The Romance of Ruins

Ian Jenkins† and Celeste Farge

In 1764, the antiquary Richard Chandler, architect Nicholas Revett and artist William Pars set off on an expedition to Turkey and Greece, then part of the Ottoman Empire.[1] They were funded by the Society of Dilettanti – an association of wealthy gentlemen and patrons (including most famously Sir William Hamilton, the husband of Lord Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton) who were united by a love of antiquities developed on the Grand Tour. Over two years, Chandler and his associates were to survey and document the ruins of ancient Ionia and Athens. Part of the Greek world from the 8th century BC and ruined in antiquity, the beauty and fame of the Ionian cities lived on in the writings of ancient commentators such as Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) and Strabo (c. 63 BC – AD 23).

The work of Chandler, Revett and Pars is the focus of the new exhibition The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764, running from 19 May 2021 to 5 September 2021 at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The exhibition, produced in partnership with the British Museum, focuses on the powerful and poetic images documenting the expedition by the brilliant young artist William Pars. These works record the Classical ruins encountered in Turkey and Greece, from Troy to Athens, and also the living landscape – its flora and fauna, and the customs, manners and dress of the people, bringing to life extracts from Chandler’s diary account. Included are twenty-one works on paper from the British Museum’s collection, and three volumes from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum. This exhibition is also notable as the final achievement of the late Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator at the British Museum, who died in November 2020.

View of the Acropolis and the temple of Jupiter Olympius; distant view of Acropolis, with the remaining columns of the temple towards the right, in the foreground, a group of Turkish women, some dancing, on the bank of the Ilissus, to the right, part of the wall of an Ionic temple since destroyed (British Museum, MM,11.1).

The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication, edited by Ian Jenkins and Louise Stewart, including a full catalogue by Celeste Forge. Antigone is delighted to publish here an excerpt from the exhibition catalogue. The entry begins with Chandler’s description (in the journal he published in 1776 as Travels in Greece, pp.58–64) of the Parthenon as it appeared during his stay in 1765–6 and as depicted in Pars’s watercolour.

Eastern Portico of the Parthenon (British Museum, Mm,11.5).

The parthenon remained entire for many ages after it was deprived of the goddess. The Christians converted it into a church and the Mahometans into a mosque… The Venetians, under Koningsmark, when they besieged the acropolis in 1687, threw a bomb, which demolished the roof, and, setting fire to some powder, did much damage to the fabric. The floor, which is indented, still witnessed the place of its fall. This was the sad forerunner of farther destruction; the Turks breaking the stones, and applying them to the building of a new mosque, which stands within the ruin, or to the repairing of their houses and the walls of the fortress. The vast pile of ponderous materials, which lay ready, is greatly diminished; and the whole structure will gradually be consumed and disappear… It is not easy to conceive a more striking object than the Parthenon, though now a mere ruin. The columns within the naos have all been removed, but on the floor may be seen the circles, which directed the workmen in placing them; and, at the farther end [at the end next the pronaos], is a groove across it, as for one of the partitions of the cell [a balustrade or screen]. The recess erected by the Christians, is demolished, and from the rubbish of the ceiling the Turkish boys collect bits of the mosaic, of different colours, which composed the picture. We were told at Smyrna, that this substance had taken a polish, and been set in buckles. The cell is about half demolished; and in the columns which surrounded it is a large gap near the middle. On the walls are some traces of the paintings. Before the portico is a reservoir, sunk in the rock, to supply the Turks with water for the purifications customary on entering their mosques. In it, on the left hand [right hand entering from the west of the temple], is the rubbish of the pile, erected to supply the place of a column; and, on the right, a staircase, which leads out on the architrave, and has a marble or two with inscriptions, but worn so as not to be legible. It belonged to the minaret, which has been destroyed.

It is to be regretted that so much admirable sculpture, as is still extant about this fabric, should be all likely to perish, as it were immaturely, from ignorant contempt and brutal violence. Numerous carved stones have disappeared; and many, lying in the ruinous heaps, moved our indignation at the barbarism daily exercised in defacing them

The marquis de Nointell, ambassador from France to the Porte in the year 1672, employed a painter to delineate the frieze; but his sketches, the labour of a couple of months, must have been very imperfect, being made from beneath, without scaffolding, his eyes straining upwards. Mr Pars devoted a much longer time to his work, which he executed with diligence, fidelity, and courage. His post was generally on the architrave of the colonnade, many feet from the ground, where he was exposed to guests of wind, and to accidents in passing to and fro. Several of the Turks murmured, and some threatened, because he overlooked their houses; obliging them to confine or remove the women, to prevent their being seen from that exalted station.

His description and Pars’s artwork document the condition of the Athenian acropolis in the eighteenth century. They also attest to the dedication and passion of these early investigators, who worked not only to document the surviving antiquities but also to promote the importance of these artworks and to highlight the urgent need for their preservation.

This unfinished watercolour shows the Parthenon surrounded by the houses of the Turkish garrison, a view almost unimaginable to us today. The small mosque visible inside the ruins at the eastern end of the temple had been erected around 1700. Before the explosion of 1687, which destroyed the roof and much of the sculpture, the Parthenon had been described by George Spon and Jacob Wheler as the finest mosque in the world, having been converted from a temple into a church prior to becoming a mosque.

Carrey’s sketch of the West Pediment (south side), 1674 (British Museum).

Pars was not the first to draw the Parthenon sculptures. Jacques Carrey, an artist in the retinue of the Marquis de Nointel, French ambassador to the Ottoman court, drew almost all the surviving sculptures in 1674. The importance of Carrey’s drawings lies in the fact that they record the sculptures before the Venetian bombardment of the Acropolis and the explosion caused by a missile which destroyed over half of them, rather than in the detail of the sculptures themselves – for he was drawing them from the ground and looking up at them at a distance of 12 metres.

View of the Propylaea from the south-west corner of the second bastion (British Museum, MM,11.3).

Pars was employed for two months drawing the Parthenon sculptures. The results are remarkable in part because he was the first person to climb up on the temple to examine and draw the sculptures at close quarters and also because what he produced was reasonably accurate. Pars carefully recorded which parts of the frieze were damaged and, being such an accomplished artist, managed to capture the sculptures in a way that had never been done before. Just about visible in this drawing, high up on the north architrave, is a seated figure, presumably Pars himself – a testament to his courage and dedication.

The Theatre at Miletus with the party crossing in a ferry; one horse and rider, evidently Richard Chandler, is already embarked, to left Nicholas Revett and William Pars, still mounted, are attempting to board, to right in distance ruins with mountains beyond (British Museum, MM,11.63). 

Two volumes of original drawings were presented to the British Museum by the Society of Dilettanti in 1800. One contained the architectural drawings prepared by Revett, the other the landscape and sculpture drawings by William Pars. In addition to these, there was once a volume of Pars’ drawings of the Parthenon frieze (later sadly destroyed by fire). These were the drawings that Goethe himself had seen while in residence in Rome in the 1780s. They led him to predict the impact these works would have on our understanding of Greek art. Known by many initially only through engravings after Pars, the Parthenon sculptures became widely acknowledged as masterpieces. This image thus sums up perfectly the impact the Ionian expedition would have on our understanding of Greek art and archaeology.

Ruin near the Port of Aegina – the Temple of Apollo on the Island of Aegina; two standing fluted columns supporting remains of entablature to left, with shore line in foreground where two figures sit, islands in distance. (British Museum, MM,11.10). 

Celeste Farge is a curator in the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum. Ian Jenkins was Senior Curator of the Greek section at the British Museum until his death in 2020.


1 For a summary of the ‘search’ for Troy in this period, see our companion article here.