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Exhibition: The Romance of Ruins – The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764 (Sir John Soane’s Museum)

Image: Struan Bates.

I chanced upon the Soane Museum’s The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764 exhibition when researching Nicholas Revett’s will. I’m glad I caught it, as it brought home the lengths to which a generation of eighteenth-century architects, explorers, artists and other dilettantes went to establish an academic school of classicism that ushered in the Greek Revival.

Map of the journey. Image: Struan Bates.

The display over a series of rooms follows the journey of Revett, antiquary Richard Chandler and artist William Pars across Greece and Ionia on a trip funded by the Society of Dilettanti, Watercolours by Pars depict the other two men measuring ruins and interacting with the locals, and are similarly valuable as records of the state of important archaeological sites as they appeared at the time.

Image: Struan Bates.

It’s the first time Pars’ pictures of the expedition have been drawn together. Revett and Chandler’s sprightly industry springs from the watercolours as they beaver away on columns and cornices under Pars’ somewhat milky Aegean light.

Revett taking measurements. Image: Struan Bates.

Video from Sir John Soane’s Museum introducing the exhibition.
Image: Struan Bates.

Particularly striking, too, are the depictions of the guides, translators and local men, seemingly indifferent to the important structures they lounge on – scenes that pose questions about Western interpretations of Ottoman culture at the time.

Soane’s personal copy of Ionian Antiquities. Image: Struan Bates.

The men’s illustrated accounts of the expedition were published in 1769 (Ionian Antiquities) and 1797 (Antiquities of Ionia), with Chandler publishing his diaries of the trip from 1775.

Image: Struan Bates.

The exhibition is also accompanied by an excellent hardback catalogue, featuring all of Pars’ watercolours, background and timeline of the expedition and a series of essays by eminent scholars. Highly recommended.

Image: Struan Bates.
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