2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture

Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

Louvre Candelabrum Lions large

Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.


Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.


Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.


© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.

Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.


The Building Before Photography

By Dr Matthew Walker

V0013111ER Royal College of Physicians, Warwick Lane, London. Engraving

Figure 1: Robert Hooke, The Anatomy Theatre of the College of Physicians, London, 1671-1679. Demolished 1866. Engraving by David Loggan, 1677. © Wellcome Images.

Antony Griffiths’s brilliant Slade Lectures this term have got us all thinking about the print and its role in European culture before the invention of photography. For me personally, they have been hugely useful as my own research is often concerned with printed material about architecture in the seventeenth century. In this post I thought I might give my thoughts on Antony’s lectures and, more generally, say something about the role that prints play in architectural history.

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Figure 2: Engraving of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, from Georges Guillet de Saint-George, Athènes ancienne et nouvelle, 1675. Reproduced with permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

One of the most important implications of Antony’s lectures has, I think, been his challenging of art (and architectural) historians’ use of prints as relatively straightforward transmitters of visual information in the pre-photographic age. He has shown time and time again in his talks that this was not the case; that prints were highly complex objects that should be considered in their own right rather than as windows onto lost artistic cultures. Architectural historians have been particularly guilty of this sin of anachronism I think. And my conscience is by no means clear. In an article I published in 2013 on the now demolished anatomy theatre of the College of Physicians in London (designed by Robert Hooke in the 1670s) [Figure 1] I used a series of engravings of the structure to communicate to the reader what the building had once looked like. But at no point did I stop and think about these prints as objects made with ink, a copperplate and a printing press, instead I treated them as the equivalent of early modern photographs.

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Figure 3: The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, 2nd Century AD, Athens. © Visual Resources Centre, History of Art Department, University of Oxford

So, I’ve recently started to think about the seventeenth-century architectural print as, firstly, a historically localised object and, secondly, as a potentially tricky customer when it comes to representational accuracy.  Take the example of another article I published recently. This included a remarkable illustration: an engraving of another, much older theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in the 2nd century AD on the slopes of the Acropolis. It was depicted as it had appeared to a French traveller when he visited Athens in 1675. [Figure 2] The engraving was widely circulated as very few Western Europeans had ever visited Greece and the building was largely unknown at the time. Except that this engraving did not show the building at all, the people who made it had never been to Athens and the entire image had been fabricated in Paris. A photograph on a lantern slide from the Visual Resources Centre shows the actual structure in the early twentieth century before recent restoration work [Figure 3] and we can see just how wide of the mark the engraving was.  Luckily, a traveller called Francis Vernon visited Athens in 1676 and immediately wrote back to London and Paris warning people of the disingenuous nature of the print. A subsequent English edition of the book in which the print had first appeared was then published without the offending image.

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Figure 4: Photograph of the Anatomy Theatre taken in 1866. St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. Reproduced by courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians.

The Odeon print shows that some engraved images of architecture in the early modern period were exercises in outright fiction. But this is a limit case, and its mendacity was exposed at the time of its production. To return to Hooke’s anatomy theatre we can see that other prints from the period – that were apparently accurate representations of buildings – still have the potential to trip the architectural historian up. Look at the engraving I showed earlier. It is a print of Hooke’s theatre that had been produced in 1677 by the well-known seventeenth-century engraver David Loggan. For a long time this was one of the only images we had of the demolished theatre until two remarkable photographs of the building, taken weeks before its destruction in 1866 showed up in the present day archives of the college [Figure 4&5]. Comparing the print with the photographs we can immediately see that the Loggan engraving is reasonably accurate but with differences in the proportions of the dome, the glazing of the lantern and the details of the finial, everything below matches up. Can we explain these small but significant inaccuracies? Yes, I believe we can. As part of my research on the theatre I have accurately reconstructed the history of its construction and we now know that, as Loggan’s print was made in 1677, it predated the completion of building work by nearly three years. In fact, it was produced just as Hooke was designing the dome and its lantern. So, Loggan must have taken the design of the dome from drawings, probably by Hooke (who he knew well), rather than in situ. Hence the small differences between the print and the building.

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Figure 5: Photograph of the Anatomy Theatre on Warwick Lane, London, taken in 1866. Reproduced by courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians.

This has interesting implications for other engravings of the theatre. A year later, and still two years before building work finished, we find another, anonymous engraving, very similar to Loggan’s, but much cruder [Figure 6]. This print must have been based on Loggan’s as it exaggerates the differences in the design of the glazing and the finial now bears very little resemblance to the executed building. The chances are this engraver only had access to Loggan’s print and not Hooke’s drawings, thus the small inaccuracies became magnified. This process even continued after the building was completed. Another print, again made after Loggan in 1707, either in France or for the French market, shows the inaccurate rendering of the dome and lantern [Figure 7] in spite of the building having been finished nearly thirty years previous. This print seems to have been made by somebody who had never seen the building as the structure was now rendered ludicrously out of scale with a group of human figures that had also been added to the composition.

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Figure 6: The Anatomy Theatre of the College of Physicians, anonymous engraver after Loggan, 1678 from Pharmacopoeia Collegii Regalis Londini, (London, 1678) © Early English Books Online.

To return to Loggan, the point of this extended discussion is that we should see the original engraving of the theatre not as a depiction of the building, but rather as a depiction of the design of the building. It had been based, to some degree, on Hooke’s drawings rather than the structure itself. This is an important distinction I think, and Antony made a similar point in his seventh lecture about Marcantonio’s engravings after Raphael, which show examples of Raphael’s disegno rather than his paintings per se. But there is another potential explanation for the inaccuracies of both the Loggan print and the copies of it. This relates to function. The original Loggan engraving was commissioned by the College of Physicians to accompany the publication of its annual ‘Pharmacopoeia’, a printed review of the drugs available in the London medical world and a display of the physicians’ control over treatments given out in the city. Thus, the print was the visual counterpart of the accompanying Latin text and was less a representation of a building, more a symbol of a learned organisation. Loggan’s engraving of the theatre served as a synecdoche for the institution and for the intellectual calibre of its members. This explains why the print depicts the theatre in isolation from the rest of the city (a feature of the image that was grossly exaggerated in the 1707 French engraving) in spite of its actual site being a cramped urban one in the area of the city north of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In this case, I think, the desire for symbolic clarity in the print outweighed the need for architectural or topographical veracity. In other words: architectural historians beware!

But I don’t mean to suggest that architectural historians should eschew prints. As long as we heed Antony’s warning and always consider the circumstances of a print’s production and their functions beyond the straightforward reproducing of works of art and architecture, then they have much to offer us. In the case of Loggan’s print, it reveals far more about the design history of the building as well as the intellectual aspirations of its patrons and its users than any photograph could.

V0013109 Royal College of Physicians, Warwick Lane, London: the entra

Figure 7: The Anatomy Theatre of the College of Physicians, anonymous engraver after Loggan, 1707 © Wellcome Images.

Matthew Walker BA (Oxford) MA PhD (York) is a Departmental Lecturer in the History of Art Department and a Tutor for St. Peter’s and Worcester Colleges. Matthew’s research concerns architecture and intellectual culture in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Britain. He is currently finishing his first book, Architects, Builders and Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England, and is an editor for the journal Architectural History.

The Print before Photography: ‘The Technology and its Implications’

A student’s review of Antony Griffiths’s first Slade Lecture

By Emily Knight

Abraham Bosse, Intaglio Printing, 1642  © Trustees of the British Museum

Abraham Bosse, Intaglio Printing, 1642 © Trustees of the British Museum

A “tiny backwater sandwiched between…art history and that of printed books”; the European print is the focus of this year’s Slade Lectures by Antony Griffiths. The aim of the series is to provide a framework for understanding and interpreting the European print, not as an early photograph but as a work of art in its own right. As the former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum rightly stated, the European print is little taught at universities, consigning it to the preserve of academics and specialised collectors. This prestigious lecture series will hopefully go some way to addressing this lack in art education and encourage a new generation of scholars to direct their attention more fully to this vital and expansive aspect of European visual culture.

Griffiths began the lecture by giving an overview of the history of printmaking in Europe, referring to the developments of various printing techniques and the commercial aspects of their production. Acknowledging and explaining the complex technical processes and confusing terminology associated with prints, he provided the audience with a necessary and clear introduction to the lecture series. Rather than focusing on the changes that took place in the development of the European print, he has structured his lectures around various continuities drawing examples largely from the British Museum, some which had fittingly been owned by Felix Slade (after whom the Slade Lectures are named).

Antoine Masson, Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as "le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard, 1667.

Antoine Masson, Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as “le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard, 1667. © Trustees of the British Museum

The main body of the lecture centred on the technology of printmaking and the astounding manual dexterity of the most skilful engravers. This was perfectly illustrated by Antoine Masson’s Portrait of Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, known as “le Cadet la Perle”, after Nicolas Mignard. Using close-ups of the print, Griffiths demonstrated the precision of lines and diverse effects made possible by the expert engraver and his burin, contrasting these to the pixilation of digital images. He compellingly argued that no skill has been so completely overlooked in recent art history and it is vital that due attention is paid. Griffiths made a point of distinguishing the techniques of engraving and etching, the latter so often subsumed by the use of ‘engraving’ as an umbrella term. Etching was a more accessible technique available to the gentleman amateur, whereas engraving was a highly skilled and refined technique that required a lengthy apprenticeship.

Despite this, Griffiths interestingly explained how present scholarship favours etching over engraving, the latter having been assimilated with photography due to the fact that engravings were often made after Old Master paintings. This, he persuasively argued, ignores the skill and creativity of engravers. Furthermore, before 1800, when the public had little access to these sorts of paintings, people did not consider engravings as mere substitutes but as works of art in their own right. This has resulted in a complete misrepresentation of the print. It will be intriguing to discover more about the status of the print with regards to debates about originality and copying as the lecture series progresses.

It was fascinating to discover more about the economics of the print business, such as the issue of copper plates wearing down over time, therefore limiting the total number of impressions; an issue which Griffiths will focus on in his third lecture. He also touched upon the personal exchange of prints and it will be interesting to discover how they were circulated outside of the trade.

As Griffiths demonstrated, the complexities of print scholarship – the lack of signatures on prints, the softening of images as the plate wears out, the subtle differences in printing techniques – make it a challenging field for researchers, let alone an unspecialised audience. Griffiths’s erudite, thoughtfully structured and expertly illustrated lecture was a comprehensive and clear introduction to this area of art history. The rest of the lecture series promises to be a rare and fascinating insight, particularly for history of art students, into this overlooked aspect of visual culture.

The next seven lectures in the Slade Lecture Series ‘The Print Before Photography: The European print in the age of the copper plate and wooden block’ given by Antony Griffiths will be taking place in the Andrew Wiles Building in the Mathematical Institute on Wednesdays at 5pm during Hilary Term. For more details please click Slade Lectures 2015.

Antony Griffiths

Antony Griffiths

Emily Knight completed her Masters in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford (2012). She is continuing her postgraduate studies within the History of Art Department working toward her DPhil.