From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School
by John Malcolm Russell
Yale University Press/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 232 pp., $40.00
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 …