The Romance of Ruins: curator Louise Stewart of Sir John Soane’s Museum discusses the art of the 1764 Ionian expedition

The Past contributor Calum Henderson speaks with Louise Stewart, Curator of Exhibitions at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, about the exhibition, The Romance of Ruins: the search for ancient Ionia, 1764.

In a recent issue of Minerva magazine, Louise Stewart, Curator of Exhibitions at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, discussed the young artist William Pars’ poetic images of the ruins he encountered on an expedition to Ionia (in modern-day Turkey) and Athens, and how his work helped shape the taste for Greek styles in 18th-century Britain.

The expedition and Pars’ work is the subject of a free exhibition, The Romance of Ruins: the search for ancient Ionia, 1764, which runs at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 5 September 2021. Earlier this summer, The Past contributor Calum Henderson visited the museum and spoke with Stewart about the exhibition and its background.

To begin with, Louise, would you like to tell me a bit about who was behind this expedition in 1764 and why it took place?

The expedition took place at the instigation of the Society of Dilettanti. This was a convivial social club for wealthy men who had been on a grand tour of Italy. In the 1750s, they found themselves sponsoring the publication of the findings from another expedition to Greece by the architect and designer James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and the architect Nicholas Revett. This was The Antiquities of Athens, and it was a really important volume, setting the standard for archaeological publications.

The Society of Dilettanti suddenly found themselves at the vanguard of archaeological publication in Britain. So they decided to mount an expedition, at their own expense, to Ionia.

Ionia is not a very well-known concept among the public today, but for these men, it would have been, because their education was rooted in the Classics. Part of the Greek world from the 8th century, Ionia was a league of twelve city states and was known for its enlightenment culture. This is where the Ionic architectural order was built, including some of the first great Greek temples. It also really led the field in natural philosophy, and it was written about by Herodotus, who talked about the beautiful cities there.

OPPOSITE William Pars, Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Didyma, from the north-east¸ October 1764. Pen and grey and black ink, watercolour, with gum arabic and some body colour. Image: Sir John Soane's Museum.
William Pars, Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Didyma, from the north-east¸ October 1764. Pen and grey and black ink, watercolour, with gum arabic and some body colour. Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum.

So it was something of a legend for these men. But it was not easily accessible. The cities of Ionia were located in what is today known as Western Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. So it was very distant and part of a very different culture, meaning an expedition there was a huge undertaking.

The society appointed three men to the expedition: Richard Chandler, who was an antiquary and epigrapher; William Pars, who was an artist; and Nicholas Revett, an architect. The idea was that these three men would go and rediscover the sites of ancient Ionia, survey them, and then return home to write up their experiences. These would be published, accompanied by detailed architectural drawings and Pars’ topographical views of the sites, which is what we have in the exhibition.

Could you tell me a bit more about the details of the expedition, such as how long it lasted, and where it particular the three men visited?

They set out in 1764 from Gravesend. Although originally bound for Smyrna, there was an outbreak of plague there, which meant they were diverted to Constantinople. They spent a few weeks striking out the sites around Troy, which had not been rediscovered at this stage. Later, they did manage to make it to Smyrna, and viewed a number of sites in Asia Minor, which are now on the tourist trail but at that time were not very well known. For examples, sites such as Ephesus and Didyma.

After they had spent several months exploring this area, there was another outbreak of plague in Smyrna. The three men found themselves holed up in a cottage outside the city, where they remained for three months and didn’t have any contact with anyone. They got fed up with that, as I’m sure we can all relate to, so after a long period of isolation they set sail for Greece and for Athens.

They spent several months in Athens, where Pars documented the Parthenon, before sailing home about two years after they left.

This exhibition itself focuses on the work of William Pars, a young artist and member of the expedition. Can you tell me a bit more about him?

Yes, so Pars was only in his early 20s when the expedition set off. He was born in 1742, so was really young to be undertaking this great journey. At the time, he had just started to exhibit his first watercolours, but he had really only finished his training. This included making topographical views and watercolour portraits, so he was quite well-equipped for the type of work he did on the exhibition. Yet it’s still really interesting that they chose such a young artist.

Pars went on to become an associate of the Royal Academy and to travel all around Europe making topographical views. Once you’ve heard of him, you will see his work popping up quite a lot. He seems to have been quite prolific.

Could we talk a bit more about Pars’ work? The watercolours tend to show the ruins as well as the figures on the expedition, such as Nicholas Revett, hard at work with Turkish figures in the background. Were these accurate depictions of the expedition?

The instructions given to Pars by the Society of Dilettanti was to create really accurate topographical views, not just of the ruins themselves, but of the flora and fauna and the people they encountered. So it really was all about accuracy.

Pars made sketches on the spot and then, after the expedition returned to London, produced the very finely finished watercolours that we have included in this exhibition.

One of the most impressive watercolours is of the Parthenon, in which Pars himself makes an appearance; he can be seen suspended several metres from the ground. Do you have a personal favourite in the collection?

For me, it’s the view of the ruined temple on the island of Aegina, where you have the two lonely columns – all that’s left of this great temple to Apollo. I think it just sums up the Romantic idea of a ruined civilisation, that all civilisations will end.

But it’s also an incredibly peaceful and just very beautiful image. There’s this luminous light which is unique to Ionia, and in that image, Pars just captures it and makes you want to be there.

Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Aegina, August 1765 and April 1766. Pen and grey ink with watercolour and some gum arabic. Image: Sir John Soane's Museum.
Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Aegina, August 1765 and April 1766. Pen and grey ink with watercolour and some gum arabic. Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum.

How influential was William Pars’ work in sparking a renewed interest in ancient Greek architecture and culture?

I think it’s quite important not to overstate the influence of these works. When they returned from the expedition, work began on several published accounts. Chandler published a diary, Pars his watercolours, and Ravett his architectural drawings. These drawings were really technical, as evocative as Chandler’s written descriptions of the sites they encountered.

But this was at the time when books were quite expensive, and these were big books, intended for the libraries of stately homes. So it’s not the sort of thing where you can say that ordinary people were picking them up and experiencing a revelation about Greek architecture.

Having said that, we do see this increasing momentum and interest in ancient Greek architectural models at that time. Prior to this, Neoclassical architecture focused on ancient Rome, because exemplars were much more easily accessible, so it does shift the focus.

It begins to make people realise that classical architectural exists in different forms; that there’s a plurality of models.

Moving on to Sir John Soane’s Museum, would you be able to tell me a bit more about Soane and his relationship with Pars’ work and the expedition?

Absolutely. Soane was one of the leading architects in Regency London. He was born in 1753, and his background is incredibly interesting. The son of a bricklayer, he didn’t come from a privileged background, but managed to become an architect through apprenticeships, serendipity and luck, and – let’s face it – sheer talent.

Sir John Soane. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir John Soane. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Upon his death, he left his house to the nation to become a museum in perpetuity. His idea for the museum was that it would be an ‘academy of architecture’, so that students of sculpture, painting, and architecture could come and visit it and learn from the incredible collection of objects that he amassed.

So it’s intended to be a teaching collection which includes architectural models, fragments, all sorts of decorative arts, and an amazing collection of drawings. As well as Soane’s own interiors, which are dramatic and breathtaking and always surprising.

And in terms of Soane’s interest in the expedition, what we’ve included in the exhibition are Soane’s own copies of the books that were published about it. So we do know that he was interested, he purchased these books, and perhaps they informed his own appropriation of ancient Greek architecture.

Further information

You can read Louise Stewart's article for Minerva magazine here (paywall)

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 here.

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.

Images © The Trustees of the British Museum.