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Charles Townley and the Clytie

"Mr Zoffaney is painting, in the Stile of his Florence tribune, a room in my house, wherein he introduces what Subjects he chuses in my collection. It will be a picture of extraordinary effect & truth."

Charles Townley, Letter (August 1781)

Born into a wealthy Catholic family, Charles Townley was educated from the age of ten in France, where he would live for the next decade. Later, as part of the Grand Tour, he traveled to Italy in 17671768, 17711774, and 1777. Fluent in French and Italian, Townley, as a contemporary remarked, "never spoke his native tongue but with some hesitation." By the beginning of his second tour, the artist and dealer Gavin Hamilton had excavated Hadrian's Villa and was exploring other sites, discovering a number of important marbles for his clients. That year, too, Pope Clement XIV founded the Pio-Clementine Museum, a new sculptural gallery to accommodate the papal collection of antiquities. As a result of such activity, an increasing number of marbles were becoming available for export.

The most important of Townley's acquisitions are presented in Johan Zoffany's Charles Townley’s Library, No. 7 Park Street, Westminster, painted in 1782. Curiously, its namesake is not at the center of the picture. Rather, it is Pierre-François Hugues (self-styled "Baron d'Hancarville" and occasional pornographer) who sits so prominently at the desk, Clytie and an open book in front of him. Several more are at his feet, possibly to recollect his four-volume collaboration with Sir William Hamilton, whose first collection of Greek vases had been sold to the British Museum a decade before. (The book at his feet is a volume from Le Anticheità di Ercolano Esposte, "Antiquities of Herculaneum Exposed"), which initially was bestowed as a mark of royal favor but Townley had been obliged to purchase.) The two men engaged in conversation behind him are the paleographer Thomas Astle, who nominated Townley to the Society of the Dilettanti, and, hovering over Clytie, the Hon. Charles Greville, the impecunious nephew of Sir William, d'Hancarville's former patron.

Although pretending at gentility, the sculptures presented in the context of learned conversation, the painting does have a sly salaciousness. Greville, standing behind Clytie, seemingly embraces the bust, while the gesture is mimicked in the statue behind him of a nymph fending off the unwanted advances of a faun. And Clytie herself is situated so as to gaze down upon the open legs of the drunken faun.

In the foreground is the Discobolus, Townley's last major purchase, which was discovered at Hadrian's Villa in 1791, the year after the picture was exhibited, and added later. Above and behind it is his first purchase: two boys quarreling over a game of knuckle bones (astragali) which he had acquired a quarter of a century earlier for £400, the price justified because the piece was thought to have been by Polycleitus (Pliny, Natural History, XXXIV.xix.55). There also is a cupid, faun and nymph, drunken faun, bust of Homer, Clytie, the Townley Vase (which may have been one of several to have inspired Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn), the Townley Venus (which, to avoid heavy duty fees, Hamilton shipped to England as two separate fragments), and the Townley Sphinx. On his death in 1805, the collection was sold to the British Museum for £20,000.

That same year, the last of the Elgin marbles were removed from Greece. They soon would completely overshadow Townley's statuary, most of which, now that a comparison could be made, were recognized to be later Roman copies. In 1816, when the British government was considering the purchase of the Parthenon sculptures, a Select Committee was established to determine their value, both artistic and monetary. In the words of the diarist Joseph Farington, "much conversation was had respecting the examinations of Artists & Amateurs respecting the Eglin Marbles." Members of the Royal Academy were called to give their opinion, including the neoclassicists Joseph Nollekens, one of the country's foremost portrait sculptors, and John Flaxman, the first Professor of Sculpture at the Academy. Nollekens regarded the Parthenon sculptures as "the finest things that ever came to this country" and reckoned them "very much higher than the Townley Marbles for beauty," which he considered "all completely finished and mended up," whereas "these are real fragments as they have been found." Flaxman, too, when asked to compare them, replied that "I should value them more, as being the ascertained works of the first artists of that celebrated age; the greater part of Mr. Townley's Marbles, with some few exceptions, are perhaps copies or only acknowledged inferior works."

Richard Payne Knight, a leading member of the Society of Dilettanti, was not so enthusiastic. For him, even the finest of Elgin's marbles, which he thought to date from the time of Hadrian, were "in the second rank." More to the point, they were "very much mutilated" and not in a better state of preservation, "which has always been considered as of the utmost importance." Indeed, "a corroded, dirty surface" made them unsuitable for the decoration of a private houseto which, the Committee observed, Townley had so perfectly adapted his own marbles. Nor did they have any value as "furniture," that is, as furnishings. It was a perverse observation, and Payne Knight's reputation as a connoisseur of taste diminished as a resultas did that of the Townley collection.

The Parthenon sculptures were acquired the same year, in 1816, by the British Museum for £35,000, less than half of what Lord Elgin (who was heavily in debt) had hoped to be reimbursed and, even then, the resolution passed by only two votes. In 1823, when the personal library of George III was donated to the museum, it became apparent that more space would be needed to house it and work began on a new building for the British Museum, the first wing of which was to contain the King's Library. Eventually, the marbles from the Townley collection were relegated to storage rooms, but even that space now is closed and only a few of its pieces currently on are display—of which the most important is Clytie, a Roman bust dating to about AD 4060. Beautifully restored (if not excessively reworked), it is in the original library wing in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1).

Townley himself had acquired Clytie during his second tour of Italy in 1772 for 500 ducats, which he variously noted as about £100, although he personally valued the bust at five times that amount. It was to become his favorite possession. When forced to flee his threatened home during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, the Clytie was said to have been the one piece Townley took with him, supposedly trundling the marble downstairs from the drawing room to his carriage, exclaiming "I cannot leave my wife." A charming story, to be sure, a variation of which is related in the Dictionary of National Biography. But likely it is anecdotal, as the slightly larger-than-life sculpture would have been far too heavy for him to carry. In any event, Townley's home was not damaged, nor was he said to have ever kept a carriage.

Initially, Townley had identified the piece as "a woman ending in a sunflower" or a "Bust like Agrippina ending in a Sun flower" but later, persuaded by d'Hancarville's mystical theory of a universal creative force that he discerned in ancient art, in which Isis personified the passive means of generation, Townley came to regard the figure as that of Isis herself, whom he imagined to be in the calyx of a lotus. Indeed, "This symbolical composition comprehends much of the principals of the ancient Grecian Worship." (The diarist Joseph Farington dismissed such a notion as no more than an "attempt to prove the lascivious designs of antiquity to be merely emblematic of the creative power.")

The figure actually may be that of Antonia the Younger, daughter of Mark Antony and mother of the emperor Claudius. Nollekens considered it to be no more than a portrait of the artist's model, although, given the quality of the workmanship, that is unlikely. He was said always to have had a copy for sale, the last one sold to Townley's uncle for 100 guineas as a replacement for the original purchased by the British Museum. At Nollekens' death in 1823, there still was a bust of Clytie listed in the Christie's auction catalog of the estate sale.

Regarded by Smith at the time as "one of the most perfect and beautiful specimens of sculpture," no marble was more admired in late eighteenth-century England. For Penny, Director of the National Gallery, the bust is "in such superb condition, that her antiquity must surely be doubtful." In the catalog description for Fake? The Art of Deception, an exhibition by the British Museum in 1990, Walker argues that the bust is ancient, although "it is likely that much of the surface of the portrait was reworked to enhance its erotic appeal." Presumably, this is why the piece was included. She reconsidered her opinion, however, in a symposium paper coinciding with the exhibit and concludes that the Clytie, which had just been cleaned and carefully examined, was not recut, aside from some minor restorations. Nor was there any reworking along the side of the exposed breast, which might have been expected if the drapery had been cut to reveal a swelling bosom. Penny had said as much at the time in his review of the exhibition. "The whole bust looks like a single unified inventionand not an ancient one." For him, Clytie's very perfection and mysterious provenance precludes its originality; for Walker, the ancient Parian marble and traces of encrustation beneath the lotus leaves, its antiquity.

The figure was known as Clytie because of its petalled base, which has proved to be such a mystery to art historians. It was named after the forlorn nymph in Ovid's Metamorphoses (IV.371ff) for whom "Excess of love begot excess of grief." Seduced by Sol (Helios), Clytie was transformed into a violet-colored flower, her head always turned toward the god as he moved across the sky.

The heliotropium usually is identified as the small fragrant heliotrope or turnsole. Theophrastus remarks that the plant blooms at the summer solstice (Enquiry into Plants, VII.15.1); Dioscorides that it is named for the leaves that turn toward the setting sun (Materia Medica, IV.193); and Pliny that it turns with the sun even in cloudy weather, the blue flower closing at night (Natural History, XXII.xxix.57). Given its own orientation toward the sun, the yellow sunflower (helianthus) often is equated with the nymph but was unknown in Europe before its discovery in the Americas.

"I am born from the fertile field, flourishing of my own accord; the shining crown grows golden with yellow bloom. With the sun in the west I close up, and open again at sunrise: whence the learned Greeks devised my name" (Aldhelm, Enigmata, LI).

Aldhelm cannot have intended the sunflower, as it would not be introduced to Europe for another eight centuries and, in any event, heliotrope is a violet-blue flower. One wonders, then, if Aldhelm, who was Abbot of Malmesbury in AD 675, was more concerned with an etymological riddle than a horticultural one.

In 1782, Greville introduced Emma Lyons, his seventeen-year-old mistress, to George Romney, one of the most fashionable portrait artists of his day (and a rival of Sir Joshua Reynolds). He was commissioned to paint her portrait, for which he could not immediately pay. Indeed, it was only this picture and one of his uncle, which had been a gift, that he could afford to keepwhich he did until his death. Unable to maintain the beautiful young woman, he sent her to Sir William Hamilton, his widowed uncle, who was British envoy to the Kingdom of Naples; in return, Hamilton paid Greville's debts. There she was sent in 1786, with the expectation that Greville eventually would come for her. He did not and, in time, she came to accept the attentions of Sir William himself, then almost thirty-five years her senior, who equally was smitten with the intelligent and vivacious young woman. They returned to England and married in 1791.

Romney was equally captivated by Emma, "the divine lady...superior to all womankind" (Letter, June 19, 1791) and painted his muse more than two dozen times, the final sitting (the last of almost three hundred) in her wedding dress on the day of her marriage to Sir William. In this portrait of Emma in a straw hat, she gazes coyly from beneath its umbrageous brim, looking directly at the viewer but hidden in soft shadow, a demure but direct gaze that suggests innocence and coquettishnessthe loose hair and enfolding arms, abandon and control. It was a bewitching combination that seduced Greville, Romney, Hamilton, and Nelson.

Five days after the nuptials of Sir William Hamilton and Emma Hart, Horace Walpole wrote that "Sir William has actually married his gallery of statues." The many "attitudes" or tableaux vivants, in which she had so skillfully adopted poses drawn from classical sculpture, now seemingly brought his collection of marbles to life. But the statement also conveys the notion of Emma as yet another object to be acquired by the connoisseur. Just as Townley referred to Clytie as his wife, so Hamilton's wife was his sculptures, and he well may have uttered Pygmalion's own prayer to Venus

"If all we can require, be yours to grant;
Make this fair statue mine, he wou'd have said,
But chang'd his words for shame; and only pray'd
Give me the likeness of my iv'ry maid."

Ovid, Metamorphoses (X.274ff) trans. Dryden

After the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Lady Hamilton, who had met Admiral Horatio Nelson five years before, became his paramour.

The painting of Townley's library is by Johan Zoffany and in the Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museums (Burnley). Townley later was to drop the "e" in his surname. The collection as it was presented to the public was quite different from that pictured by Zoffany.

Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a Straw Hat (c. 1785) is by George Romney and now in the Huntington Museum of Art (San Marino, CA). Greville insisted that she assume the name "Mrs. Emma Hart," which is how she was known in society. She herself signed the marriage register as "Amy Lyons." If born in 1765, the year of her baptism, Emma would have been about seventeen when this portrait was painted.

Townley's residence in Park Street, which, in Nichols' phrase, he "so admirably the reception of his marbles," overlooked St. James Park. It now is located at 14 Queen Ann's Gate, designated by a blue plaque erected 180 years after Townley's death.

References: Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain Since 1760 (2009) by Viccy Coltman; "Zoffany's Painting of Charles Towneley's Library in Park Street" (1964) by Mary Webster, The Burlington Magazine, 106(736), 316-321, 323; "The Celebrated Connoisseur: Charles Townley, 1737-1805" (2005) by Tony Kitto, Minerva 16(3), 13-15; Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann (1967) edited by W. S. Lewis, Warren Hunting Smith, and George L. Lam; "Gavin Hamilton: Archaeologist, Painter, and Dealer" (1962) by David Irwin, The Art Bulletin, 44(2), 87-102; "The Celebrated Connoisseur: Charles Townley, 1737-1805" (2005 ) by Tony Kitto, Minerva, 16(3), 13-15; "Exhibition Reviews: London, Townley at the B.M. and Cavaceppi at the Clarendon Gallery" (1984) by Nicholas Penny, The Burlington Magazine, 126(970), 54-56; "Exhibition Reviews: London, British Museum Fakes?" (1990) by Nicholas Penny, The Burlington Magazine, 132(1048), 504-506; Fake? The Art of Deception (1990) edited by Mark Jones (exhibition catalog); "ClytieA False Woman?" by Susan Walker, in Why Fakes Matter: Essays on Problems of Authenticity (1993) edited by Mark Jones (symposium papers accompanying the exhibition); Lord Elgin and the Marbles (1998) by William St. Clair; Dilettanti: The Antic and Antique in Eighteenth-Century England (2008) by Bruce Redford; The Townley Marbles (1985) by B. F. Cook.

Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles (1816); Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900) edited by Sidney Lee; Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson (1897) by John Cordy Jeaffreson; Memoirs of the Life and Works of George Romney (1830) by John Romney; George Romney and His Art (1894) by Hilda Gamlin; The British Museum: The Townley Gallery (2 vols.) (1836) by Henry Ellis; Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, 1570-1870 (1870) by Edward Edwards; "Biographical Memoirs of the Late Charles Townley" (1812) by James Dallaway; The General Chronicle and Literary Magazine, 5, 284ff; Ancient Marbles in Great Britain (1882) by Adolf Michaelis; The Farington Diary, 1793-1802 (1923) edited by James Greig; Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century (Vol. III) (1818) by John Nichols; Nollekens and His Times (2nd ed., 1829) by John Thomas Smith who, disappointed with an expectedly small legacy as executor of Nollekens' will, wrote a gossipy biography of his subject. All these older titles have the advantage of providing much of the source material cited in later work.

See also Stuart and Revett and Enigmata.

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