Beazley as Theorist

By Whitley, James | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Beazley as Theorist


Whitley, James, Antiquity


Sir John Beazley (1885-1970), founder of the modern and archaeological study of Classical vases, was a master of method. Is the Beazley method just that, a well-judged method fitting to the material under study? Or does that considered method in truth amount to a considered theory, held and used by a consciously most untheoretical archaeologist?

This will be an impertinent paper. Unlike many scholars in Oxford, Princeton or New York I never met Beazley. I have no private reminiscence that might shed light on the man and his work; I can offer no insights based on personal experience; I have no amusing anecdotes to recount. And yet I will be making judgements of a kind that many who actually knew the man will find unwelcome, and I will be venturing claims that many may even detest. Chief amongst these is this assertion: Sir John Beazley, a man who carefully avoided making any theoretical statement if he could possibly help it, was a theorist, and his theories are with us still.

Beazley is a central figure in Classical archaeology, particularly the archaeology of Archaic and Classical Greece (see for example Robertson 1992), but he remains almost unknown outside this field. He is not even mentioned in most standard histories of archaeology, or at least those works that claim merely to be histories of archaeological thought (e.g. Trigger 1989). For prehistorians, it is as if Beazley, and by extension the whole of Classical Archaeology, has left no intellectual legacy at all - or at least nothing worth mentioning to students. Recently, however, there has been a welcome renewal of interest in the intellectual history of Classical archaeology (e.g. I. Morris 1994; Shanks 1995; Marchand 1996). It is at last being recognized that the ideas that have informed Classical Archaeology do matter, and matter indeed to the history of archaeology in general.

Beazley, who lived between 1885 and 1970, spent almost the whole of his adult life in Oxford, first as lecturer and then as Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. He dedicated his life to the study of ancient pottery, particularly Greek and particularly red- and black-figure pottery from Attica (that is, Athens and its surrounding area). He did not call his work a study of pottery as such but a study of vase-painting and vase-painters. 'Vase-painting' was seen as the medium that gave us the most complete record of and guide to the history of Greek painting in general (since most of the actual examples of wall-painting had been lost). The study of Greek pottery thus became a major part of the study of Greek art. Beazley devoted his life to the classification of thousands of pots now scattered throughout the museums of Europe and North America. He classified them, not so much by function, shape, or context (though he did not ignore such things) as by style, that is, the individual manner of the painter who painted them.

But how can we know about individual Greek vase-painters? Some of them were obliging enough to sign their works - Sophilos and Exekias for example - and much work had been done by German classical archaeologists in this field (see Furtwangler & Reichold 1904; Pfuhl 1923; 1925; Cook 1972: 316-27). Beazley's innovation was to isolate individual hands purely on the basis of style. Style, for him, meant that which was peculiar to an individual painter (Beazley 1956: x [emphasis mine]):

The phrase 'in the style of' is used by some where I should write 'in the manner of'; this has warrant, but I was brought up to think of 'style' as a sacred thing, as the man himself.

Elsewhere he had been more explicit (Beazley 1922: 84):

A system so definite, coherent, distinctive and in some respects so wilful, is most easily explained as a personal system: inspired in some measure by observation of nature, influenced and in part determined by tradition, and communicable or prescribable to others; but the child, above all else, of one man's brain and will. …

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