Masters And Champions Classical Greece: 300 Years of British Inspiration

August 2012

Publication: The Times

Despite its rather dense title this modestly-sized show of ancient Greek artefacts and 18th and 19th century British art provides an accessible and deftly-themed in-road into two historical periods which many, up till now, may have found dull and uninspiring.

 

Masters and Champions unashamedly uses the presence of the current Olympic fervour as a link to its own agendas. The first is to demonstrate the idea of mimesis and the importance of natural beauty to the Greek craftsmen, architects and artists who were involved in the construction and decoration of the Parthenon. The second, hinted at in the title, is the complex historical involvement of various British ambassadors, artists and architects – over a protracted period – in Greek affairs, especially those linked to its ancient historical past.

 

There is no doubting that the curator of this show and founding director of the Moray Arts Centre, Randy Klinger, is a man of vision, energy, ingenuity and passion. He is also a classically trained artist whose drawings resonate with the kind of anatomical observation that used to form the basic training in our art schools. The rush to preserve the remaining classical casts at Edinburgh and Glasgow demonstrates the relevance of Klinger’s belief that the classical notion of beauty (καλός – kalós) is of lasting importance and contemporary relevance.

 

Hippias Major was one of the early Platonic dialogues. In it Socrates and the eponymous character Hippias discuss the various meanings of ‘beauty’. These extend to the female form, gold, horses, vases and the famous statue of Athena, adorned in ivory and gold, in the Parthenon – the temple to the goddess.

 

The ancient Greeks therefore held both the human form and the horse in high esteem for a series of complex reasons. This show, although small in scale, highlights some the complexity of Greek thought and the achievement of Greek artists by focussing on the horse and the human body. It shows that the highly developed art of ancient Greece was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a wider culture which lasted little more than two centuries. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were surely parallel occurrences.

 

In Scotland the Enlightenment – which placed 'reason' above all else as a form of intellectual pursuit – found its inspiration in ancient Greece. Such was the background and the passionate motivation of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who was appointed in 1799 as British Ambassador to the Court of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III. Elgin was inspired by the activities of his friend Sir William Hamilton, diplomat and connoisseur whose collection of Greek and other antiquities bolstered the British Museum when it was acquired in 1772.

 

Bruce first visited Athens in 1802 and witnessed at first hand the on-going deterioration of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis.  Armed with a carnet  which allowed him free movement in the Ottoman empire, Bruce set about purchasing, dismantling and transporting sections of the Parthenon frieze including metopes (sculptures from the inner area above the second grouping of columns)

 

While none of these actual objects (commonly referred to as ‘The Elgin Marbles’) are to be seen here, there are a number of drawings from the collection of the current Lord Elgin’s collection, held at the ancestral home, Broomhall House, Charleston near Dunfermline. These are casts and drawings made in Athens for the 7th Earl at the time of their acquisition. Most of these drawings were from the west side of the Parthenon and most of the original friezes remained on the building until the beginning of a major restoration project by the Greek government in the early 1990s.

 

Although the artist, Paisley-born John Henning (1771-1851), who had been commissioned by the 7th Earl to record the frieze was a consummate draughtsman, his skill, while considerable, does not match the articulate vivacity of the original artists who created these representations of Athenian processions two-and-a-half millennia ago.

 

What is pertinent, exciting and strangely mesmeric is the link of living history between the current Earl and his adventurous and single-minded ancestor. Although fraught with political argument about imperialism, cultural ownership and national arrogance no one can deny the legitimacy and charm of these drawings.