6. Francis Cranmer Penrose, View of Athens, 1887, watercolour.
4. Opposite, top: Harry Ralph Ricardo, The Acropolis from the southwest, with the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in the foreground, 1845, graphite and brown wash, with white heightening.
5. Opposite, bottom: Richard Phené Spiers, East façade of the Propylaia and the Frankish Tower of the Athenian Acropolis, 1866, watercolour.
Sephardic Jewish family whose uncle David was one of the founding fathers of modern economics. Harry travelled to Greece in 1845, creating an album of drawings intended for use in his future career as an architect. Although elected an Associate of the RIBA, he never practised, instead returning to his family stockbroking firm, though his son Halsey (1854–1928) became an architect and interior designer (and donated the album to the Museum in 1908). Harry’s view shows the southern flank of the Acropolis, after the exposure of the columns of the Propylaia and the demolition of the mosque within the Parthenon, which survived as a museum until 1843; below can be seen the jagged outline of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the more modest remains of the famous Theatre of Dionysos (fig. 4). The great medieval tower remains, as it does in a view of the eastern side of the Propylaia by another multi-talented architect and writer, Richard Phené Spiers (1838–1916), made around 1866 (fig. 5). This perspective can also be seen in contemporary photographs such as those of the legendary William Stillmann, which provide valuable evidence for the tower’s original appearance and function. Despite some contemporary protests, the tower was demolished in 1875, with the financial help of no less than Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Troy and Mycenae, as part of the inexorable quest for the Athens of Pericles by archaeologists and historians who continued to flock to Athens.
One such was Francis Penrose. Variously an architect, archaeologist,
astronomer and talented rower, he had been commissioned by the Society of Dilettanti to make measured drawings of the monuments of Athens. His meticulous Principles of Athenian Architecture (1888) is regarded as one of the greatest works written on the subject, bookending the equally heavyweight Stuart and Revett volumes of a century earlier, which had inspired ever-increasing scholarship. Although enlivened with colour plates and romantic vignettes, it is admittedly rather dry and technical, though Macmillan’s Guide to Greece (1903) somewhat optimistically recommended the book as essential reading before and after a visit to Greece. Yet Penrose’s more poetic eye could also produce a memorable panorama of Athens and its surroundings, a veritable marriage of mountains, plains, sea and light, made in 1887 when he was Director of the recently established British School at Athens (whose building he had designed). While the expanding modern city is visible, it remains just a detail in the all-enveloping landscape of Attica (fig. 6). Ease of travel and widespread reproduction of images, from the once ubiquitous postcard to the selfie on social media, might have reduced the charm of distance once enjoyed by monuments experienced only by the privileged few. Nonetheless, even in the bursting Athens of the 21st century, many of the unmistakable perspectives of the Acropolis shown here can still be enjoyed and continue to enchant the visitor.
The Greek Revival will be on show in Room 3 from 10 March to 8 May 2022.
British Museum Magazine Winter 2021