Thursday, February 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Dyfri Williams, Masterpieces of Classical Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. 360. ISBN 9780292721470. $45.00.
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge

This volume consists of a count to 158 down a catwalk of curatorial splash for (in all c. 187) objects in the British Museum's Greek and Roman Antiquities department, showcased in double-page packages dominated by well-planned high-gloss wow colour photographs.1 Supplementary photos giving detail or showing comparative material vie for designer space with summary caption (the accession numbers handily supplying date of arrival in London) and just three paragraphs' worth of text. Where, two decades back, in the days before ADD and digital colorama drama, Lucilla Burn's version prefixed 'The British Museum Book of' to its 'Greek and Roman Art', this update title comes out of Texas unprovenanced, as you could put it, from the newly elevated 'Research Keeper' at the GR department (since 2007: on the BM staff from 1979, and Keeper 1993-2007).2

Chosen from his department's treasure (into six figures), Williams's main selection consists of something like 59 utensils (pots and jugs, plates and mugs, etc., in earthenware, metals, glass), 24 sculptures,13 reliefs etc, 12 portraits in stone, 17 jewellery items in gold, 15 bronzes (sculpture, portraits), 13 metal miniatures, fragments and miscellanea, 4 terracottas, 3 paintings, 2 each in more silver, ivory, amber, agate, a coin and a medallion, 1 in bone and 1 mosaic, 0 inscriptions.3 The frontispiece plants a neat 'come hither' curiosity in the shape of a cameo-glass sweetie absorbedly drinking in the scene before him, finger to mouth in wonder: he will prove to be the Paris cut from the panel where he once judged The Beauty Parade to provide a round base for the 'Portland Vase' as abridged by the ancient repairer. Out from under its translucent bushel, BM's Got Talent.4

The artworks are organized into 7 sections (where Burn used 12), each introduced by a double-page capsule history by era-cum-area (backed up by top-notch End Paper materials)5 and featuring a telling extra photo (for the distribution see TOC below). After 'Greek' and 'Hellenistic' cometh 'Cyprus (c 3000-100 BC)' followed and somehow (but how?) matched by 'Early Italy (c. 3000-100 BC)', with just one buzz through Rome for finale (dispensing with Burn's 'Southern Italy' and 'Lycia and Caria'). So Williams retains the traditional Hellenism loading of the 'classical' away from Rome, quite undented by recent countervailing calls to re-think and revoke; playing down, in the 'English' way, post-colonial recognition (Cyprus and Palmyra aside) of the 'Ancient Mediterranean' as cosmopolitan multiculture churning into dialogical creativity from within Minoan, Pharaonic, Achaemenid, Alexander's, Roman imperial zones; and sidelining (Etruscans and Italiots aside) non-classical or anti-classicizing hybridization in the Celto-Iberian, Punic, and African West. Burn's (post-)Roman cover-girl 'Clytie' and the timeline disturbance carried by her re-fashioning and other misadventures in the reception trade, doesn't make it for Williams, sold instead on 'Preparing for the Procession' from the Parthenon Frieze for jacket front. Even in the rapid-fire gobbet medium, blanketing tropes of purism, permanence, perpetuation keeping BM business-as-usual guide readers through staunch repulsion of all complaints of rapine and skulduggery from 1753 onwards.6

The roll-call of trove at once immortalized by and immortalizing/patronizing findspot, craftsman or subject -- 'The Karpathos Limestone Goddess', 'The Sophilus Dinos', 'The Seianti Sarcophagus' ... -- melds into heavy in-club hobnobbing down centuries of aristo-pluto-merito-lottocratic donorship reverberating without end. (To play, complete the following: 'The Aberdeen--, The Barber --, The Barberini --, The Bersu --, The Blacas --, The Braganza --, The Cranford --, The Chatsworth --, The Elgin --, The Eyre --, The Guilford --, The Jennings --, The Leventis --, The Macmillan --, The Portland --, The Strangford --, The Townley (bis) --, The Warren --, The Westmacott --). This is the fetish trail of a propriative prestige story of here-to-stay undeniability still being told -- enhanced by Williams's good thing going with his specialisms of Greek gold and jewellery -- for MOCA gets to display a dozen or more objects accessioned since Burn's day, the latest from 2007: no. 146 (olim Strangford) 'Marble Portrait of a Young Man'; nos. 111 'The Eyre Hydria' and 132 'The Warren Cup' (?1.8 million) arrived, as they say, in the late 1990s, and nos. 15 'The Elgin Geometric Amphora', 85 'The Braganza Gold Brooch', 94 'The Leventis Lady', 128b 'Engraved Agate Plaque', 129 'The Guilford Puteal', 137b 'The Barber Fluorspar Cup', and 140 'The Jennings Dog', came to the Museum, as they also say, since the turn of the millennium. All these, that is, appeared on Williams's watch, not without controversy in the case of the hitherto publicly unshowable, and so buggered, Warren Cup). Williams's skilfully detailed summary 'History of the Collection' (pp. 344-6) appends, so displaces/demotes, what Burn gave as a heads up (in her Preface).

Press blurb touts a 'must-have introduction to Classical Art', but the gaze solicited here belongs on the far $ide of the divide between classical studies and collector/investor oriented art-market wonder at the $plendour of riches authenticated by Viscounts, Earls, Lords galore (and, to launch pre-Hellenic -- Cycladic -- 'elemental simplicity', Henry Moore: ). Williams's Preface makes a good point, that putting together the ideas that 'art' was invented between 'Greece' and 'Rome', and that we assign even mundane material culture to art and/or history as we see fit, sets up lively reflexive interaction with the stuff, but he's duty-bound to reify quality and importance measured by the 'sense of wonder' and to in-fill with items 'best suited to represent' their classical corner. Broken discussion of 'portraiture' runs through the volume (see index), and there are the odd snippet moments, on inserted eyes and nose motifs 'as if some divinity is watching' Menelaos vs. Hektor (no. 23), on contrasts in body torsion (no. 39) and quasi-perspectival effects (nos. 62-63), that can get you looking. But these suffocate in unnecessarily unworthy tack, as when Achilles' and Penthesilea's 'eyes seem locked together in this last moment of violence, but also perhaps the first of something more ..' (no. 32), when 'for the modern world wine is often a "medicine for misery", but the Greeks perhaps understood it better, considering it a pharmakon' (no. 37), the Strangford sculptor 'has not yet learnt' naturalism techniques (no. 40), or when 'The overall heaviness of the face is no doubt connected with the reality of Philetairos' physical condition -- he was a eunuch' (no. 83), etc. 'Classical' status must go unproblematised as objects are talked up, over and over, with the mantra 'of extraordinary quality, extraordinary, finest and largest, little jewel, superb, powerful, finest, delicate, quite remarkable, spectacular, splendid, beautiful and unusually large, wonderful, colossal, largest pearl-large pearl-exceptionally large pearl, exquisite', crowned with the obligatory 'masterpiece of' ... 'miniature sculpture, pottery and painting, coinage, aretistic and technical, metallurgy, miniature engraving, -- large and exceptional -- toreutics, art, goldwork'. Congratulations are in order, then, for making it to the BM in one piece, 'superbly preserved, perfectly preserved-superb composition, perfectly preserved-finest-superb-splendid, perfectly preserved-masterfully potted, perfectly preserved, very fine-superb condition, remarkably well-preserved and particularly large'. The prehistoric can be 'truly remarkable-primitive yet sophisticated', 'may be a casting flaw', 'cheerfully unassuming', but just the one 'comic' moment -- 'Indeed it is possible that the slave is the scheming Daos who appears in some nine of Menander's plays' -- arrives, and passes by, with 'extremely well-preserved' and 'quality seems too high for "behind the scenes" activity, and it is more likely that they were actually used by the guests at feasts, probably to pour oil or some spicy sauce over the food. The figure of the slave may have led to comments by the diners on both Menander's plays and on difficult slaves' (no. 82: filler to page-end). Do any lips not curl at the 'extraordinary vessel', 'no. 100 Bichrome Bowl with Erotic Scenes', protected or not by the label 'religious orgies and sacred prostitution-exotic religious ceremony'? Where every one has to be a winner, there can only be ecphrastic hype/ From convincing through vacuous:

Enter 'The Classical Greek World' (p. 90) 'now imbued with a sense of organic balance and the potential, it would seem, to move'.

A Parthenon Frieze river's 'left thigh may be imagined as still slightly submerged in the shallows. The torsion of his powerful shoulders and chest is superbly captured, while his hips and legs seem as yet not to carry any weight or exhibit any strain -- they are supported by water' (p. 118).

'The treatment of ['The Knidian Lion''s] thick mane continues to evoke a sense of movement, suggesting perhaps the restless power both of this royal beast and the family that chose it as their monument for eternity' (no. 75: para 3).

'The momentary pose of this huge ['Jennings'] dog is particularly effective. He rises, with forelegs spread apart and body turning, as his head tilts up in a responsive fashion to some movement, perhaps by his master ... The representation of the ridges of hair and the ruff, together with the vein and muscles, are masterfully realized.' (no. 140, para 1).

'This bust, which seems to abound in intellectual as well as physical vitality ...' (no. 146).

This and the like in amongst the assortment of all-too-often-inconsequential wordage -- from acumen on the 'superb bronze lioness' [yes, 'unusually large'] with male mane plus dugs, and 'the pose of a dog ... about to spring' straight into the rhetorical leap, over the edge to 'The misunderstanding of the pose of the lioness is something that, interestingly, seems to have passed into Greek literature, and even custom. [The women in Lysistrata] swear "not to stand like a lioness on the cheese-grater". This is thought to refer to the woman's posture in making love which resembles that of a lion with its bottom in the air [i.e., ex hypothesi, 'doggy-style'], a pose that is often seen in scenes of lovemaking between men and courtesans on Athenian vases (compare no. 100 [from Cyprus]), and explains why so many "ladies of the night" were give [sic] the nickname Leaena (lioness) in antiquity' (no. 25: para 3); to throwaway nothing lines on titled Ambassadors dragged in for bathos 'Sadly, neither recorded the origin of this exceptional portrait' (no. 146: and out). Livening up classical art with C21st repraesentatio may well mean trying out new twists on formulae, words prostrate before visuals: 'art history' as intellectual-cultural-research nexus arises, we are reminded, from no other practice than energetic-energizing description.7 But Williams's shuffle of mixed, collaged, dubbed prose bites is too tied-in to the systemic values and valuations of 'proprietorship' to deliver much more than de luxe puff. Trouble is, the pictures and the new acquisitions are 'must-have'. And I -- I need a coffee-table. What a pain in the BM.8

Table of Contents:


1. Prehistoric Greece (c. 4000-1000 BC): nos. 1-12
2. The Early Greek World (c. 1000-500 BC): nos. 13-39
3. Classical Greece (c. 500-300 BC): nos. 40-70
4. The Hellenistic World (c. 300-100 BC): nos. 71-93
5. Ancient Cyprus (c. 2000 BC-AD 100): nos. 94-102
6. Italy before Rome (c. 3000-100 BC): nos. 103-21
7. Rome and its Empire (c. 100 BC-AD 300): nos. 122-58

History of the British Museum Collection
Timelines [to 330 CE]
Further Reading


1.   The Parthenon (8 photos) and the Portland Vase (side-view, base, and unwrap) get extra elbow room. Half of Burn (below) was b/w, there were just a handful of full page ills., and no details or reverse shots; her far more substantial text worked the gen on each period in with the comments on objects, so did amount to something approaching 'a general introduction to Greek and Roman art and culture' (Preface 7).
2.   Title page and UTP flier do add 'Published in co-operation with' and 'Copublished with' the BMP (this verb is a C21st t.t.)
3.   Some exhibits are from adjacent departments -- numismatics, near-eastern artefacts -- and the Pergamon Altar in Berlin). Burn imported the Priene dedication of 'BASILEVSALEXANDROS' to put epigraphy into the field of vision (her no. 109): Williams confines interest in the 'Funerary Relief' of 'LANTISTIVS.CN.F.HOR.SARCVLO.ANTISTIA' to the portrait busts (no. 124).
4.   This concession to Reception is just about it -- apart from dazzling C18th Strozzi repairs to the 'great' 'Blacas Cameo''s diadem (no. 135: setting off the back-jacket), and the doubletake on no. 144, where para 2 trumpets a 'superb line from the right hand ... to the ... pointed left foot' before para 3 points out 'The Townley Discobolos''s 'head is set at the wrong angle and indeed must come from a different statue'. Another doubletake, on no. 48 'Aphrodite on a Goose', tells of 'remains of preliminary sketch work ..., the most significant change ... that to the pose of the head. [From] frontal .., only to change his mind and give her a wonderfully delicate and serene profile', before Williams shifts para to 'the way that the eye has been drawn, ... now properly in profile with the corner opened to let the eye take its natural form'.
5.   Doing ancient history in flashes leads to the usual foul compactions, such as (p. 90) '... eventually resulting in a radical democracy. Similar developments also took place in other Greek cities'.
6.   Some fiddling at the expense of the Vatican is a maybe for dog-dealing Hamilton (p. 324). Elgin's escutcheon is of course spotless: read the phrasing as carefully as its writing in (p. 122) 'The second Caryatid was removed by Lord E.'s men early in 1803 (another was already partially destroyed; the remaining four were removed in 1973 to the Acropolis Museum)'. On the Parthenon, W. tells of 'the explosion of 1687 ... and the attempt ... to remove much of the centre of the composition as spoils for the Serene Republic of Venice' (p. 118), but E. is mentioned but once, when 'the fragmentary figure of Isis ... was excavated by Lord Elgin's team at the west end of the temple in July 1801' (p. 120).
7.   Jas Elsner, 'Art History as ekphrasis', Art History 33.1 (February 2010) 10-27.
8.   An extraordinarily superb masterpiece of book production (corrigenda at p. 192 asebia; p. 204 assimilated with; p. 346 hopefully).


  1. Although being only a sometime (if admiring) reader of BMCR, I believe that John Henderson's review of Dyfri Williams' Masterpieces amounts to an ad hominem attack on a scholar, and is totally inappropriate to the journal. I wonder if BMCR has any "rules of engagement" that might have prevented this from being uploaded, i.e. published?

  2. Why does the BMCR allow the publication of acerbic writing like this? It bleeds poison unwarranted by the nature of the book (coffee table, according to author) and misrepresents what seem to be fine illustrations enabling study and, perfacts, reflection. If the author of the review has an axe to grind with the book's author, this is not the proper context for it.

  3. Not to mention the fact that the review is all but unreadable.

  4. Reminds me of a bad undergraduate essay!


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