01 July 2008

The Lure of the East

James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra
by Gavin Hamilton, 1758 (Oil on canvas, 3.1 x 3.9 m [12'x 16'])

I had not intended to write about the exhibition, The Lure of the East now on at Tate Britain. I confess to having no special insight into how British painters represented the people and places of the disintegrating Ottoman empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But David Derrick of The Toynbee convector directly challenged me to say something about this extraordinary huge painting (left)* and I'll try to rise to the occasion.

I shall be frank. I have not seen The Lure of the East nor have I ever seen this painting by Gavin Hamilton in the flesh.* To comment on art you haven't seen is rather like reviewing a book you haven't read.

Although -- come to think of it -- Oscar Wilde (the patron saint of non-readers) recommended six minutes as the proper time to spend reading a book for review. Having examined this reproduction for rather more than six minutes, I expect that I'm now well qualified to comment on it.

Lurid Orientalism

The burning question in 'Lure of the East' is whether the painters who were lured east faithfully represented the people, cities and landscapes they encountered -- or reflected, as Edward Said argued in his influential work Orientalism, a quest for Western superiority and control over them:
Orientalism is a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, "them").
A colonialist mind views the East as 'mysterious'. Presumably, despite new railroads and steamships, artists should have stayed at home, portraying the 'unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible' at English fox hunts. Or, if they did travel east, painted the people with sympathy, as if they were British under the skin. Fascination = phooey! On the other hand, it does not do to be too faithful to the subject: an essay in the catalogue roundly condemns the Brits as "content to paint a static world of exquisite surface" (Rana Kabbani). I suspect it's the word static that convicts them of Orientalism.

Yet I find it hard to find much in the way of imperial disdain in these detailed, dreamy, lazy, hazy,and colourful portrayals of mosques, markets, domestic life, and bustling coffee houses.

Certainly, even the most offensive British Orientalists were never as base as their French counterparts. Some of the French painters really did turn the East into 'the Other'. The first and greatest age of Orientalism in art began around the time of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and peaked as the Romantic Movement swept through Europe. Full-blooded French painters, needless to say, often depicted the East as a place given to sexual excess, wanton cruelty, mass murder and unbridled sensuality.

Tut tut. British Orientalist Painting was very different.

You won't find a single British painting at Tate Britain showing a massacre, a beheading or a naked slave girl.

There are many reviews of the Lure of the East on the web.** Almost none, however, noticed the oddity of placing the Neoclassical artist Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) -- and his painting of the 'discovery' of Palmyra -- within a show essentially dedicated to Orientalism. Decidedly earlier in date, he was entirely uninterested in the Ottoman Empire, the Bible lands or Egypt.

La Dolce Vita

He spent most of his life in Rome and never seemed tempted to venture eastwards. He visited the main sites of Italy, especially Pompeii and Herculaneum, and did a lot of deplorable digging up of antiquities in and around Rome, the results of which inspired the Neoclassical movement.
As an art dealer and archaeologist he undertook excavations at Hadrian's Villa in 1771, at first occasioned by the need of marble for his sculptor to restore sculptures. His excavators reopened the outlet of a low-lying swampy area and "after some weeks' work by lamp-light and up to the knees in muddy water" retrieved sculptures from the where they had been thrown with timber when the sacred grove was levelled.
Hamilton was permitted to excavate (or loot, if you prefer) by the Vatican -- which claimed one-third of the excavated works -- and lived well by selling many of his discovered statues, busts, and bas reliefs to British collectors.

Whether his own art brought the ancient world to life, or killed it dead, is a matter of taste. But there's no doubt about how he painted:
being perfectly familiar with the works of the great masters of Grecian and Roman literature, he displayed a highly classic taste in the choice of his subjects; and the style at which he always and successfully aimed, made him at least equal to his most celebrated contemporaries.

Hamilton's paintings provided patrons with illustrations of Homeric subjects treated in a stern and moral manner. For example, his Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector (click for a better image),the first of his large Homeric canvases (1761) of scenes taken from the Illiad, is built up of ranks of figures strictly parallel to the picture plane. The figures, overly eloquent in their restraint and absurdly noble in their form (in some cases derived directly from antique statues), gather round the bed of the dead hero rather as you would expect on a Roman sarcophagus. The subject is Greek, but the source of its style is seventeenth-century classicism. It is an interesting sidelight on Neoclassicism that an artist who had so much opportunity for examining newly found Greek and Roman antiquities tried in no way to break away from it.

His portraits, however, were a good deal fresher. And they certainly made a change from the oppressively hieratic, classical frieze composition of his history paintings. He painted the notorious, delicious Emma Hamilton (her husband, the English consul in Naples, perhaps a distant relative)^ as the goddess Hebe in a new 3/4 pose. This caused a craze in England where the goddess of youth and beauty and cup-bearer to the gods became the ultimate disguise for fashionable society portraits. Although Hebe is the personification of domesticity, there are erotic possibilities in the menacing eagle (Jupiter). That may explain why he painted her scandalously bare-breasted.

So we may add a grain of salt to the life of Hamilton, as told by Significant Scots , the paragon painter who
studied the chaste models of antiquity with more attention than the living figures around him; which has given his paintings of ancient histories that propriety with regard to costume, which distinguished them, at the time from most modern compositions.

Palmyra Ho!

In 1750-1753, Robert Wood and his friends James Dawkins and John Bouverie travelled to Syria:
A ship had been commissioned from London and met them at Naples. It was well stocked with a library of classical authors and historians, the relevant travel books, treatises of antiquities, and mathematical instruments; and they were accompanied by their own draughtsman.
The 'draughtsman' was the Italian artist and architect Giovanni Battista Borra, whose task was to measure and draw the ancient ruins. Gentlemen did not draw columns but copied inscriptions instead.

They arrived at Palmyra in 1751. Though not the first Europeans to reach the city, their timing was perfect: artistic style and refined taste was increasingly influenced by the classical ideal. The publication of their magnificent folio volume in 1753, The Ruins of Palmyra, contained templates for a new classicism in architecture that resulted in buildings in many parts of Europe being adorned with antique decorative motifs copied from Palmyra. The engravings became valuable sources for the emerging neoclassicism of the late 18th century and cemented the notion of ‘Palmyra' in Western minds.

From Wood's Preface:


We visited most of the island of the Archipelago, part of the Asiatick and European coasts of the Hellespont, Propontis, and Bosphorus, as far as the Black-sea, most of the inland parts of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenecia, Palestine and Egypt.

The various countries we went through, furnish, no doubt, much entertainment of different sorts. But however we might each of us have some favourite curiosity to indulge, what engaged our greatest attention was rather their antient than present state. It is impossible to consider with indifference those countries which gave birth to letters and arts, where soldiers, orators, philosophers, poets, and artists have shewn the boldest and happiest flights of genius, and done the greatest honour to human nature.

Circumstances of climate and situation, otherwise trivial, become interesting from that connection with great men, and great actions, which history and poetry have given them: The life of Miltiades or Leonidas could never be read with so much pleasure, as on the banks of Marathon or at the streights of Thermopylae; the Iliad has new beauties on the banks of the Scamander, and the Odyssey is the most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses travelled and Homer sung.

John Bouverie, who had funded the trip, died on the voyage. Dawkins, who was also very wealthy, paid for the folio volume but was too much the gentleman to put his name on it. So Robert Wood alone published Palmyra , becoming famous as 'Palmyra Wood': at about 36 years of age, his reputation was
high and praise was unanimous.

Much less fuss was made about Giovanni Battista Borra (1712-1786) who actually drew the monuments and prepared the engravings for publication, So, rather than condemn Wood & Dawkins as proto-Orientalists, I see them as snobby elitists who didn't give proper credit to the hired help. Nor did Hamilton: Borra is left out of his painting entirely.

What did Wood think of Palmyra?

Although it's all the rage today to view people of earlier times according to our own modern, enlightened constructs, I cannot help but wonder what Robert 'Palmyra' Wood thought he was doing. Why did he go to Palmyra? What did he learn from it?

Wood, though not a professional scholar, was a student of ancient history, sharing with his more famous contemporary Edward Gibbon an interest in the rise and fall of great nations. For Wood, it was the traveller's duty to analyse the forces which led to the rise and fall of past civilizations, rather than simply describe the splendour of their monuments. Despite its splendid engravings, therefore, Wood's book is less significant for its description of Palmyra's ruins than for its prophecies with regard to Great Britain.^^

Palmyra as a portent of the future of Britain.

According to Wood, Palmyra achieved a high level of civilization as a result of its own unaided efforts -- as did England--- rather than through contact with supposedly superior cultures. There were many parallels, he wrote. Just as the sea contributed to Britain's "riches and defence," so the desert had contributed to Palmyra's: both states profited from their strategic position in terms of commerce and their ability to ward off potential invaders.

Palmyra had prospered as a result of its independence from surrounding nations and only declined after it had become a tributary of Rome. This dependence sapped their morale and weakened their resolve. There was a lesson here for his own country.

Like Palmyra, too, during the time of its greatness, Britain was blessed with a form of government that was essentially sound [Wood later became a politician,
serving as under-secretary to Prime Minister William Pitt from 1756 until 1763 and was secretary to the Treasury during the administration of Lord Bute, 1762-1763]. Nevertheless, Wood argued, if Britain fell victim to the dissensions of the age, it might suffer the fate of Palmyra, and he warned his fellow countrymen that they should not allow the pressure of the moment to pervert the noble simplicity of their constitution.

Wood believed that once a great civilization had established itself, it was unlikely to die. Palmyra, he imagined, could still regain its past glory, since the basic conditions that had promoted its rise to power were still present: the caravan trade and the desert.

That was a little too optimistic: today most of the traffic flowing toward Palmyra is composed of bus loads of tourists who come to view its ruins. Wood would not have been amused. He took his ancient ruins seriously.

Modern historians wouldn't judge his analysis an alpha effort, but Wood was an 18th-century gentleman of modest birth and varied talents, whose Palmyra nonetheless made a profound impression on his contemporaries.

He does not appear to have had a hidden imperial agenda.

No more did Gavin Hamilton.

In 1758, Henry Dawkins (James' father?) of Standlynch, Wiltshire and Overnoxton Park, Oxon, commissioned a painting from Hamilton to commemorate the discovery of Palmyra. The work remained in the Dawkins family until 1954, when it was given to the National Gallery of Scotland partially in lieu of taxes.

The line between moralizing and sentimentality is always a thin one in Neoclassicism and seldom thinner than in Dawkins and Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra. However striking the rosy background ruins, the overall effect is decidedly silly.

I'll give the last word to Brian Sewell, the trenchant art critic of the Evening Standard, from his headline review, Lost in the East at the Tate Britain:

The biggest picture in the exhibition is Gavin Hamilton's James Dawkins and Robert Wood discovering the Ruins of Palmyra, of 1758 — 12 square metres of inflated nonsense, the discoverers dressed in togas of a kind that no ancient Roman ever wore, flanked by sub-Van Dyckian servants in a far from Dyckian disorder, clad in costumes borrowed from an Adoration of the Magi, the classical and baroque references confused, the ancestral composition fractured, the whole monstrosity irrelevant to the history of Orientalism.

* I am most grateful to Tate Britain for providing me with this excellent reproduction.

** An excellent review by Rachel Aspden in the New Statesman and another by Brian Sewell [cited above].

^ The story of Lady Hamilton, her antiquity-loving husband, and her passionate affair with Admiral Lord Nelson, is superbly told in Susan Sontag's historical novel, The Volcano Lover: a romance. Another portrait of Emma Hamilton by Gavin Hamilton, can be found here.

^^I am indebted to John Munro (American University of Beirut) for this discussion of the moral lessons that Wood sought at Palmyra.


  1. Westerners looked towards the East for the mysterious, and for escapes, and Easterners looked to the West for these same reasons. The question is: What did those who live in the middle regard as the direction of mystery, and where to did they escape when they wanted to get away from everything known?

  2. Sophist, is anyone ever in the 'middle' in their own opinion?

  3. I recently came across this picture of Io by John Hoppner, which is also alleged to be a portrait of Lady Hamilton.

  4. Good heavens, Bingley, that's no heifer! A rather good painting, though, and "blatantly erotic". Would the wife of the British Consul in Naples have dared?

  5. >>is anyone ever in the 'middle' in their own opinion?<<

    China, aka The Middle Kingdom/Country? I'm not sure where they located/locate the exotic 'other', though.

  6. I was about to say China, too - and as far as I know, the court at Chang-an or Beijing considered its Empire to stretch to every corner of the world, with slowly decreasing influence over ever-more barbaric outsiders. Of course, I can't put any dates on that, so it's quite likely to be an Orientalist construction.

    My question, though, is was Palmyra the Orient? It seems like Classical Palmyra was very much part of the narrative of the "birth of the West," and it's classical Palmyra they're discovering, not 18th century Ottoman Syria. It makes me wonder where the Orient began, for British people thinking in a classical mode. Egypt? Nabataea? Not, I think, Ephesus, for all that it was in the Ottoman heartland.

    Writing this, it occurs to me that you might have very deliberately skirted this question - avoided coming right out and saying that it's not Orientalism because it's not the Orient... perhaps because it's so difficult to draw the border?

  7. Logos Bible Software has recently made Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, Part 1 (Vols. 1–18) available for pre-order. It sounds like something you might be interested in.



  8. 'Middle Kingdom' my foot! :-)

    This is a misleading translation. How about 'Central Kingdom' or simply smack in the Middle of the World. The Chinese never thought of themselves as 'middle' in the sense of between or betwixt, but as the Centre, with lesser kinglets and breeds rotating around them, like so many satellites.

    Richard, that's one the keys to Orientalism, not to be interested in the ignorant peasants who actually inhabit the place but in its glorious (Graeco-Roman = Western) past. On the other hand, if you're searching for your roots, what harm is done? On the third hand, what if you demolish the scruffy Arab huts (as the French did) so you can better enjoy the Temple of Bel?

    It's never simple.

    And, of course, how the Palmyrans may have viewed themselves is another question entirely. East of Rome? West of the Euphrates? We haven't a clue. Fergus Millar wrote a wonderful book on this very question, The Roman Near East and had to conclude that we don't know where the people of Syria or Mesopotamia (other than a tiny elite) would have placed themselves.

  9. that's one the keys to Orientalism, not to be interested in the ignorant peasants who actually inhabit the place but in its glorious (Graeco-Roman = Western) past.

    Yes, good point - and that, I suppose, is what makes it an Orientalist painting: littered with colourful Orientals, whose function it is to point to the noble (European) past. Although it makes me wonder if then the whole discipline of archaeology is inextricably Orientalist in conception: why be interested in and identify with dead folks when living ones are right here?

    As a side note, love the red elf boots. What do they tell us, in the richly symbol-laden language of neoclassical painting, I wonder?

  10. Perhaps you should look at Hamilton's "Palmyra" again and try to remove the thoughts of the occidentalist, Said from your mind as you do so.

    Perhaps then you would see two Europeans clad in Romanesque robes, one with his finger outstretched like Adam receiving the spark of life, to himself receive the spark of enlightenment from a Greco-Roman past, and the only source of light in the painting.

    The Europeans in the picture were guided there by Arabs, reflecting the manner in which Greek philosophy was transferred to Europe via Islamic Spain and along with it Persian medicine and mathematics.

    In doing so, the Arab guides triggered the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and we finally contemplated the thoughts begun by the Mut'azilah seven hundred years earlier.

    Misunderstanding "the other' is not in the sole ownership of the west, or as the East called us for a thousand years, the Franks. For every orientalist there is an equal and opposite occidentalist.

  11. GMS wrote: "For every orientalist there is an equal and opposite occidentalist."



Blog Archive