This is a truly amazing room in the basement of the British Museum. Amazing
because ancient statues and sarcophagi are strewn about here like
Christmas decorations would be in someone's attic in the middle of July.
houses the Charles Townley collection of Greek and Roman marbles (mostly
Roman) assembled in the eighteenth century. Townley had bequeathed this
large collection to the Museum a few years before the Elgin Marbles arrived.
When they arrived, the Elgin marbles quickly eclipsed the Townley collection
despite the efforts of well-known connoisseur and Dilettanti member Richard Payne Knight to discredit
This room can be seen to represent the character of the study of classical art
prior to the
Parthenon marbles' arrival, that is, almost wholly based on Roman examples and copies
of Greek originals, which were often quite extensively restored.
Restoration was the
process of attaching newly sculpted portions to replace those broken off since
This sounds bizarre and unscrupulous to modern ears, but was
common practice in the eighteenth century, and nearly happened to the Elgin
Marbles. Luckily, Lord Elgin was in dire financial straits and couldn't
afford the thousands of pounds worth of work that would be required (the fact
that the sculptor Canova told Elgin it would be "sacrilege" for him to touch
these particular pieces helped too, I'm sure).
On the whole, the Townley collection is "less interesting" because of the
extensive (and frequently bad) restoration work done on many of the pieces.
That is why most of these pieces are down in the basement. The better examples
from the Townley collection are in the upstairs galleries.
This is a large granite scarab from the Egyptian galleries, included here
because it, too, is an item from the Elgin collection. When Richard Payne
Knight produced his evaluation of the Elgin collection for the Commons
committee investigating its possible purchase in 1816,
this piece was
valued at £300,
while the Caryatid we saw earlier he estimated worth £200.
had worked tirelessly to discredit both Elgin and his collection in the past,
and when given the opportunity to attach an official price tag to the
collection, he did so in as biased a manner as you might expect.