On 9 June 1764, a ship named the Anglicana set sail from Gravesend, bound for the Ottoman Empire. Among its passengers were a classicist, an architect, and a young artist. These three men were on a mission to discover and document the remains of ancient Ionia, a league of independent city-states united in antiquity by their use of the Ionian dialect.
These states, part of the Greek world from the 8th century BC, were scattered throughout the Aegean Islands and along the coast of Western Anatolia (modern Turkey). In antiquity, you could sail from one gleaming white marble city to another. Strong walls for defence inhibited urban sprawl; the natural beauty of the landscape was not spoilt by urban development. Rather, it was crowned by the splendour of human artifice.
The first essays in colossal temple-building were made in this region, and the Ionic order, with pairs of spiral volutes decorating the capitals of its fluted columns, became standard. The architects themselves became celebrities, including Theodoros and Rhoikos, architects of the 6th-century BC temple of Hera on Samos. The treatises that they wrote about their works were among the first prose texts in the ancient Greek language. These have not survived, but Vitruvius had access to them when he wrote De Architectura in the 1st century BC. Although ruined in antiquity, the beauty and fame of the Ionian cities – Miletus, Ephesus, and Priene among others – lived on in the writings of others, including Herodotus and Strabo.
The expedition to rediscover the remains of Ionia was initiated by the Society of Dilettanti. The society had been founded around 1733 as a convivial club for aristocratic and other well-to-do young men who had been on the Grand Tour to Italy. In its early days, the society had a reputation for pleasure-seeking: in a letter of 1743, Horace Walpole wrote that it was ‘a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk.’ Things began to change in the 1750s, when the society sponsored the publication of the findings of an expedition to Greece by the architect and designer James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett. The Antiquities of Athens, published in four sumptuous volumes, set a new standard for archaeological accuracy and sparked interest in Greek art and design. Its publication gave the society a new purpose and placed them at the vanguard of a burgeoning Hellenism in art and architecture. It was not long before they were planning a new expedition, to that part of Western Anatolia known as Ionia.
In the spring of 1764, the Society of Dilettanti went about appointing men to the expedition, including Richard Chandler (bap. 1737, d. 1810), an antiquary and epigrapher who would be its leader, and Nicholas Revett (1721-1804), an architect and veteran of previous expeditions to Greece. The final member of the team to be appointed was the young artist William Pars (1742-1782). All three travellers are shown together in a watercolour by Pars recording the crossing of the river Maeander with the ruins of ancient Miletus, the ‘jewel of Ionia’ according to Herodotus, in the background. On the right, Chandler stands self-assured, having embarked safely on the float which ferried them across the river. Revett, in the middle of the composition, is about to board, while Pars follows him on the left.
Pars’s powerful and poetic watercolours relating to the expedition, such as this river crossing scene, are on display together for the first time in an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, alongside the published accounts of the expedition owned by the architect and collector Sir John Soane himself. The first volume of these, Ionian Antiquities, was produced by the Society of Dilettanti in 1769. With its detailed architectural drawings by Revett, written descriptions, and topographical views, it may well have inspired Soane’s own adoption and adaptation of ancient Greek architectural forms.
William Pars was only 22 when he was appointed to the Ionian expedition. He had just begun to exhibit paintings in oils at the Society of Arts in the Strand, London, and was teaching drawing at his brother’s academy nearby. His training had included life drawing and drawing from casts at the Royal Academy of Arts and he had also learnt to draw landscapes from nature on the spot – all useful skills for the expedition artist. It was his job to record not only the landscape and ruins, but also the sculptures they found and the local people they travelled with and encountered.
During the expedition it was only possible for Pars to take pencil sketches and make a few detailed drawings with colour notes. These drawings and sketches were brought back to London and became the property of the Society of Dilettanti, who presented them to the British Museum in an album in 1800. In London, Pars used his sketches of the landscape, sculpture, and people, along with Chandler’s written account and the detailed architectural drawings and measurements made by Revett, to produce the highly detailed and beautifully evocative watercolours that are the main focus of the exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Pars experimented with and developed a variety of watercolour techniques, including loose washes for the skies and far-off mountains, and pen and ink to outline the details of the architecture, building up layers of colour for the foliage and brighter body colours for the figures. In the 18th century, British artists led the world in painting landscapes in watercolour. With their atmospheric skies and distant mountains, and carefully recorded ruins enlivened by evocative groups of figures, these watercolours by Pars made significant contributions to that development by influencing the work of his contemporaries, like his friend Francis Towne and Paul Sandby who made aquatint prints after the watercolours.
The travellers arrived at the cosmopolitan city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in September 1764 and struck out to visit sites near and far. They recorded ruins at places such as Ephesus, Miletus, and Priene, now familiar fixtures on the tourist trail, but then unexcavated and little known. They carried their equipment on horses and often lived in tents pitched amid the ancient ruins. Pars provides a vivid depiction of these conditions in an image of the ruins of a gymnasium at Ephesus. Inside their tent, the travellers smoke and write or draw, perhaps working on the extensive survey of the site that they produced. Weapons and provisions are piled up nearby, and a group of local attendants are stationed outside.
One of the key sites visited was the sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma, which was renowned for its oracle. In antiquity, the temple of Apollo at Didyma competed with the Parthenon in Athens and the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (of which our travellers found no trace) in both size and fame. Pars’s drawings give a sense of the imposing nature of the ruins of the late 4th-century BC temple, as its remaining monumental columns, depicted with great precision, tower over the human figures dotted around them. They include Nicholas Revett, absorbed in the task of measuring the architectural remains, while in the foreground one of the travellers’ local attendants is quietly praying.
We meet the local attendants again in an imaginary composition showing a capital from the temple, with two figures perched on it. The figure on the right may be Mustapha, one of the travellers’ guides, and the figure on the left their Armenian interpreter. Although included in Pars’s Didyma image mainly to provide a sense of scale for the massive capital on which they recline, the figures are typical of the way the artist not only recorded the architectural remains, but also created detailed depictions of local people, their dress and customs, and the landscape with its flora and fauna.
The images from Didyma are typical also of Western depictions of Turks in this period. Unlike the travellers who busily measure, scale, and record the remains of antiquity, the Turks appear idle, reclining on ancient monuments seemingly unaware of their significance. These visual tropes belie the fact that the local guides were crucial to the success of the expedition. They helped to navigate the Ottoman Empire, with its bands of brigands and powerful Agas (local rulers).
Richard Chandler published a diary account of the voyage in two volumes: Travels in Asia Minor (1775) and Travels in Greece (1776). Although not illustrated, Chandler’s text aligns closely with Pars’s images. His description of encountering the temple of Apollo at Didyma conveys a similar sense of wonder:
The memory of the pleasure which this spot afforded me will not be soon or easily erased. The columns… are so exquisitely fine, the marble mass so vast and noble, that it is impossible perhaps to conceive greater beauty and majesty of ruin. At evening… the whole mass was illuminated by the declining sun with a variety of rich tints… The sea, at a distance, was smooth and shining… The picture was as delicious as striking.
In May 1765, returning from a trip to visit sites outside Smyrna, the travellers found plague raging in the city. They retreated to a rural village, spending three months in isolation before deciding to abandon Asia Minor. In August, they set sail for Greece, and Athens.
Situated on a jagged peak above the city, the Athenian acropolis houses a complex of religious monuments and temples of gleaming Pentelic marble. It is crowned by the Parthenon, a colossal temple to Athens’ patron Athena. With its monumental scale, ideal proportions, and masterly sculpture, it is often described as the ultimate achievement of ancient Greek architecture. In one watercolour by Pars, the Parthenon is shown as it then was, surrounded by contemporary Turkish houses, with a mosque visible between the huge columns. High up on the temple’s architrave, we glimpse the artist himself. Pars suspended himself in a cradle lashed to the upper reaches of the building, some 12 metres off the ground. This gave him access to the Parthenon’s sculptures, which had never before been drawn at close quarters.
His washed drawings are so finely executed as to seem effortless, and they would set in motion the recognition of the Parthenon sculptures as masterpieces of Western art. One drawing in the exhibition shows a metope illustrating the mythological battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, part-man, part-horse. Pars has captured all the dynamism and emotional pathos of the sculptures, their attention to detail astonishing given the metopes’ location high above the ground.
Pars depicted the other buildings on the Acropolis, including its monumental gateway, the Propylaea, with the city of Athens stretching away in the background. In one image, he shows the spaces between the columns of the portico walled up, with cannon just visible at the tops of the walls. The travellers left their mark on the monument: during restorations of the Propylaea in 2009, in a high corner of the central building, the initials of Chandler, Pars, and Revett were discovered along with the date 1765.
The Ionian expedition remained at Athens until June 1766. A journey across the Peloponnese took in Delphi, site of the famous oracle. Here, Pars depicted one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in Greece, with the sacred Castalian Spring running between the spectacular Phaedriades rocks, whose name means ‘the shining ones’. The priestess of Apollo who served as the oracle would bathe naked in the sacred spring once a month as part of the ritual purification ceremony. Chandler recounts being stricken with a fever immediately after washing his hands in the icy water of the spring.
The image of the Castalian Spring was one of the seven watercolours associated with the expedition that William Pars went on to show at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1769. The Dilettanti Society used Pars’s watercolours as the basis for the folio engravings that illustrated their lavish published accounts of the expedition and Pars’s display at the Academy probably helped to promote the first volume of Ionian Antiquities, which appeared the same year.
Some of Pars’s watercolours of Greece, like his pellucid view of the sky and waters at Aegina, were used in the second volume of Ionian Antiquities, which was not published until 1797, while some were used to illustrate accounts of other expeditions. Pars’s views of the Propylaea and of the Erechtheion appeared in the second volume of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s famous Antiquities of Athens in 1789. The Dilettanti had 26 of Pars’s finished watercolours placed in an album and presented to the British Museum in 1800, where they could be seen by later artists like Turner and Constable. But it was Pars’s drawings of the Parthenon marbles, which had been engraved for Antiquities of Athens and some of which were also presented to the British Museum, that had the greatest impact on the Greek Revival movement in British taste and architecture.
His drawings of the Parthenon frieze were published in another lavish book. These have been lost to us, but not before they were seen by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Rome in the 1780s, when he correctly prophesised the future fame of the marbles and the impact the sculptures would have on our understanding of Greek art.
The Romance of Ruins: the search for ancient Ionia, 1764 is a free exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London until 5 September 2021. Further details are available at www.soane.org/romance-of-ruins.
A new book, edited by Ian Jenkins and Louise Stewart, is published by Sir John Soane’s Museum in partnership with the British Museum (ISBN 978-1999693244, price £40).
The exhibition has been produced in partnership with the British Museum. It was made possible thanks to the generosity of David and Molly Lowell Borthwick. The accompanying catalogue has kindly been supported by the Society of Dilettanti Charitable Trust.
This article draws on the scholarship of Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, who conceived the exhibition, as well as that of Kim Sloan and Celeste Farge of the British Museum, who wrote the catalogue of works in the accompanying publication.
ALL IMAGES: © The Trustees of the British Museum.