'Most Capital in Its Kind': Further Observations on Dr Richard Mead's 'Head of Homer'
Brown, Iain Gordon, British Art Journal
A recent article in this journal (The British Art Journal, IX, 2, Autumn 2008) anticipated a piece that I myself had long been intending to write on the British Museum's celebrated Arundel Homer' (Pl 1). But whereas I could not have matched the learning Robert Harding shows in tracing this superb piece of sculpture though the earliest literature to mention it, which enterprising research almost certainly accords the head an Asia Minor provenance (Smyrna) and a Macedonian identity (Philip V or his son Perseus), I could have offered some additional literary and iconographic references which Harding either does not know, or chooses to omit or overlook. It may be, therefore, that there is scope for the present supplementary note on a work of art that was very famous among connoisseurs when it was in the hands of celebrated British collectors (Arundel, Stafford, Mead) and one which has remained so since entering the public domain and which still exerts a powerful hold on the viewer. Whether the traditional 'head of Homer', or the 'head of Sophokles' that it has more recently been called (and as it is currently labelled in the British Museum), or just the 'head of a Greek poet' as it has also more loosely been designated, or now that of 'a certain Macedonian king' (as Harding has restored the identification first vouchsafed in 1632 by John Johnstone), the British Museum sells it in modern resin replica, and so commercially it is deemed both viable and desirable. Undeniably it is a superb work of Hellenistic art.
In the remarkable Preface to his Itinerarium Septentrionale of 1726, Alexander Gordon, a Scottish opera-singer turned antiquary, drawing-master, teacher of Italian and general cultural gadabout in London, devoted some time and many elegant sentences to singing the praises of England (and London in particular) as Apollo's favourite residence': in other words, to an Augustan England with the wealth and taste to permit and encourage the collecting of art (of all kinds) and antiquity on a gargantuan scale in every field. On the sixth page of what amounts to a paean of praise to the English as collectors, Gordon unites particular men with particular categories of objects of art and virtu, highlighting even specific single works of art and linking them with praise of their owners' taste. Among a mere handful of these works, assessed by Gordon as 'most capital in their Kind', is 'Doctor Mead's Head of Homer'. The sculpture is thus established as an icon of contemporary British taste and collecting.
Gordon's patron during the compilation of his book (which, despite its preface, is actually devoted to the Roman and other antiquities of Scotland and Northern England) was Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, 2nd Baronet, whom Gordon lauded as owner of the most significant assemblage of such treasures in private hands in Scotland. Doubtless Gordon's preface, so enthusiastic for the glories of English collecting, will have had its effects upon Sir John. In 1727 Clerk enjoyed a spring cultural season in London, during which he made the round of all the great private collections and met the leading virtuosi of the day at their town houses or suburban seats, or in the company of fellow enthusiasts at the Royal and Antiquarian Societies. (1) Mead was naturally a prime target in Clerk's view, although he was to see Mead's collections some years before Gibbs's purpose-built gallery was constructed to house the books and much of the sculpture, ancient and modern. (2) On 13 May he visited the house at 49 Great Ormond Street which contained one of the largest, finest and most varied collections in London. In his journal Clerk described his visit to Dr Mead, '... who is a very. famouse physitian & very curious in all his collections of books, statues, medals, pictures and drawings'. Clerk appeared almost overwhelmed by the magnitude and variety of his collection and seemed not to know what to describe first or most, except for the certainty that one object stood out from the mass.
He has nothing that may be called common, but what exceeds every thing in his possession is a head of Homer in Bronze. This is indeed very fine & seems to be the same it is taken for, viz. the head of a statue of Homer which was burnt off at the conflagration in Constantinople where Justinian's palace was destroyed. This seems very' probable from a passage in Cedrenus a bizantine Historian where there is a description of this statue which exactly answers the figure of this, besides, all the marks of fire are very visible about the neck of this statue. (3)
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In citing Georgios Kedrenos (Cedrenus) Clerk may not have been quite as learned as he appears, for the information about this obscure source was available in the legend below the frontispiece in the first edition of Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Odyssey, published in 1725. This edition of the work in question does not appear to have been in Clerk's library (though later editions were); but his journal further reveals that on the occasion of his visit to Great Ormond Street Mead gave him a copy of 'this head from a Coper plate': this quite possibly was a specimen of the Vertue engraving that illustrates the Pope Odyssey and which will be discussed in greater detail below. Alternatively, and perhaps more probably, it is likely to have been a copy of the large and fine plate by Bernard Baron (Pl 8) after a drawing by Wood, of which image also more will be said hereafter. But be that as it may, Sir John's account makes clear the contemporary identification of the head as that of Homer, and furthermore the belief that it came from a lost statue, to the existence of which, in a certain place at a certain time, historical evidence stood witness.
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One of Clerk's English antiquarian associates was William Stukeley. On his return journey from London Clerk called on him at Grantham. There Stukeley sketched Clerk. It is certain that the two men will also have discussed the collectors and collections that the Scotsman had just seen during his sojourn in London and on the expeditions Clerk had made to country seats in the south of England that spring, notably to Lord Pembroke's Wilton where Stukeley himself had, over the preceding years, been a regular visitor, and illustrator and effectively cataloguer of the earl's important classical sculpture, coins and pictures. Many of Stukeley's drawings of the antiquities at Wilton, Wiltshire, are preserved (along with drawings of other aristocratic collections such as that at the Pomfret seat of Easton Neston, Northamptonshire) in a volume in the Bodleian Library, MS. Top. Wilts. c.4. Here, on ff. 75 and 79, are two drawings by Stukeley of the head of Homer. These are not by Vertue, as Harding asserts) Stukeley's distinctive draughtsmanship is unquestionable. Harding does not tell us that this volume also contains (f. 80) Stukeley's conjectural reconstruction of the entire statue of 'Homer', which is signed 'ex" idea pinxit WS.'. The caption to this drawing reads: 'Homerus cogitabundus in aere fusus incendio Constantino politano consurnptus, salvo capite quod apud R. Mead M.D. reslat (ut putantur)', these last two words being added later than the rest of the inscription.
Stukeley's drawings of the head are elated 1724. They are probably the earliest visual records of the head after it entered the Mead collection in 1720. (5) At Stamford three years later (although it is possible, if unlikely, that Stukeley may have sent them to Clerk at some time subsequent to their meeting) Stukeley seems to have given to Clerk another drawing of the Mead Homer. Among unsorted and uncatalogued prints and drawings in the charter mom at Penicuik House, Midlothian, I found a sketch (Pl 2) signed 'W.S' and clearly in Stukeley's hand of the sculpture, this being entitled in Sir John's equally distinctive hand 'Scetch after Doctor Mead's Head of Homer'. The head is shown attached to a togate bust, itself supported on a plain square plinth inscribed ' OMHPOC'.
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Stukeley's sketch of the Homer as given to Clerk resembles (though in reverse) the engraving by Vertue published as the frontispiece to the first volume of Pope's translation of The Odyssey of Homer (London: Bernard Lintot, 1725) (Pl 3). (6) Vertue's engraving is the first 'public' illustration of the head. Before it entered Mead's collection it was presumably not so accessible to artists or scholars. Mead encouraged both. Indeed, as Harding (rightly, I think) observes, the head seems to have acquired its 'Homeric' identity only about the time, or shortly after, it became Mead's property The new owner presumably allowed more liberal access to the sculpture. It may well be that imagination then took over, and joined with familiarity to produce the name by which it became so celebrated, the process being indicative of the contemporary desire of learned (or would-be learned) men to surround themselves with busts and other images of great men of literature and virtue.
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Pope's more famous translation of The Iliad of Homer (1715-20) had carried as frontispiece to the first volume (published by Lintot in 1715, P1 4) an engraving by Vertue of the marble bust of the blind Homer in the Farnese collection, then in Rome but now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (inv. no. 6023). (7) This engraving is apparently after a drawing by Charles Jervas. (8) Comparison of the two sculptures illustrating the Pope translations does help to demonstrate how the two heads might just be thought to represent the same character, or (to put the matter another way) that the Mead head might be considered to represent the ancient author's presumed features as these were to be recognised from the Farnese bust which itself had long offered the most distinctive image of the poet, albeit the bind eyes of the Farnese bust look upwards as if in search of afflatus, whereas the Mead portrait actually looks downwards or straight ahead, this being due to its origin as part of a full-size statue, and in all probability one of a human being rather than a semi-mythical, divinely inspired poet. (9) Vertue's engraving of the Farnese bust bears the inscription 'OMHPOC' across the folds of the poet's chiton, lettering not in fact present on the Farnese bust and presumably added to give verisimilitude and 'identity' to Vertue's plate. This feature links the renditions by Stukeley (as wash drawings) and by Vertue (as an engraving) of both the Mead and Farnese sculptures. Surely the placing of the name by Stukeley on his representations of Dr Mead's portrait head is the result of the artist's prior knowledge of the Vertue image of the 'rival' bust.
Vertue's plate in the 1725 Odyssey shows the ancient head mounted on (presumably modern) draped shoulders, the bust thus formed being on a shaped socle of traditional type. The jagged, 'erased' (in heraldic terms) neck is clearly shown joined to the shoulders. There must be some doubt whether the head as displayed in Mead's library was so mounted. The Stukeley and Vertue illustrations suggest that this was so, but this may simply be stylistic convention and something perceived as more attractive to the viewer of the images. The head features in the Allan Ramsay portrait of Mead in the National Portrait Gallery, looming out of the background over Mead's right shoulder and balancing a classical statue on Mead's left , and it does not appear to have the later additions (supposing these to have existed) recorded by Stukeley and Vertue. (10) That Mead chose to have this accessory in his own portrait is surely significant. If the statue of (presumably) Aesculapius--probably a studio prop, as it were, introduced for effect, since Mead is not known to have owned such a sculpture (11)--alluded to Mead's professional calling, the head of Homer must represent the other side of Mead's existence, namely as scholar and collector. It was also, in contrast to the Aesculapius', the real thing, namely the sitter's actual property. In this case it also must earn its place on account of its perceived quality as a work of art, not merely as a representation of a 'great man' which had for long been the criterion for the placing of casts or busts of classical authors and the like in libraries and cabinets, where such things were 'valued more because they represented great men ... than because they reproduced works of art.' (12)
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Mead had a penchant for sitting for his portrait with a Classical bust as an accessory in the background. This he did at least three times. If Samuel Johnson famously said that Mead 'lived more in the sunshine of life than almost any man', (13) it is as if those busts--positioned always to his side and in two cases slightly above his own eye level--functioned as his 'sun', being as they were allusive to his learning, his cultivated mind and his role as collector on an heroic scale. Earlier portraits of Mead dating probably from before about 1720 show him with an unidentified bust of an ancient personality. That included in the portrait of Mead by Michael Dahl in a private collection may just possibly be the head of Homer, (14) but the anonymous engraved portrait (National Portrait Gallery, D5243) after an oil by an unknown painter includes a bust that is certainly not the Homer but which may possibly be intended to be his Theophrastos, a bust which Mead had bought from the Massimi collection in Rome and which later had the distinction of becoming a Grand Tour trophy in reverse when Cardinal Albani acquired it on Mead's death and shipped it back to Rome again. (15) By the time that Mead sat to Ramsay in 1740 (NPG 15) the head of Homer, clearly Mead's pride and joy, had displaced any other bust in his possession as a 'must-have' accessory for a new portrait.
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The title-page ornament of the first volume of the 1725 edition of Pope's Odyssey is an engraving by Paul Fourdrinier after William Kent (Pls 5, 6). This allegorical composition features a figure (that on the right) which is presumably meant to represent Homer--he carries a book--and Homer indeed being illuminated and inspired by the shafts of divine light emanating from the figure of a god-like Achilles rising from a sarcophagus. (The Greek of the inscription on the sarcophagus is peculiar, with the letter-forms being ignorantly cut and mixed with Roman.) The head of this figure is that of the Richard Mead sculpture, as is clear when one compares the engravings (this, and the Vertue frontispiece) across the two open pages of the book. The head of the Kent / Fourdriner figure of the title-page decoration is itself quite different from the head of Homer (also by Kent and Fourdrinier) forming the central element of the head-piece (Pl 7) on page 1 of the introductory essay on A General View of the Epic Poem, and of the Iliad and the Odyssey', which (though reproduced on a very small scale) corresponds much more closely with the so-called Apollonios of Tyana type', otherwise known as the Capitoline Homer, another iconic image of the poet. (16)
Other near-contemporary or only slightly later representations of the head of 'Homer' (unknown to, or unmentioned by, Harding) show the sculpture without its bust-like additions, actual or imaginary. The profile engraved by Bernard Baron after Wood (already referred to) shows the head facing right (Pl 8) with the jagged neck that is so striking a feature of the sculpture today. This damage, indicative of the extent of trauma inflicted in antiquity, is in fact much more likely to be the result of the vandalism of a royal statue in Smyrna proposed by Harding than evidence of a statue of a poet having suffered in a fire in Constantinople, to which fate the more traditional accounts (such as Clerk's) refer. Baron's splendid plate, with its text summarising the ancient sources for the sculpture and establishing Mead's then ownership of the piece, exists in a number of collections, namely the British Museum, Eton College and in the first volume of the Harley Collection in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries, that entitled 'Greek and Latin Antiquities', at fol. 1. Baron also engraved a further, smaller view of the sculpture shown three-quarters on to the viewer and again facing to the right, which in one surviving example at least (that in the first Harley Collection album, fol. 3) is itself set at the head of an untitled page of closely printed Latin text (Pl 9) which supplies the ancient sources for the statue of Homer at Constantinople, a commentary upon these, and also notes on the present location of the work in Mead's collection. This folio has more the character of an independent broadsheet on the subject of the head of Homer rather than anything intended for publication as part of larger work on antiquities or ancient sculpture in general. It might indeed be the kind of thing that Dr Mead had had produced for the benefit of visitors to his museum, such as Sir John Clerk.
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The portrait of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (Pl 10) included in Knapton's Heads of the Most Illustrious Persons of Great Britain ... with their Lives and Characters- incorporates a representation of the head of Homer (Pl 11). (17) The antiquity nestles among the decorative elements of Jacobus Houbraken's elaborate composition which has for its principal focus an engraving after the Rubens portrait of Arundel: it can be seen at seven o'clock (as it were) to the Rubens image, among other symbolic impedimenta. Clearly it was included because it illustrates a point in Thomas Birch's text (itself retailing Sir Edward Walker's account, in Historical Discourses, of Arundel's artistic and cultural interests as 'the most eminent Favourer of Arts') describing the subject's accumulation of antiquities though agents operating in Classical lands. This print of Arundel was executed in 1744. It also showed Mead in an Arundelian role as a man eminent in his own time for art-collecting. The print constituted a sort of double first for Mead, as possessor then not just of the head of Homer but also of the Rubens portrait of its erstwhile owner. This fact gives added piquancy to the inscription 'In the Collection of Dr Mead': the whole ensemble in Houbraken's 1744 confection was Mead's.
The superb edition of Horace, published by John Pine in 1737 and remarkable for being engraved throughout, contains one reproduction of the head in each volume. (18) It is interesting to examine why these images should be used to illustrate a text of another poet in another ancient language. I do not think that they were chosen simply as decorative devices, but rather that they appear because they can be linked, subtly and allusively, to the text of the poems they accompany. The first engraving shows the head in profile looking to the left (Pl 12), a view which also shows the extent of damage to the neck. The second (Pl 13) shows the head half turned to the left, thus presenting a view more nearly equivalent to the Stukeley drawing than any other, or to the Vertue plate in The Odyssey but in reverse. These seem to be derived from the two Baron images, that in profile to right and the three-quarter view, but reproduced in reverse and at very greatly reduced scale. The first Pine engraving forms a tailpiece to Odes, IV. ix in which Horace accords the first place among the poets to Homer, recorder of the deeds and feelings of great men and women, who were however fortunate to have had those actions and sentiments so recorded. The second Pine engraving forms the headpiece to Satires', I. x, where Horace asks the rhetorical question as to whether nothing could be criticised in the writing of the mighty Homer. But, more than this, Horace also makes an allusion which Pine seems to have attempted to illustrate by the use of the image of Mead's head of Homer. Although Horace was actually referring to Lucilius when he wrote of 'that famous head' and the 'garland which with the world's applause rests upon it' (Wickham's translation) it does appear that Pine seized the chance to use an image of the most celebrated ancient head of the day, the fillet standing in for a garland, to illustrate the generalised concept of fame as Horace describes it. So Dr Mead's head was that of a famous man and also celebrated as an outstanding object of antiquity deserving, in its own right, the world's applause.
These Pine engravings bear, in turn, a close relationship to the 'translations' of the head into miniaturised form as gems. Nathaniel Marchant carved a version that was subsequently reproduced by James Tassie before 1775. (19) This is described in Raspe's catalogue of Tassie's oeuvre as 'seemingly after a fine bust, in bronze, which belonged to Dr Mead. (20) The half title-page of Raspe's catalogue of Tassie's collection is preceded by a charming etching by David Allan (Pl 14), dated Edinburgh 1788, (21) which emblematic design shows Minerva, seated on a Greek chair of enormous proportions and at a handsome semi-circular neo-classical table, opening the doors of a collector's cabinet. On the pavement beside her, among miscellaneous fragments of Antiquity, is the Arundel / Mead / British Museum (as it was by this date) head of Homer itself.
There seems no particular reason for the appearance of this sculpture in Allan's composition, apart from the continuing intrinsic celebrity of the object itself: it does not appear especially relevant to the repeated references to Homer by Raspe in his Introduction to the book, in which he actually alludes to Homer, otherwise 'the oldest, exactest, and minutest painter of the manners, arts, and customs of his countrymen', as one who had nevertheless remained 'absolutely silent of [sic] their engraving on hard stones; and with all his partiality in favour of their wisdom and ingenuity, he never has made mention of, or allusion to Seal Rings.' (22) But, coming forward from ancient to modern times, the existence of gem versions of the Mead / British Museum Homer raises the possibility that numbers of Georgian gentlemen were able to wear rings decorated with a handsome Classical portrait head, still further reduced to a suitable size. Homer, in this context, would have been likely to appeal rather more than a Macedonian king of whom they were almost certainly profoundly unaware. But the evidence we now have, as revealed by Robert Harding, indicates that they would actually have been adorning their cabinets and themselves in ignorance and error.
(1) On Clerk in London in 1727 and on other occasions see lain Gordnn Brown, 'Precarious Preferment in Apollo's Favourite Residence: London as Focus for Sir John Clerk's Political and Cultural Ambition', in Scots in London in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Stana Nenadic, forthcoming, Lewisburg, PA, 2009.
(2) On Mead in the context of contemporary collecting see Jonathan Scott, The Pleasures of Antiquity. British Collectors of Greece and Rome, London, 2003. Mead's ownership of the head of Homer is discussed on p37.
(3) National Archives of Scotland, Clerk of Penicuik Muniments, GD18/ 2107, fols22-22v.
(4) Robert JD Harding, '"The head of a certain Macedonian king": an old identity for the British Museum's 'Arundel Homer'", The British Art Journal, IX, no 2 (2008), pp11-16 (p12).
(5) Although Harding states that the head of Homer is not identifiable in the Tart Hall sale by Christopher Cock of the Stafford Collection in 1720 others have either assumed or concluded that Mead acquired the head at that time and presumably on that occasion: see, for example, Mary Webster, 'Taste of an Augustan Collector; the Collection of Dr Richard Mead II', Country Life, CXLVII, 24 September 1970, pp765-7 (p7671; Richard H Meade, In the Sunshine of Life. A biography of Dr Rickard Mead 1673-1754, Philadelphia, 1974 (=Meade), p93; and Ian Jenkins, 'Dr Richard Mead (16731754) and his Circle', in Enlightening the British. Knowledge, Discovery and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century, edited by RGW Anderson, ML Caygill, AG Macgregor and L Syson, London, 2003, pp127-35 (p128 and n29). Jenkins cites Mead's acquisition of the head of Homer as an instance of his discernment as a collector of individual objects of real quality as opposed to 'bulk-buying' out of fashion and as a statement of social standing.
(6) See David Alexander, 'George Vertue as an Engraver', Walpole Society, LXX (2008), pp207-517, cat. 437.
(7) The Farnese Homer is conveniently illustrated in Stefano De Caro, The National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Naples, 1996, p317.
(8) Alexander, George Vertue', cat. 167.
(9) For the 'Hellenistic, blind' type of portrait bust of Homer, see Gisela MA Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks, abr and revd by RRR Smith, Oxford, 1984, pp146-8. This cites the examples in the Capitoline and British Museums, but not the Farnese bust in Naples.
(10) John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, 2 vols, Nationai Portrait Gallew, London, 1977, 1. p184 and II, p1534. See also Alastair Smart, ed by John Ingamells, Allan Ramsay. A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London, 1999, no. 360, p157 and pl 47.
(11) No such statue is recorded in Langford's catalogue of Mead's antiquities at the sale of 1754: Museum Meadianum, sive Catalogus Nummorum, Veteris Aevi Monumentorum, ac Gemmarum ..., London, 1754, p218, et seq. The head of Homer is here accorded a long entry, citing the Cedrenus description.
(12) On this last point see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique. The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven and London, 1982, p52.
(13) Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed G Birkbeck Hill, revd by LF Powell, 6 vols, Oxford, 1934, III, p355.
(14) Reproduced in Meade, p84.
(15) On the Theophrastos see Gisela M. A Richter, Portraits of the Greeks [original edn], 3 vols, London, 1965, II, p177 and figs. 1022-3.
(16) On the Capitoline Homer see Richter and Smith, Portraits of the Greeks, pp144-5.
(17) Two vols (London 1743, 1751), II, p23 and pl opposite.
(18) Quinti Horatli Flacci Opera, 2 vols, London, 1737, I, p201 and 11, p, 45.
(19) A Catalogue of Impressions in Sulphur, of Antique and Modern Gems, .from which Pastes are Made and Sold by J. Tassie London, 1775, p44, no. 1271. See also Gertrud Seidmann, 'Nathaniel Marchant, Gem-Engraver', Walpole Society, LIII (1987), pp1-105 (p55).
(20) A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems, Cameos and well as Intaglios, taken from the Most Celebrated cabinets in Europe; and cast in Coloured Pastes, White Enamel, and Sulphur, by James Tassie, Modeller; Arranged and Described by R. E. Raspe, 2 vols, London, 1791, II, p585, no. 10082.
(21) 1788 was the date of Tassie's proposals for the catalogue, which appeared three years later. Allan executed the 57 plates which bring up the rear of the second volume. On the Tassie-Raspe-Allan venture see William Zachs, The First John Murray and the Late Eighteenth-Century London Book Trade, London, 1998, pp353-4 and 378-9 (checklist nos. 693 and 850).
(22) Raspe, II, p x.…
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Publication information: Article title: 'Most Capital in Its Kind': Further Observations on Dr Richard Mead's 'Head of Homer'. Contributors: Brown, Iain Gordon - Author. Journal title: British Art Journal. Volume: 10. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2009. Page number: 9+. © 2007 British Art Journal. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.