From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School
Thomas Hardy called it Egdon Heath, and imagined its rough surface scarified by volcanic passions. Perhaps even then the heathland of Dorset was not quite as desolate or tragic as he fancied it: today the suburban tentacles of outer Bournemouth (Hardy’s Sandbourne—where Tess killed Alec d’Urberville) creep toward its eastern flanks, while on another side a few nodding donkeys disclose the presence of a small oil field. To the north, where heath gives way to the country’s lush, pastoral heart, in the valley of the Stour, sits Canford Manor, now a school (it too finds a place, as Chene Manor, in one of Hardy’s short stories).
Part of the house is medieval, a massive lump of rude masonry known for no good reason as John of Gaunt’s Kitchen, but the bulk of it—bulk being the fitting word—is no older than the nineteenth century. If the visitor finds the enormous tower obscurely familiar, that is because it was designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, though since it is built, somewhat disappointingly, in pale yellow brick, it suggests not so much Westminster as a watercolor of Westminster that has been exposed to the sunlight too long. John Malcolm Russell’s story spans almost three thousand years, and it takes him to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Mesopotamia, and Japan, to the banks of the Tigris, the Delaware, the Hudson, and the Kamo Gawa; but it is to Canford and the modest vale of the humble Stour that he constantly returns.
Russell follows his nose and sees where it leads him; in consequence From Nineveh to New York passes through an agreeably miscellaneous range of topics: Assyriology, architecture, the cultural and social ambience of the English nineteenth century, the history of collecting and of the art market, and the aesthetics of museum display. The book is a little rambling, a little anecdotal, but not the less appealing for that; indeed a good deal of its charm resides in the way that the author, like a dog on a country walk, finds himself drawn by new and enticing scents down unanticipated byways. Its production, however, is not altogether up to Yale’s usual high standards: there is no list of plates, the texts on a couple of pages have exchanged places with each other, and in my copy the printing has smudged.
Assyria was an early Victorian rediscovery, combining the shock of the new with the shock of the old. In Russell’s words, “In the early 1840s, no one could read Assyrian cuneiform and only fragments of Assyrian remains were known. By the late 1850s, the language had been deciphered and six Assyrian palaces had been excavated.” Much of his story concerns the interaction between the Victorians and this ancient empire. The Assyrians first appeared in northern Mesopotamia, in the upper valley of the Tigris, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, but it was not until some hundreds of years later that they first began to challenge Babylon for preeminence in their region. After a first rise and setback, their period of greatest power lasted from the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, when they extended their rule over what are now Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, and even conquered the Egyptians. Their kings built palaces in their heartland, richly decorated with sculpture, some of it very large. They were apparently unstoppable, and appallingly cruel.
Yet this hegemony came to an abrupt end with the capture and sack of Nineveh by the Medes in 612 BC; the city’s name became a byword for desolation and vanished glory, as when Kipling looked forward to that distant time when the pomp of the British Empire would become “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” The Assyrians survived as the shadow of a fearsome name in a few Greek writers, like Herodotus, and in the Old Testament (Russell suggests that their biblical importance was a principal reason for the Victorians’ interest in them); but the advance of archaeology was to summon them back to the light once more. In the 1840s Sir Henry Layard found and began excavating Nineveh, starting a process of rediscovery which continues to this day.
From Nineveh to New York begins, in effect, in 1992, when Russell was in London, studying Assyrian inscriptions in the British Museum and planning a report on some excavations that he had himself conducted at Nineveh. In the course of his investigations he found that two slabs from the ninth-century palace of Assurnasirpal II, uncovered by Layard between 1845 and 1847, had disappeared from view, their present whereabouts being unknown. They had originally been in close proximity to some colossal sculptures that are now divided between the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, in New York. Further enquiry revealed that the Metropolitan’s pieces had previously been in a collection of Assyrian sculptures at Canford. Most of this collection had been sold a year or two after the end of the First World War, but in the late 1950s an expert from the British Museum had discovered seven more reliefs in the school tuck shop (commissary), half-hidden behind cereal packets and piles of cricket shirts. Thickly coated in whitewash, they had been supposed to be casts. They were sold at auction, fetching prices between å£800 and å£4400.
Russell’s first visit to Canford was prompted not by the expectation that there were more treasures to be unearthed there but by an interest in the reception of Assyrian art in the nineteenth century. He knew that an extension had been built to Canford Manor to accommodate the sculptures, and hoped that it might prove to be an example of Victorian Ninevite Revival. How was he to penetrate darkest Wessex? Luckily, he was able to enlist the aid of an assistant keeper at the British Museum, “the owner of a very serviceable car” (always invaluable when traveling in the third world). Seizing the opportunity of a bank holiday, they set off for Dorset (“What a delight to discover that since Canford School was a private (English ‘public’) school it did not observe the holiday!”). Mrs. Shackleton, the manageress of the tuck shop, was most welcoming. Russell was pleased to find two casts were still there.
Back in London, he examined an old inventory of the Canford sculptures and began to suspect that one of the apparent casts in the tuck shop might after all be genuine. He made a second visit, accompanied by Mr. Ken Uprichard, a stone conservator. Mrs. Shackleton found a ladder. At that moment the headmaster passed by, carrying a small fragment from an Assyrian palace, carved with three severed heads, which had been turned up in the course of building work. Mr. Uprichard then examined one of the supposed casts, and declared it to be stone.
The discovery of an Assyrian antiquity in a country school was newsworthy in itself, but the sequel was to be spectacular. In 1994 the relief from the tuck shop was sold at auction for å£7.7 million ($11.9 million), more than three times the highest price previously paid for any antiquity (å£2.2 million for a Greek vase). This extraordinary outcome immediately raises questions about modern culture and the international art market. Was it a freak or did it reveal a shift in contemporary taste? But Russell leaves such issues to the end of his book; for the time being he takes up the nineteenth-century story that he has serendipitously uncovered.
In 1846 Canford Manor was bought by Sir John and Lady Charlotte Guest. Theirs was a union, of a kind not uncommon in upper-class British society of the nineteenth century, between “trade” (of a very superior sort) and the ancient aristocracy. Sir John was the vastly rich owner of ironworks at Dowlais in the coal-mining area of South Wales. He remains a shadowy figure in Russell’s account; not so his wife, whose comprehensive range of activities and enthusiasms would seem improbable if encountered in the pages of a Victorian novel. But such people really existed. Daughter of the ninth Earl of Lindsay, she was a bluestocking who edited and translated the collection of Welsh medieval stories called the Mabinogion; she had also taught herself Persian and Arabic in her teens.
Inspired by a devout Christianity, she organized improving evenings for the working people of Dowlais. They were shown fossils and a microscope; on more than one occasion Layard himself was whisked down to Wales to lecture to several hundred of the local inhabitants on Assyria. Another time Lady Charlotte brought two hundred workers from Dowlais and Canford to London to see the Assyrian objects in the British Museum: Layard was again commandeered to act as their guide. Meanwhile, she bore her husband ten children, noting regretfully after the birth of the first that she would no longer be able to keep up the study of Persian as well as Welsh. And it was she, one suspects, who was the motive force behind the transformation of Canford Manor.
The previous owner had already put up a Gothic Revival house, designed by Edward Blore, a competent if rather dull architect, whose best-known work in his own time was the facade of Buckingham Palace, which was to be swept away in 1913, when it was replaced by the present frontage, designed in an Edwardian baroque manner by Sir Aston Webb. The Guests commissioned Thomas Hopper to enlarge their house, but soon became dissatisfied with both the cost and quality of his work, and sounded out Barry. As Lady Charlotte wrote in her diary, “We [though one wonders how much say Sir John had in the matter] find it will be impossible to go on with Hopper. He has not the slightest taste in Gothic decoration.”
Though Russell records this without surprise, it was in some ways an odd judgment. Hopper was an accomplished imitator or adapter of medieval forms: his Penrhyn Castle, in North Wales, is perhaps the most assured and swaggering example of neo-Norman architecture anywhere in Britain, where the Romanesque Revival never really caught on, in contrast to Germany, where the Rundbogenstil had a patriotic resonance. (After the annexation of northern Lorraine in the 1870s Germany impressed the stamp of the fatherland on Metz by erecting a huge Romanesque church in the middle of the city and an even huger Romanesque railway station—what the Michelin guide calls “exemple de style ‘kolossal’“—on its edge.) Barry, for his part, was not a true Goth: for preference, he worked in a free Italianate manner. For the Houses of Parliament he was required to use a “national” style, but Pugin collaborated with him in providing the sumptuous Gothic detail that is so marked a feature of the building’s final effect. Even so, much of its detail is visibly Palladian in inspiration, most notably the long symmetrical frontage along the Thames, which conforms to the pattern of great houses of the eighteenth century: central building linked by connecting wings to smaller blocks on either side.
Pugin himself sniffed out the aesthetic heresy: “All Grecian, sir,” he is said to have told a friend; “Tudor details on a classic body.” So the Guests had not got themselves Gothic purity, whatever Lady Charlotte may have thought; what they had got was an accomplished eclectic, and one who had learned from his work at Westminster the effect of an occasional massive asymmetry. His tall, off-center tower at Canford, strong but also elegant, gives some verve to what is otherwise a rather staid construction.
Ironically, his most accurately Gothic piece of work was the “Nineveh Porch” which he added later to house the Guests’ Assyrian acquisitions. In Russell’s account, it is not entirely clear why this collection found its way to Dorset. Though Layard was Lady Charlotte’s first cousin, she seems scarcely to have known him until she invited him down to Canford, when he quickly persuaded her—he was a man of great personal charm—to help him with the publication of his discoveries, possibly by contributing money, but more probably by using her own connections to collect subscribers. Meanwhile, Sir John was getting worried by the soaring costs of the building works, and told Lady Charlotte that she should leave the improvements to Canford in his hands; but at this moment a lucky misfortune came to her aid. Sir John, twenty-seven years his wife’s senior, began to suspect that her friendship with her attractive cousin was becoming dangerously close. When he challenged her on the subject, she reacted with passionate indignation and a plunge into listless gloom. Russell shrewdly guesses that she must have managed to make her husband equally miserable; anyway, after a few days he relented (or sued for peace), and thereafter it seems that she could do more or less as she liked.
She was not long content merely to assist Layard with the publication of his discoveries. Almost at once we find him writing to his agents in Mesopotamia to ask them to gather specimens of Assyrian art from Nimrud and send them to her. As Russell indicates, it is remarkable that at a time when there were few examples of Assyrian sculpture in the West, and these only in the British Museum and the Louvre, that a private person should be quietly putting together so substantial a collection. After Layard had himself returned to Mesopotamia, he sent her more and larger objects, including two colossal figures of human-headed winged bulls. Assyria had now seized the public imagination, and the “Nineveh Court” was one of the showplaces of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. In these circumstances, it is indeed extraordinary that one woman in Dorset should have found herself with the only significant private collection of Assyrian antiquities, in fact the best collection in existence outside London and Paris. And to this day no other Assyrian collection outside a museum has ever included any colossi.
These acquisitions needed a building to house them. Barry was commissioned to extend the frontage of Canford Manor by adding a Gothic colonnade ending in a chapel-like structure in the form of a Greek cross—the Nineveh Porch. Russell is enchanted by this little building, and although one may feel that he exaggerates its modest merits, it is of interest in displaying that odd combination, sometimes met in Victorian architecture, of deferential revivalism and eclectic insouciance. The architectural forms are dutifully and correctly imitative of fifteenth-century Perpendicular style, and the stained glass and encaustic tiles import an ecclesiastical air; yet the decorative motifs are from Assyria, on the doors, in the windows, and on the brightly painted roof, along whose beams run cuneiform inscriptions. These motifs are tactfully accommodated to the Gothic spirit; half-close your eyes, and you might hardly notice that there was anything in the decoration not of medieval derivation—at least as the building is now. Unfortunately, no photographs survive of the Nineveh Porch before the sculptures were removed from it, but when the giant man-headed bulls were built into the structure they must have made an extraordinary sight, emerging from a religiose obscurity.
Russell had first been drawn to Canford by the quest for a Ninevite Revival, but the conclusion must sadly be that there was no Ninevite Revival. True, Assyria found its place in Owen Jones’s influential dictionary of pattern, The Grammar of Ornament (1856), but this was an all-inclusive compendium, not a guide to best practice. Indeed, Jones warned that Assyrian art appeared to have been borrowed from Egypt in decline, “which decline they carried still farther.” Assyrian archaeology caught the public imagination for a while in the 1840s and 1850s, rather as the terracotta warriors in China have done in our own time, as representing the discovery of what before had been a virtually unknown civilization, but it does not seem to have had even the kind of temporary effect upon decorative taste that (for example) Tutankhamen’s treasure had between the wars. Russell records sorrowfully that a parliamentary commission worried whether the exhibiting of Ninevite sculpture might have a deleterious effect on public taste. The general view seems to have been that it was too obviously inferior to Greek work for there to be a danger. The significance of the Canford porch is that even though a special atmosphere, a setting of sumptuous solemnity, was evidently thought fitting for the sculptures’ presentation, there was no attempt to recreate an Assyrian architecture.
But if the Ninevite Revival vanishes into smoke, the Nineveh Porch does at least prepare the way for what is to become one of Russell’s chief themes in the later part of his book: the fashions in which Assyrian sculptures have been displayed in modern times. In 1919 or thereabouts Lord Wimborne, Sir John and Lady Charlotte’s grandson, sold almost the entire collection. Readers of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will recall that when Lorelei Lee and her friend Dorothy visited England, a year or two later, they found that everyone with a title was trying to sell you something. Unlike many of the upper classes, the Guest family was still very rich, but there were inheritance taxes to pay; Lord Wimborne had another house, only his widowed mother was still living at Canford, and it seemed she could do without the Assyrian colossi. The buyer was a dealer based in New York and Paris, Dikran Kelekian, and Russell turns to telling, at perhaps excessive length, the story of his attempts to sell them on.
As it turned out, it took Kelekian eight years to realize his investment, and meanwhile he was having to pay interest on the money that he had borrowed to make the purchase. He had in his possession the only Assyrian colossi ever to have been offered for sale, but their very rarity meant that there was no measure by which to estimate a fair price; their size and weight were an impediment to most private collectors, and prospective buyers could not even see them for the four years which they spent crated up in a Manhattan warehouse. Kelekian in due course solved the last of these problems by depositing the sculptures on loan in the University Museum, Philadelphia, which would have liked to buy them but could not meet Kelekian’s price. For his part, Kelekian was forced to drop his demand from $500,000 to $350,000, a figure at which he finally agreed to a sale to John D. Rockefeller, who nevertheless managed to knock him down by another $50,000 at the last moment.
Rockefeller now had it in his power, in Russell’s words, “to turn the museum of his choice into the third greatest repository of Assyrian sculpture in the world, after the British Museum and the Louvre.” The principal suitors for his largesse were the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and J.H. Breasted at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The letters from which Russell quotes exhibit a nice mixture of academic politeness and high-minded cupidity. The Metropolitan won. Surprisingly, the sculptures were to have a somewhat uneasy history within the museum for some fifty years. A new wing, for which they were originally intended, was never built, and they were exhibited in various more or less temporary homes, besides spending fourteen years, from 1967, wrapped in plastic in a garage with a leaking roof. Since 1981 they have been elegantly exhibited in a new gallery, given by Raymond and Beverly Sackler, narrowed by false walls to represent the proportions of an Assyrian palace room.
Ironically, the sculptures may possibly have been better displayed at their temporary home in Philadelphia, to judge from Russell’s illustrations, than any Assyrian art has been elsewhere, before or since. In these photographs the University Museum’s architecture, rather bare but with hints of both Romanesque and Florentine Renaissance, appears dignified but undemonstrative, plain but not fading into that bland neutrality so often characteristic of the modern museum. The two colossi are built into the frame of an archway so comfortably that they might almost have been made for it. The Nineveh Porch at Canford was closer to the spirit of ancient Assyria than any museum in one respect—the use of strong color—and must have been much the most atmospheric of any of these displays, rich and intense as no other setting for Assyrian art has been in the last two and a half millennia; but it must also have been distracting.
The Metropolitan first showed the colossi at one end of the entrance hall (the reliefs were displayed in another room), along with a miscellaneous collection of other objects including a Roman sarcophagus, some French tapestries, and a cast of the Apollo of Olympia. Russell’s illustration indicates that this was unsatisfactory. Slotted into a line of Ionic columns, the colossi appear dwarfed, while rather comically, the extended arm of the Apollo, that serenely austere masterpiece of early classical art, humane, aloof, and perfectly proportioned, points with impassible Eurocentric disdain at the barbarous bull-bird-man-god to his right. Russell optimistically suggests that the outstretched arm of Zeus (as he incorrectly calls it) is “drawing attention to this previously missing link in the chain of art.”
The Metropolitan’s present and permanent display is certainly much superior to that in the British Museum, where the various colossi, for all their size, give the impression of having been left around in a corridor, while one of them (but then the British Museum has so many) currently has a children’s bookstall wedged up against it. But in the Metropolitan the tiled floor and the plain off-white walls and ceiling seem almost too tasteful for the fierce strangeness of this art; the absence of natural light is a pity, though it may not matter so much as in some other parts of the building (perhaps none other among world-famous museums displays paintings in so antiseptically clinical an ambience).
In his last chapter Russell returns to his starting point: the $11,900,000 sale of two stone reliefs by Canford School. The ostensible buyer was a Japanese dealer, Noriyoshi Horiuchi, who was widely assumed at the time to have been acting as an agent for the present owners, the Shumei Family, a Japanese sect. However, Horiuchi himself claimed to have been acting on his own initiative, and in any case, at least two prospective purchasers willing to pay so much are needed to raise an auction price to such giddy heights (the underbidder, an Italian, has not been identified); so it seems that the idiosyncrasy of a Japanese religious group is not sufficient to explain the size of the sum. One possible cause may have been a belief that no Assyrian relief of such quality would appear on the market again. Ironically, Russell worries that the extraordinary price achieved may contribute to falsifying that belief. Bowdoin, Amherst, Williams, and Dartmouth Colleges all possess Assyrian reliefs of high quality: Russell wonders if they will be tempted to sell by the value of what they have got, or driven to it by the size of their insurance premiums.
The Shumei Family believes in the spiritually elevating properties of great art. So is the Canford relief great art? Russell shows that many Victorians were somewhat disdainful of Assyrian work, but seems to imply that this was an unenlightened recoil from the unfamiliar. One might question that. The colossal figures are imposing, but not of high aesthetic quality. The faces of the winged bull-men are bland and expressionless, the bodies at best well shaped but deficient in pulse and animation; nor is it easy to excuse the way in which these figures are represented from the front as stationary, with their feet together, but from the side as in motion, so that each has five legs altogether.
In the case of the reliefs, the debt to Egypt is indeed manifest, but in comparison with the best Egyptian work, the figures are commonly graceless in proportion, the limbs awkwardly attached to the bodies, the musculature represented in a lifeless stylization (though one must exempt from these strictures the superb lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, from a very late period of the Assyrian hegemony). Whether or not a precedent is set by the price paid for the Canford relief—which is actually, one may feel, rather less attractive than the average—it is hard to justify. The cause may simply be the one that prompted the phenomenal prices paid for turbot in the decadence of the Roman empire: an excess of ready money looking for an object to expend itself upon.
Macaulay’s New Zealander, born in what is still for us a remote futurity, stands on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s. Russell ends with a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti written in a similar spirit. Watching one of the Nimrud bulls being hauled up the steps of the British Museum, Rossetti reflected on the centuries that it had stood in Mesopotamia:
So he may stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
Of London, not of Nineveh!
So far, this bull is still secure in Bloomsbury, but Lady Charlotte’s bulls, its counterparts, which may have seemed no less firmly cemented to the Dorset soil, were to stay in Canford only seventy years. Now, at last, they seem to have found their final home, at least until Manhattan is again among the desolate places of the earth.