'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. …