The people's Parthenon

Classics met the issue of social class in the gallery through another important Scottish philanthropist who, like Alexander MacDonald Senior, transcended his impoverished birth-rank and lack of formal schooling. George Reid grew up to become a famous painter, mostly of portraits but also of scenes of working life— fishermen and farm labourers. When the Aberdonians decided to add to their Museum and Art Gallery a new hall for casts of ancient Greek statues, Reid’s own benefaction was a magnificent reproduction of the complete Parthenon frieze, which runs around the entire interior of the new sculpture court.8’ He was an intellectual leveller, who wanted to make the beautiful artworks of the ancient Greeks available to everyone in Aberdeen. The new gallery was opened at a splendid reception in April 1905. A specially commissioned train arrived from Euston containing 62 distinguished passengers. Among them was Thomas

Hardy, the poor boy from Dorset who had been apprenticed to a stonemason in his early teens, but had managed to learn some Greek and classical mythology in the evenings.86 He was thrilled on this occasion to be awarded, at last, a university degree, conferred on him by Aberdeen University.87

George Reid’s Aberdonian replica of the Parthenon frieze was one of hundreds of artefacts displayed nationally that reproduced part of the spoils which Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, had amputated from their original sites on the Athenian Acropolis.88 His own modest fortune derived from the labours of industrial workers in lime kilns, coal mines and iron foundries on his Broomhall estates. He had originally planned to house the sculptures at Broomhall; several architects drew plans for turning it into a grand Caledonian Parthenon. He commissioned expensive Doric columns which never got installed; instead they grace Perth Sheriff Court. But his rich wife left him, he ran out of money, and in 1816 persuaded the government to buy his booty. It is not well-known that there was substantial opposition to the payment of ,£35,000. Many Britons were outraged. Most of them did not have the vote, let alone a say in the Report of the Select Committee which recommended the purchase. There was a catastrophic harvest in 1816 and many were starving. The debates in the House of Commons were vigorous, one MP stressing in an allusion to Matthew 7:9 that many veterans had inadequate pensions: ‘if we could not give them bread we ought not to indulge ourselves in the purchase of stones’. Lord Milton agreed: ‘the want of subsistence was the cause of riot and disturbance in many parts of the country’.89 The purchase was opposed by both John Christian Curwen, MP for Carlisle and the owner of coal mines, on the ground that times were unusually hard, and the more radical Whig MP for Coventry, Peter Moore, who said he would demand the money for his constituents, rather than give such a sum ‘to look at broken legs, arms, and shoulders’.90

This cartoon by George Cruikshank is entitled ‘The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread’ (Figure 6.5). Cruikshank depicts the Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Castlereagh, as a sinister salesman trying to entice John Bull, the archetypal sensible Briton, to buy some broken statues. Castlereagh says, ‘Here’s a Bargain for you Johnny! Only £35,000!! I have bought them on purpose for you! Never think of Bread when you can have Stones so wonderous Cheap!!’ Bull, in patched clothes, is surrounded by his emaciated children. Mrs. Bull’s baby is sucking a meatless bone. Other children shout ‘Don’t buy them Daddy! we don’t want Stones. Give us Bread! Give us Bread! Give us Bread!’91

The Parthenon sculptures nevertheless furnished perhaps the most familiar visual images in Britain. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, in association with the British Museum, published a book containing detailed drawings of the sculptures in 1833.92 Similar cast friezes are on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and in Manchester City Art Gallery, to which the King donated the casts in 1831. One was rather mysteriously donated to Surbiton High School, which opened in 1884. Smaller pieces were acquired to

‘The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread’ by George Cruikshank

FIGURE 6.5 ‘The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread’ by George Cruikshank (1816), reproduced by courtesy of the British Museum ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

grace the stairways and landings of Self-Improvement societies and subscription libraries across the land, for example at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.93 Moreover, since Elgin gave permission to any artist, including the ‘Cockney Raphael’, Benjamin Robert Haydon,94 and the radical Paisley modeller John Henning, designs imitating the Parthenon sculptures were much reproduced for private sale all over the European Continent.

Henning (1771-1851) was a working-class carpenter-turned-sculptor, the son of a Paisley carpenter and builder. He specialised in the reproduction of ancient Greek relief sculpture and cameo-style portraiture. As a teenager, Henning inherited the democratic politics of his father Samuel, who served as secretary of the Paisley Branch of the Society for the Friends of the People. This had assembled at the 1793 British Convention in Edinburgh to press for universal suffrage and parliamentary reform.95 John Henning would later claim to have been on a list in 1794 of 185 people in Paisley who were to be imprisoned under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.96 Thankfully these arrests never took place, and when Henning moved to London he continued in the struggle for social reform by selling the radical Paisley-printed Hlwers Magazine.97

In 1799 Henning realised that what he called his ‘doll making’, the creation of plaster-cast likenesses of the local ‘great and good’, was becoming more lucrative than his father’s high-end house carpentry. To boost the value of these

‘dolls’ (often medallions with heads in profile), he experimented for a time with casting in vitreous enamel rather than plaster.98 When in 1811 Elgin gave the now London-based Henning permission to draw and model from the Parthenon Sculptures, the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West, protested unsuccessfully: ‘My Lord, to allow Mr. Henning to Draw from your Lordship’s Marbles would be like sending a boy to the University before he had learned his letters’.99

Henning made and sold a number of cabinets containing beautifully crafted (and to scale—1:20) reproductions of the Parthenon and Bassae Friezes. Examples may be viewed in the British Museum and Paisley Museum.100 In 1812, at the height of metropolitan Grecomania, he was commissioned by Princess Charlotte to cast her likeness in classical dress. When sitting for her Grecian portrait, the fashionable and popular 15-year-old princess even perused some of Henning’s radical Scottish literature. She politely remarked: ‘Mr Henning, I am not indulged with that kind of reading’.101 The Princess’s patronage established Henning’s reputation. Josiah Wedgewood issued six of his medallions.102

Sadly for Henning, his career was plagued by competition from third parties who copied his work and reproduced it internationally.1"3 Neither as rich nor as famous as he might have become, a 60-year-old Henning taught himself enough Latin, Greek and Hebrew to be able to discuss the merits and shortfalls of various translations of the Holy Scriptures with his friends—quite a feat for a man who left school at 13.104 One of his eight children, John Henning Junior, followed in his father’s footsteps, turning his stonemasonry skills towards the installation of classical reliefs on buildings.105 He was, for example, commissioned to decorate the exterior of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall under his father’s supervision and using his Parthenon marbles design. He also went on to produce the classical reliefs on Decimus Burton’s triple screen at Hyde Park Corner and the reliefs for the front of the Manchester City Art Gallery.106

The Parthenon frieze was treated to a more class-conscious reading by Godfrey Sykes for the Sheffield Mechanics Institute. Sykes was a Yorkshireman, who left his apprenticeship to an engraver and enrolled at the newly opened Sheffield School of Art in 1843.107 He was influenced by the neoclassical sculptor Alfred Stevens, who designed Greek revival buildings in the area. Sykes’s other works include several paintings of people at work, in smithies, forges and steelworks. Perhaps it was his reputation for sympathetic portrayal of industrial work that led, in 1854, to his being commissioned to design a frieze by the Sheffield Mechanics Institute. It had opened in 1832, and had several hundred members, including one hundred women; its lecture hall could accommodate a thousand. Rather than simply reproducing the Parthenon frieze, Sykes adapted it to a Sheffield context, substituting more than 60 artisans, labourers, miners and steelworkers for Pheidias’ procession of Athenian horsemen (Figure 6.6). Headed by Minerva/Athena and other gods, in Sykes’s vision, the workers of Sheffield proudly wield their tools and push their trucks around the whole 13 painted panels, in oil on paper in trompe-l’oeil imitation of relief sculpture, extending

‘Godfrey Sykes’ Mechanics’ Frieze’. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Sheffield Museums and Art Galleries

FIGURE 6.6 ‘Godfrey Sykes’ Mechanics’ Frieze’. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Sheffield Museums and Art Galleries.

to 60 feet, of the frieze.108 The background is a bright (aquamarine) blue and the figures stand out in a deep gold. Sykes subsequently moved to London, and became supervisor of the decorative design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but sadly died young at the age of only 41.

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