance.36
The Pompeii craze was given its biggest boost by Edward Bulwer’s bestselling novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which was reissued in many 19th-century reprints and editions, often with dramatic illustrations. The impresario John Buckstone speedily produced a playscript: The Last Days of Pompeii, or, Seventeen Hundred Years Ago, which ran for over 60 nights (a remarkable run in those days) at the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand; the following year three separate London spectacles, including one with added fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens, made Pompeii’s fall widely available.37 The almost wearisome plethora of Pompeii shows is reflected in its inclusion amongst the tattered playbills stuck to the wall inJohn Orlando Parry’s painting ‘A London Street Scene’ (1835-1837),3S and the title of Robert Reece’s classical burlesque The Very Last Days of Pompeii! at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand (1872). The familiarity of Pompeii stage spectacles inevitably meant that it was made into an early silent movie, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913),39 released almost immediately in British cinemas as The Last Days of Pompeii.