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.