A view of the past: 1. Landscape around Üvecik, in the larger area of the city of Troy. Fig. 2. Landscape of the Troad. On the left the Castel of Kumkale. On the right the site of the Tomb of Aias, in the ancient city of Rhoiteion (today Intepe). William Gell, from The Topography of Troy, and its Vicinity; Illustrated and explained by Drawings and Descriptions (1804); pl. 38. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the most enjoyable things about the Sackler, as a library, is how it brings together different disciplines, and allows an hour’s browsing (or shelving!) to spark correspondences between books which would once have been located in completely separate libraries. I came across William Gell, early nineteenth-century topographer, illustrator, and classical scholar, in a completely non-Sackler-related context, but it soon became clear to me that he was entirely at home in the Sackler – hovering, so to speak, between Classics, Western Art, and Archaeology, with excursions to Egyptology and the Ancient Near East. Indeed, his career does a lot to explain why it still makes sense for an institution like Oxford to unite these seemingly disparate areas of study under a single roof.
Born in 1777, to a genteel but not particularly wealthy Derbyshire family, Gell was very much a transitional figure, working just at the moment when eighteenth-century antiquarianism, shaped by the interests and priorities of aristocratic patrons, was being replaced by more systematic approaches to the study of the classical world. Educated at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Arts, Gell succeeded in getting himself attached to a diplomatic mission to the Ionian islands in 1803, beginning a lifetime of close engagement with the Mediterranean landscape and its classical past.
Gell wasn’t an archaeologist – the category didn’t quite exist yet for him to occupy – but he wasn’t quite an antiquary, either, to the extent that nowadays antiquarianism suggests a distinctly unsystematic hoarding-up of the past, productive of the kind of physical and intellectual muddle described by Walter Scott (himself very much an antiquarian, if ruefully so), in his 1816 The Antiquary as ‘a wreck of ancient books and utensils’ in which ‘it was no easy matter to find one’s way to a chair, without stumbling over a prostrate folio, or the still more awkward mischance of overturning some piece of Roman or ancient British pottery’.
Gell, admittedly, did end up living in something very much akin to this environment – he was described as receiving guests, in the house in Naples where he spent the final years of his life, in ‘one very moderately-sized apartment, with […] a store of rarities, old folios in vellum, modern topography […] caricatures, charts, maps, and drawings’, not to mention ‘well-bred animals of the canine species, who had the entrée of his salon, and the privilege of his best chairs and sofas’ – Gell was evidently very much a dog person. But the ‘modern topography’ is important here. If Gell was anything, he was a topographer – he measured landscapes systematically, travelling extensively (despite the disabling gout which he suffered for most of his adult life) to do so. If he hoarded up anything, it was views.
‘[E]very turn of every mountain and eminence has been inserted from actual drawing and observation on the spot, & not invented as is the common and usual custom in map making in the closet, so that a student reading the account of any battle may be certain that here stood such a height & there ran such a brook’ he wrote, in 1831, describing what was in many ways his topographical masterwork, his map of Rome and the surrounding campagna, eventually published in 1834 as Topography of Rome and its Vicinity. ‘[W]here I have not been, I have left the place blank instead of imagining anything to make the map look prettier – as yet, give me leave to say, an unheard piece of honesty, & what is more I have put a “desideration” on the spot’. This was with the idea of literally filling in the blanks on the copper plate, after further investigation: the printed map was mutable, while the landscape was very much not. This solidity, the idea that places and views were largely unchanging, giving a kind of open access to the landscape of the past, was foundational to Gell’s work: ‘whether schoolboys or others read Roman history’, he continues, ‘they will now be enabled to understand & clearly perceive how much of the early conquests of the Romans, of which so confused an idea existed, are really reducible to the test of locality, and are no longer Romances’.
‘No longer Romances’ – this is a concern we see with moderate frequency from Gell, who was very much concerned, if not quite with the here and now, certainly with the here and then. Recalling how he showed the elderly Walter Scott round Naples and Pompeii in 1832, Gell betrays a certain frustration when he notes ‘how quickly [Scott] caught at any romantic circumstance’, turning a local landmark ‘into a feudal residence’ and peopling it, entirely ahistorically, ‘with a Christian host’. Yet, for all this impatience with the urge to dramatise, to overwrite the evidence of the landscape rather than remaining open to the ‘test of locality’, Gell’s own first published work, the 1804 The Topography of Troy, had been an enthusiastic but inaccurate attempt to fix the location of the Homeric Troy – just such an instance, in fact, of overwriting, of privileging romance over reality.
The Topography of Troy was the first of a stream of volumes which the young Gell published to record and fund his travels through the eastern Mediterranean. These were by and large impressive volumes, intended for the luxury market: the Sackler’s copy of Gell’s 1810 Itinerary of Greece, for instance, has a restrained but luxurious neoclassical calf binding by Charles Hering, a German immigrant who was London’s premier bookbinder in the early years of the nineteenth century. It offered its original owner both a privileged view of classical ruins and a suitably classically-inflected object to place on his – or her – shelves:
The Sackler’s copy of Gell’s 1817 The Unedited Antiquities of Attica, meanwhile, funded by well-heeled subscribers from the Society of Dilettanti and sold for the princely sum of twelve guineas, gives a sense of the extent to which Gell’s books could be edifices in and of themselves, with plenty of room for both Gell’s detailed topographical drawings and for large expanses of handsome marbled endpapers (complete with the bookplate of nineteenth-century local historian Francis Frederick Fox):
These were books designed to slot elegantly into the most refined of libraries, and Gell’s career saw him entrench himself more and more firmly amongst the ranks of people who might at least aspire to own such volumes. In 1807, Gell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the Society of Dilettanti – founded in 1733, this latter was a group which grew directly out of the Grand Tour, but which certainly aspired to more than gentlemanly amateurism, and was by the close of the eighteenth century the premier British institution for the study of classical antiquities.
Gell’s grasp on this rarified world, however, was always just a little strained. He wrote and published at speed largely out of financial necessity, describing himself, in one 1832 letter, as ‘writing like a steam-engine for my bread’. Lord Byron, who knew Gell personally, typifies a certain aristocratic unease with Gell’s social climbing and prodigious output. Gell’s appearance in Byron’s 1809 satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is – if a little patronising – downright flattering:
Of Dardan tours let dilettanti tell,
I leave topography to classic Gell.
Yet Byron had initially written ‘coxcomb Gell’ in his manuscript, and for the fifth edition, he was to change ‘classic’, to ‘rapid’, with the note ‘RAPID, INDEED!’. Byron’s reassessment was partly the result of his own Grand Tour, undertaken between 1809 and 1811: on his return, he noted that ‘Since seeing the plain of Troy, my opinions are somewhat changed […] Gell’s survey was hasty and superficial’. Was Gell reliably ‘classic’, or was he merely ‘rapid’: a purveyor of a kind of early nineteenth-century precursor to the coffee-table book?
Gell was certainly classic enough to be knighted in 1814, on the back of a successful mission for the Society of Dilettanti (although he had to borrow money from his brother to pay the necessary fees). Now Sir William Gell, he built on his already impressive social connections to become a member of the coterie surrounding Princes Caroline, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, later George IV. Gell’s companion in this clique was Keppel Craven, the third son of the 6th Baron Craven and a fellow member of the Dilettanti. Gell was ‘almost certainly a gay man with a firm commitment to Craven’ – another reason, perhaps, why his place in London society was never quite secure – and Craven was to remain close to him for the rest of his life, living with him in Naples and nursing him through attacks of debilitating gout. Their ‘friendship’, a contemporary account has it, ‘went on increasing in strength to the period of his [Gell’s] death’.
Both Gell and Craven were to accept the princess’s invitation to serve as vice-chamberlains during her travels on the continent in 1814. Even more impressively, they both managed to detach themselves from her court in 1815, before it became irretrievably marred in scandal – indeed, on leaving her service, Caroline granted Gell a pension of £200 a year for the rest of her life, giving him a certain financial security until her death in 1821. At the queen’s trial in 1820, one of her husband’s several attempts to divorce her once and for all on grounds of adultery, both Gell and Craven returned to England to speak in Caroline’s defence.
Gell’s brief membership of Caroline’s official retinue marked the end of his residence in England. He was to spend the rest of his life very much based in Italy, specifically Naples, where he created what would become his most popular and influential work, Pompeiana, written together with the architect John Peter Gandy (brother of the more famous Joseph Michael Gandy, Soane’s draughtsman and collaborator) and first published in parts in 1817-19. Serious investigation of the remains of Pompei had first begun almost a century before, in 1748, but Pompeiana was to be the first substantial work on Pompeii in English. It was also a much more approachable work in financial terms than Gell’s earlier volumes: the octavo volume of Pompeiana was sold in parts at eight shillings per number, and the complete version was advertised at a cost of five pounds and twelve shillings, still a considerable sum, but not completely out of reach of all but the very richest. The Sackler’s copy, a much less imposing object than its Topography of Troy or Itinerary of Greece, gives a sense of this distinction – it is still a status symbol, but one which exists on a different, rather more domestic, scale.
Gell and Gandy’s version of Pompeii was, itself, somewhat domestic. The text notes the discovery of ‘kettles, ladles, moulds for jelly or pastry, urns for keeping water hot, upon the principle of the modern tea-urn […]; in short, almost every article of kitchen or other furniture now in use, except forks’. Gell’s illustrations, produced with the help of the camera lucida – patented in 1806, and at the cutting-edge of pre-photographic technology – are sharp and distinct. The accompanying text notes any instances of artistic reconstruction or alteration. While not quite a guidebook, it could certainly have functioned as one. Even the scenes, such as the frontispiece, where Gell allows himself the luxury of thorough-going reconstruction, are founded as closely as possibly on evidence from the site itself and from Pompeian wall-paintings. Where there are curtains, it’s because there were curtain fixtures; where there is a brazier, Gell and Gandy take pains to explain how it might have functioned.
Admittedly, Pompeiana, like much of Gell’s work, is haunted by his awareness of the fragility of classical remains – he talks about the loss of frescos through ‘frequent wettings’ to brighten colours for tourists, ‘[u]ntil few traces remain for future revival’, and is evidently vividly conscious that his records of particularly delicate paintings might – as was indeed the case – become the sole evidence of their existence for future ages.
Ultimately, though, Gell and Gandy’s Pompei was visible, liveable, and decidedly unromantic. They make no bones about the fact that it was a relatively small town, unlikely, say, to reveal the best masterpieces of Roman art. They are concerned with the everyday life of the citizens; about the chestnuts found in the ruins and what this says about the exact date of the eruption of Vesuvius.
And how did the world of the 1820s and 1830s – Gell published a much-expanded version of Pompeiana in 1834 – respond to this admirably sober and detailed evocation of the classical past? Well. This is John Martin, giving the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum the full apocalyptic treatment, as early as 1822:
Even more notably, and despite Gell’s sniffiness about Walter Scott’s romancing, much of Pompeiana’s most enduring impact was to come through its influence on the 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii, the work of Edward Bulwer Lytton – an author now best known for the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, where participants think up terrible openings for terrible novels, inspired by the immortal first line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. Like Walter Scott’s imaginings, Bulwer-Lytton’s potboiler is liberally sprinkled with ahistorical Christians, not to mention tragic blind slave-girls, gladiatorial lions (who refuse to eat said Christians), evil priests of Isis, and hints at ghastly and creative orgies – more than enough to ensure its immediate success, particularly in versions which were heavily and creatively adapted for the stage, with a strong emphasis on lion-taming and suitably volcanic explosions; the novel itself was not to come truly into its own until the end of the 19th century, when it saw a resurgence in popularity which was to feed fairly directly into the swords and sandals epics of early Hollywood.
Bulwer-Lytton, like any English visitor to Naples worth their salt in the 1820s and early 1830s, had been shown around Pompei by Gell, despite the latter’s by now near-immobilising gout. We have an account of such a tour from Gell’s friend and correspondent Lady Blessington, who notes that ‘[g]lad as I was to profit from the savoir of Sir William Gell …, yet I could have wished to ramble alone through the City of the Dead, which appealed so forcibly to my imagination, conjuring up its departed inhabitants instead of listening to erudite details of their dwellings and the use of each article appertaining to them’. Bulwer-Lytton, evidently, felt much the same – or, at any rate, was aware that this desire represented a gap in the market.
His introduction to the novel makes much, like Gell’s own work, of its immediacy and close relationship with the actual place – ‘Nearly the whole of this work was written in Naples last winter (1832-33)’, and he is positively effusive in his dedication of the book to Gell:
In publishing a work, of which Pompeii furnishes the subject, I can think of no one to whom it can so fitly be dedicated as yourself. Your charming volumes upon the Antiquities of that City have indissolubly connected your name with its earlier — (as your residence in the vicinity has identified you with its more recent) — associations.
Gell had become a fixture and an ornament; a stop on the tourist trail and a marker of authenticity.
Yet this is certainly not all his final years – he died in 1836 – amounted to; after all, they also saw the preparation and publication of his 1834 Topography of Rome and its Vicinity, as serious and unromantic a work of classical geography as one could wish for. And of course his legacy was not entirely filtered through Bulwer-Lytton and his legion of imitators – a meeting with Gell in Naples was a formative influence, for example, on the young Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson.
Something of Gell’s continuing legacy, in fact, is suggested by the very attractive – and telling – bookplate of Gilbert Murray in the Sackler’s copy of The Itinerary of Greece. Murray was an Australian classicist who was more or less single-handedly responsible for producing the first widely-available English versions of Greek tragedies – particularly those of Euripides – in the early 20th century. Like Gell, he was a Hellenist and a populariser; like Gell, he saw himself as committed to the facts of the classical past, to making them visible again to a modern audience. And indeed – despite an effective demolition job by T. S. Eliot, which has left a considerable dent in his reputation – his translations were hugely successful, with 400 000 copies published during his lifetime. His bookplate’s view of Oxford and Athens, uneasily utopian though it might seem to modern eyes, is certainly a way of seeing the past – crisply defined; anchored to a particular place; parallel to and yet not impinging on the present – which would not have been entirely foreign to Gell:
Former Library Assistant, Sackler Library
Currently Graduate Trainee, History Faculty Library
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 Walter Scott, The Antiquary, 3 vols (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne & Co, 1816), i, p. 53.
 Richard Robert Madden, The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington, 2 vols (Lond: 1855), II, p. 8.
 William Gell, Sir William Gell in Italy: Letters to the Society of Dilettanti, 1831-1835 (London: Hamilton, 1976), p. 59.
 Gell, p. 35, n. 1.
 Howard M. Nixon and Mirjam M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) p. 96.
 Madden, p. 59.
 George Gordon Byron, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers: A Satire. 2nd edn (London: James Cawthorn, 1809), p. 80.
 Gell, Sir William Gell in Italy, p. 3.
 Alex Watson, ‘Byron’s Marginalia to English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’, The Byron Journal, 37 (2009), 131-139 (p. 135).
 Rosemary Sweet, ‘William Gell and Pompeiana (1817–19 AND 1832)’, Papers of the British School at Rome, 83 (2015), 245–81 (p. 254) <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0068246215000100>.
 Jason Thompson, Queen Caroline and Sir William Gell (Cham: Springer, 2018), p. 15.
 Madden, pp. 14-15.
 Sweet, p. 257.
 William Gell and John Peter Gandy, Pompeiana: The Topography, Edifices, and Ornaments of Pompeii. By Sir W. Gell and J.P. Gandy (Lond: Lond., 1817), p. 165.
 Gell and Gandy, p. 193.
 Gell and Gandy, p. 165, n. 1.
 See William St Clair and Annika Bautz, ‘Imperial Decadence: the making of the myths in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 40.2 (2012), 359–96 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S1060150312000010>.
 William Gell, Sir William Gell in Italy: Letters to the Society of Dilettanti, 1831-1835 (London: Hamilton, 1976), p. 30.
 Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii, 3 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1834), i, p. iii.
 Robert Ackerman, ‘Euripides and Professor Murray’, The Classical Journal, 81.4 (1986), 329–36 (p. 333).