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To celebrate Vikings Live, we have replaced our Roman alphabet with the runic alphabet used by the Vikings, the Scandinavian ‘Younger Futhark’. The ‘Younger Futhark’ has only 16 letters, so we have used some of the runic letters more than once or combined two runes for one Roman letter.

For an excellent introduction to runes, we recommend Martin Findell’s book published by British Museum Press.

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Antiquarian drawings

Staff member

  • Celeste Farge, Prints and Drawings Cataloguer, Greece and Rome

Department of Greece and Rome 

Funded by

The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

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Antiquarian drawings

There are around 6,000 drawings in the British Museum's Department of Greece and Rome. The drawings illustrate objects and sites of Classical antiquity. They are mostly by British artists - or foreign artists working in Britain or, if working abroad, they were commissioned by British patrons. Many of them are unpublished and unknown. By cataloguing them for the Museum's online database and by including images, the intention is to create a new resource for scholars and other researchers.

Around half of the total number of drawings relate to the collection and scholarly interests of the eighteenth-century antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805).Townley was a leading figure in what Adolph Michaelis called 'the Golden Age of Classic Dilettantism'. In 1768 he made the first of three visits to Italy and there began a collection, famous for its marble sculptures, but which also included bronzes, terracottas, painted vases, jewellery, engraved sealstones and coins. Displayed in his house in Park Street, Westminster, his antiquities became one of the sights of contemporary London. Upon his death in 1805, the sculpture was acquired by the British Museum, while in 1814 the other antiquities were purchased from Townley's cousin Peregrine. This acquisition included the majority of the drawings that had been part of a documentary archive. Then in 1992 the Museum further acquired correspondence, diaries, manuscript and printed catalogues, and other lists, all of which together with the objects and drawings provides a uniquely rich legacy from the world of an eighteenth-century collector.

The entrance hall of Townley’s house in Park Street, 1794, William Chambers
Red Chalk

Study of the bust of Clytie, 1772-1805, Anonymous
Red Chalk

The drawings fall into three main groups. First, there are those of Townley's own objects, commissioned from British artists or foreign artists resident in Britain. They include Joseph Nollekens, Henry Howard, John Brown, James Stephanoff, Conrad Martin Metz, William Young Ottley, Charles Reuben Ryley, Archibald Skirving, A. Tendi, William Skelton and Richard Cosway. The drawings vary in degree of detail and finish. The most numerous and frequently the most impressive sheets are those that illustrate marble sculpture. These represent little known works by in some cases little known artists who were part of a creative circle that gathered in Townley's Westminster home.

Second, there is a group of drawings of sculpture in other collections in Britain and in Italy, mainly acquired as studies for comparison with Townley's own collection. They comprise loose sheets done by often anonymous artists, acquired piecemeal. Alternatively, there are some sets of drawings that were commissioned from draughtsmen in Italy, including Vincenzo Pacetti and Pietro Angeletti'. Then there are several volumes, some assembled by Townley himself, while others were acquired at auction. They include three volumes of drawings that originated in the Rome workshop of Francesco Imperiali. They went first to Richard Topham, but being preparatory sketches for his more finished works (now at Eton College) they descended to Dr Richard Mead and then to Lyde Browne of Wimbledon, before being bought by Townley. The Italian artists responsible for these preliminary drawings are Bernardino Ciferri and Carlo Calderi.

Third, there are the drawings that document directly Townley's own collecting, recording purchases that he made from his principal suppliers in Rome, Thomas Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton. When he was himself in Italy, Townley was presented with a sketch by way of a reminder of an object, which he would not see again until his return to England. Alternatively, if he was in London, then a sketch was often sent to him of something that was for sale. The drawing was enclosed in a letter and formed the basis of the information that Townley would assemble before deciding whether or not to purchase. Jenkins's draughtsmen were the painter and picture restorer Friedrich Anders and, later, Vincenzo Dolcibene, a considerable talent, who is better known for the work that he published in Sir Richard Worsley's 'Museum Worsleyanum'. The equivalent body of drawings sent from Gavin Hamilton to Townley through the post seem to be sketches by the artist-dealer himself.

Another significant body of drawings in the collection is the topographical series. Among these are more than 700 sketches made in Turkey and Greece between 1810 and 1817 by C.R. Cockerell and 13 sketchbooks of William Gell. Another substantial group are the volumes and loose sheets of drawings by Lord Elgin's draughtsmen, the Kalmuk Feodor Ivanovich and Sebastian Ittar. These have been rather more studied (and some of them published), but there is to date no systematic catalogue of them to tell researchers what there is. Then there are important views of Lycia by George Scharf the younger, who accompanied Charles Fellows' expeditions to S.W. Turkey, 1842-44. Others include colourful scenes of ruins in and around Athens in the 1830s by the Scottish philhellene James Skene of Rubislaw and views of ancient Cyrene by the Naval officers turned archaeologists, Lieutenants Smith and Porcher during their expedition of the early 1860s.

Study of the tomb of Merehi in ruins at Xanthos, Circa 1843, Sir George Scharf
Graphite, heightened with white

Tombs in the northern Necropolis of Cyrene, 1861, Edwin Augustus Porcher
Watercolour heightened with white