I really want you to see these paintings. Made around 1870, they’ve never been hung in public before. They are a wonderful early experiment in archaeological reconstruction illustration, are little known, and need researching – along with their creator. This is going to be a long blog, but the subject deserves it.
There are 14 of the paintings in the Quadriga Gallery in the Wellington Arch, in the exhibition The Birth of Archaeology & the Battle for the Past (until April 21). The show is about Charles Darwin, Sir John Lubbock and General Pitt-Rivers, and the 1882 Ancient Monuments Act. There are some wonderful things, including these two gems below – a slice of Silbury Hill from inside the 1849 tunnel (I like to think it was originally wrapped like a piece of wedding cake), and one of William Stukeley’s commonplace books (both loaned by Wiltshire Museum in Devizes).
But I want to write about the paintings. There are 20 in the full set, 19 scenes of prehistoric life, and a view of a tropical island. They were apparently (a word one can use a lot here) commissioned by John Lubbock around 1870 (only two are dated), and used to hang in his home-cum-museum at High Elms in Downe, Kent. They were never published. All but one are now in the care of Bromley Museum Service, some owned by the BMS, some by Eric Avebury, John Lubbock’s grandson. The one not in Kent is in Australia (according to Avebury, this was given by his sister to her friend Robert Gordon, a Sydney doctor).
Ernest Griset (1844–1907) seems to have been an extremely industrious illustrator, well known in his time but not now outside salerooms – it’s fun to write about someone who has no Wikipedia entry. Born in France, he came to London as a child, and though busy apparently died poor. There is a useful essay about him at the Look & Learn website, the British Library lists his books, and Lionel Lambourne edited a short illustrated book over 30 years ago. An article published in 1945 called “A forgotten illustrator” seems to have got it right (see end references).
This particular group of Griset paintings, however, has recently attracted interest, when Adrian Green was curator at Bromley Museum (he’s now curator of the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, which has also lent material for the exhibition). Tim Murray (La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia) “discovered” the paintings for archaeologists, and Richard Milner (who among us could not warm to the man who edited Stephen Jay Gould’s column “This View of Life”?) did the same for natural scientists: Murray wrote about Lubbock and Griset, and Milner about the coral island painting, both in 2009 (see references).
Murray tracked down the Australian work, illustrated three paintings, and numbered the collection. It’s possible to correlate most of his numbers with Bromley Museum’s catalogue, so I list them here (he refers to an online feature at La Trobe, but as I write that seems to have been taken down). They are:
Mammoth Hunters (71.1.7, Murray 1)
Wolf pack and man (71.1.8, Murray 2)
Bison hunt (71.1.9)
Interior of a megalithic tomb (71.1.10, Murray 4)
Bison hunt in forest (74.83.1)
Stag in snow covered landscape (74.83.2)
Stag killing (74.83.3)
Beached boats with figures at sunset (74.83.4, Murray 8)
Prehistoric group around fire in cave (74.83.5, Murray 9)
Boat making (74.83.6, Murray 10)
Seal hunter (74.83.7, Murray 11)
Earth house (74.83.8, Murray 12)
Spear making by skin tent (74.83.9, Murray 13)
Lake village (74.83.10, Murray 14)
Lake with wildlife (74.83.11, Murray 15 or 16)
Dead mammoth on ice flow (74.83.12, Murray 15 or 16)
Lake village with blue mountain (74.83.13, Murray 17)
Sunset group with tent by water (74.83.14, Murray 18)
Bear savaging man (in Australia, Murray 19)
Atoll (in Bromley, but apparently no catalogue number, Murray 20)
In the exhibition, we say they were painted “around 1870”. All we have to go on is the dates on two of them, “Sunset group with tent by water” (18, dated 1869) and “Atoll” (20, dated 1871). Perhaps more information would be revealed if they were taken out of their frames.
“Atoll” was apparently commissioned as a gift for Darwin (his first book, in 1842, was The Structure & Distribution of Coral Reefs), but never presented. Milner shows the painting (a long image in three pieces), and this detail which he suggests is HMS Beagle – the ship that took Darwin round the tip of South America and introduced him both to coral reefs, and to indigenous people whose descriptions inspired Lubbock in his thoughts about prehistoric Europe:
As for the rest, “around 1870” is a powerful date. Lubbock’s two, highly influential books about early people were published at that time: Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains & the Manners & Customs of Modern Savages (1865), and The Origin of Civilisation & the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental & Social Condition of Savages (1870).
The titles make clear his agenda: he believed that prehistoric times could be understood through a combination of studying archaeological remains (“the unwritten records of our earliest national history”, as he described them to parliament) and modern peoples. He collected prehistoric European artefacts, and contemporary objects from around the world beyond Europe, to study and to show visitors to his home. The contemporary pieces – over a third of his collection – were what we would now call ethnographic artefacts from indigenous communities. To Lubbock these were products of ancient technologies, still alive in the skilled hands of ‘savages’, which could help him understand early Europe. In the exhibition we have some spears and clubs from Australia, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas and Cameroon: such pieces make notable appearances in Griset’s paintings.
This is what makes these works so interesting. They were done, we may imagine (and research may yet unearth documentation to prove this) under Lubbock’s instructions: they were the product of a prolific illustrator and a leading, pioneering archaeologist. We can see why that is special by looking at two examples of contemporary work where such collaboration was absent – Griset’s other illustrations, and a book published in 1870 called L’Homme Primitif, by another writer on ancient times, Louis Figuier.
Figuier occasionally notes ethnographic studies (how fire is made, for example), but his book is primarily an archaeological work, with much more detail in this area than Lubbock gave. He goes along with the case for ancient Europeans alive with now extinct animals, though he doesn’t like the idea that humans evolved from apes (variations shown by fossils, he says, can be put down to the tougher times of the ice age). It’s a book that students interested in the 19th century arguments about early humans and archaeology can read with great profit. And it’s got 30 “scenes from the life of primitive man”, by Émile Bayard. Here are four of them.
These are classic examples of how prehistoric artefacts can be put into modern hands to make them come alive. In the last, the ice age artists are not just, in Figuier’s words, “precursors of Raphael and Michelangelo”, they are Raphael and Michelangelo: their noble stance and ragged dress put them half way between a 19th century Bohemian and an ancient Greek athlete (no ape blood here). The deer hunters are straight from classical mythology. The only archaeological or ethnographic references are in the weapons, flint handaxes roughly bound to wooden handles.
Griset went to a different extreme. He excelled in caricature and quick sketch (too much realism and atmosphere risked exposing his technique), and illustrated many books. Among these was Legends of Savage Life, by James Greenwood (1869). This was a crowd-pleasing collection of stories, set in the worlds being revealed by European explorers, that had no concern with reality. In The luckless Adaphang (first image) native Patagonians had abandoned their traditional diet of seal meat, and as a consequence shrunk from giants to a fraction of an inch high. The Elk demon (second image) is a story about famine amongst native north Americans.
The gap between that Griset and Lubbock’s Griset is enormous. Equally, the latter and Figuier’s Bayard are also quite different. For Lubbock, Griset was aiming for a sense of prehistoric verisimilitude. His dominant theme is of near-naked men battling with savage beasts, including mammoth and bison, known from excavated bones to have lived in the ice age. Griset drew on ethnographic reports from around the world and other archaeological evidence from Europe, as did Lubbock in his books on evolution and society. The images show nature shaping early civilisations in the same way that Darwin’s process of natural selection lay behind the great variety of life. Early people were not noble, but struggling to survive, innocently laying the foundations for millennia of progress.
This is the painting in Australia:
Here is a lake village. An unusually dry winter in 1853 caused Swiss lake levels to fall, exposing ancient remains that attracted much attention – Lubbock helped to excavate some. In contrast to palaeolithic sites, the neolithic “Swiss lake villages” – Lubbock coined the terms “Palaeolithic” and “Neolithic” – produced bones of domestic cattle and cultivated cereal grains, signs of Europe’s first farmers.
And here is a neolithic tomb. Uniquely in Griset’s series of paintings, this shows an archaeological monument rather than an episode of daily life with imagined or reconstructed houses. It is almost certainly based on the West Kennet long barrow in the Avebury world heritage site with a good view of Silbury Hill, which was bought by Lubbock in 1873. A description of excavations in the barrow published in 1868 conjured a chamber lined with six large slabs, the gaps filled with dry-stone walling, four articulated skeletons (two “apparently in a sitting position”) and stone tools and pieces of pottery; Griset shows the bodies trussed with rope, and a symbolically extinguished hearth.
Most of the paintings, however, show hunter-gatherers, especially ice age ones. And here an interesting area opens up. Thanks to Google images, we can see that the scenes Griset painted for Lubbock weren’t the only ones of their kind. And as most of these other pictures are in private hands having briefly surfaced through salerooms, at present we can know very little about them.
This painting is in our show, no 15 or 16 in the Bromley list.
Here are some other Griset mammoths, not in the show, the first listed by eAntik.cz:
These two were sold in consecutive lots in Cirencester (UK) in 2008:
And most interestingly, throwing new light on the Bromley mammoths, is this. Sold in Naples, Florida, in 2008, it is apparently titled, “Strait between France & England Frozen”. This astonishing scene of dying mammoths, spear-wielding hunters and their dogs, may, perhaps, be the first depiction of an ice age world in which Britain and France were connected.
Here’s another mammoth scene in the show:
Compare the above with this, from The Story of the Earth & Man, a geological book by JW Dawson (1873). Which came first?
Another picture from the show, this time illustrating someone making a dugout canoe.
Now, when we put the exhibition together, we assumed this was an ancient scene. It may well be. But now I’ve found this, I wonder. It was sold in 2008 in Massachusetts, when it was described as “Two American Indians making a canoe”. Significantly, it’s dated, to 1876.
Griset undoubtedly did do some illustrations of north Americans, such as this, from a 1922 Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan, & Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi, by David I. Bushnell, Jr:
And he did other archaeological scenes:
And finally this, in the collection at Turton Tower, Lancashire:
I’m quite sure this is only the tip of it all. At least we now have the unprecedented chance to see 14 of his works in one go.
“A forgotten illustrator: Ernest Griset 1844-1907”, by Hesketh Hubbard, The Connoisseur 115 (1945), 30–36
Ernest Griset: Fantasies of a Victorian Illustrator, ed Lionel Lambourne (Thames & Hudson 1977)
“Illustrating ‘savagery’: Sir John Lubbock & Ernest Griset”, by Tim Murray, Antiquity 83 (2009), 488–99
Reindeer engraved on a bone from the British Museum’s Ice Age art exhibition, and a white horse carved into a Dorset hillside – both feature on the cover of the new British Archaeology. The horse is to flag up the unexpected re-appearance of a lost dummy for an illustrated Puffin book about chalk hill figures, that Eric Ravilious was working on when he died (and now acquired by Wiltshire Museum, where you can see it on display this week). James Russell has written about that, and Jill Cook, who curated the British Museum show, describes an ancient world “teeming with game and symbols”.
Emma Cunliffe writes about the destruction of Syria’s heritage, and Dot Boughton rounds up a very curious group of new-found prehistoric bronze hoards from Wiltshire and Hampshire. Other features include the annual Requiem – obituary notes on many of the British archaeologists and lovers of antiquity who died in the past year – the extraordinary geofizz at Brancaster on Time Team’s last dig, and the centenary of the passing in August 1913 of an act to protect ancient monuments. In News we broke the story that Wiltshire’s museums have called a stop to excavation because they have nowhere to store the stuff archaeologists are digging up. And all the usual regulars, with strong pieces from the CBA about architectural history and the Marconi Factory. It’s a great edition. As always, if you are a member of the Council for British Archaeology you will have received a copy of British Archaeology as part of your members’ package. Or you can obtain the magazine separately in print (by subscription or in selected newsagents including WH Smith) or digital form, including an app for iPhone, iPad or Android.
Some extraordinary things are coming together in the Wellington Arch in London. English Heritage is getting ready to open a new exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery (The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past), which opens next week – the first public event in a year of celebration of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation & Amendment Act 1913 (really!). They should’ve given the act a snappier name: it is in fact a great story.
Anyway, among the stuff being unpacked and examined in the arch when I was there on Wednesday, were three portraits: an oil of John Lubbock, an oil of General Pitt-Rivers, and a photo of Charles Darwin.
The latter (above, ready to hang), is from Darwin’s home at Down House, managed by English Heritage. Online it’s sometimes described as 1859 (the year his On the Origin of Species was published), which would be great – we also have a first edition copy of the book in the show, and the flint handaxe that John Evans and Joseph Prestwich took back to London from the quarry at St Acheul, also in 1859 (another story, but the find that amongst other things, showed archaeology could write history). But when was the photo really taken?
On the face of it, that date comes from an odd book by Karl Pearson (1914) about Francis Galton (it has an unsettling obsession with genealogy). He reproduces the image as below:
(Interestingly, Pearson also notes that the photo was “touched up by Mrs Darwin”. Comparison of images here suggests she was particularly concerned with his trousers.)
When the Down House print was unpacked in the arch, I was able to look at the back of the frame. There are two stickers, including a business label from Messrs Maull & Fox, at 187a Piccadilly.
I learnt about Henry Maull (1829–1914) from a useful website about London photographers. Maull traded from a number of addresses, typically three at any one time, and with a number of different partners. One of those addresses was 187a Piccadilly, Westminster (above Hatchards booksellers), where he had premises between 1857 and 1885, and the business continued there under Maull’s name until 1924. His name appeared above the shop in four guises:
1. Maull & Polyblank: partnership with George Henry Polyblank (1828–?), May 1857–March 1865.
2. Henry Maull: after this partnership was dissolved, Maull re-established himself on his own, March 1865–1871.
3. Henry Maull & Co: 1872–1877.
4. Maull & Fox: a new partnership with John Fox (1832–1907), 1878–1885; the partnership was dissolved in 1885, but the studio continued until 1924 under successive owners with the original name.
So this print must have been made, or at the very least framed and sold, some time between 1878 and 1924. Apparently after it was sold, on two occasions notes were added which suggested the photo was taken in 1859: one says “original taken about 1859”, the other, in a different hand, “…taken about the time of the publication of the ‘Origin’. Belonged to William & later to Horace Darwin. J.D.”
Maull’s first studio opened on Gracechurch Street, City of London, in 1854 (as Maull & Polyblank), so on that basis, the photo could theoretically have been taken between 1854 and 1862, when Darwin grew his beard. So far so good.
However, the photo was reproduced by Francis Darwin, Charles’s son, in 1899, when he described it thus:
“The portrait of Charles Darwin is by Messrs Maull and Fox, who have been good enough to permit its reproduction. The date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire. The reproduction is by Mr Dew-Smith, who has been at some disadvantage, having only an old and faded print to work from.”
The photo (cropped, perhaps reflecting the print’s condition – no trousers) was also reproduced by Darwin & Seward in 1903, again with the date “c 1854”. This image is on the Darwin online website:
A version was published in in 1884 in Harper’s Magazine (also from Darwin online):
In 1899, Maull was trading as Maull & Fox, and would have provided the print that Francis Darwin used under that name. But if the shot was taken in 1854, it would have been by Maull & Polyblank. That is the attribution to a very similar portrait. It looks like the same jacket, but otherwise different clothes, so apparently not actually at the same sitting, though one has to wonder:
This is now owned by Christ’s College, and was taken by Maull & Polyblank for the Literary & Scientific Portrait Club. The Darwin online website quotes a letter from Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker on 27 May 1855 that apparently refers to this image:
“if I really have as bad an expression, as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising.’
The website says there is a pencilled note on the back of the frame:
“This photograph of Darwin was presented by him to my Uncle, FD Dyster, of Tenby. I am informed by Francis Darwin, his son, that the photograph was probably taken in the year 1854, but he had never seen it. FHH Guillemard.”
So Francis said both of these photos were “about 1854”.
It seems likely that if these two really were taken in 1859, that date would have been associated with at least one of them from the start. Yet it was added later, and not to both. It’s a bit circumstantial, but the testimony of Francis and the sitter’s comment that is apparently about one of them, add up to the photos having been taken in 1854 or 1855. The Down House print was made in or after 1878.