In February 1852, an enthusiastic crowd watched an Assyrian winged lion being manoeuvred backwards into the British Museum in London (Fig. 1).
The event — duly portrayed in the Illustrated London News a few days later — was a culminating moment in a story that had begun in 1845, when the British adventurer, diplomat, and archaeologist Austen Henry Layard started excavating what he thought was the biblical town of Nineveh. What he had actually found was Nimrud, an equally ancient city along the Tigris, but the confusion did not matter much. Whatever it was he had found, it caused a sensation, fuelling a veritable Assyria-mania in 1850s Britain.
Layard’s Assyrian treasures were distributed in many shapes and forms to the London audience. They came as artefacts: Shipment after shipment of objects, sculptures, and architectural fragments arrived in London in the late 1840s and early 50s to be installed in the British Museum. They were presented in books; Layard was extremely prolific, publishing more or less a book a year throughout the 1850s. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh from 1852, for instance, was reprinted four times in as many months, distributed as one of John Murray’s cheap and popular railway books and translated into numerous languages. The books and artefacts were supplemented by dioramas, panoramas, and theatre performances, popular genres exploiting the public’s obsession with all things Assyrian. Charles Kean’s staging of Byron’s Sardanapalus in 1853 — an exuberant oriental fantasy whose stage set was closely based on Layard’s finds — left the press enraptured by the way this ‘noblest of Byron’s drama […] — replete with poetic feeling, connects itself with the most astonishing of modern archaeological discoveries’ (ILN 18 June 1853: 593) (Fig. 2).
The museum displays, books, and theatre performances undoubtedly had a great impact, yet the most vigorous dissemination of Layard’s finds took place in the illustrated press. Illustrated journals and newspapers were the mass media of their day, part of what publication historians have called the ‘second print revolution’ of the 19th century (Anderson 1991). Starting with the Penny Magazine published by the Society for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge in 1832, the illustrated press had by the early 1850s evolved from philanthropic paternalism to middle class entertainment on a large scale.1The Illustrated London News (ILN) was at the helm of this development. From a modest start in 1842, the ILN by the end of the 1850s printed 300,000 copies weekly, meaning that it was read by a couple of million people every week. Its scope was ambitious, covering art, literature, politics, technology, science, history, and natural wonders, including an extraordinary amount of architecture from past and present, far and near. As the editors proclaimed in the very first issue,
the broad and palpable delineations of wood engraving […] will now be brought to bear upon every subject which attracts the attention of mankind. […] The literature, the customs — the dress — nay, the institutions and localities of other lands, shall be brought home to you with spirit, with fidelity, and, we hope, with discretion and taste. (ILN 14 May 1842: 1)
Architecture and archaeology were part of this effort.
The ILN followed Layard closely from his earliest adventures, running long, illustrated articles on the excavations, the transport of the treasures to London, and — not least — their installation in the British Museum. In the early 1850s, hardly a week went by without some account of Layard and his finds, and each time a new shipment of antiquities arrived to London, ILN was there to report. ‘[W]e hasten to describe’, they assured their readers, ‘the large shipment which arrived at the British Museum some days ago […] in order to afford the public the earliest opportunity of judging these extraordinary, thought-stirring sculptures’ (ILN 26 Oct. 1850: 331). Depicted in large, xylographic prints, the objects could be inspected in their most minute detail on the pages of the magazine (Figs 3, 4).
Interestingly, the ILN was permitted to use xylographic blocks prepared by John Murray for his Layard series before the books themselves had even been published — a good example of the vivid circulation of images in 19th-century illustrated media. As the ILN editors gratefully acknowledged:
[W]e owe our acknowledgments entirely to the courtesy of Mr. John Murray, who, after expending several thousands in getting up two exclusive works upon the subject, — ‘Layard’s Illustrations of the Monuments of Nineveh’ (with 100 folio plates) and ‘Layard’s Narrative of Researches and Discoveries in Nineveh’ — has most generously placed such drawings as we required at our disposal; notwithstanding that by so doing he affords us an opportunity of preceding the publication of the works in question by some days, and we thus cordially thank Mr. Murray for his liberality. (ILN 16 Dec. 1848: 373)
By means of detailed descriptions and meticulous xylographic engravings, the illustrated press allowed the viewer to walk through the Assyrian department unhindered by crowds and barriers — both of which were problems when visiting the real museum (Malley 2012: 45–75). Bringing the past directly to the contemporary public, the ILN promoted itself as an alternative museum for all those who could not make it to the actual one (ILN 28 Dec. 1850: 505; ILN 26 Oct. 1850: 331).
In accordance with our expressed desire to convey precise Illustrated Information upon subjects which but for the means we present would be unattainable by a large portion of the British public, we resume our former articles on the sculptures from Nimroud, by describing those which have recently arrived,
the ILN proudly announced on 16 December 1848, and did not shy away from correcting the British Museum’s ordering systems whenever it found fit (ILN 26 June 1847: 409).2 In fact, as Frederick Bohrer points out, the journal presented itself not merely as a supplement to the museum but as a complete experience in its own right, in many ways superior to the real museum (Bohrer 2003: 162–206). While the museum lacked ‘any regular or numerical arrangement’, the ILN set out to provide a
catalogue, a guide available to every visitor to the British Museum, and one which will possess the further advantage that it can be resumed from time to time, as fresh discoveries reach this country, without interfering with the arrangement of those which we have previously published. (ILN 28 Dec. 1850: 505)
Furthermore, in addition to providing a complete, illustrated overview of Layard’s finds, the ILN also provided company. Other, ideal museum-goers accompanied the reader on his or her virtual tour, presumably demonstrating suitable attitudes towards the past and appropriate behaviour in the new institution of the museum (Fig. 5).
The new archaeological finds served several purposes in the new media. They were used to disseminate new knowledge of human history, of course, but more than that, they were props in an immersive spectacle, allowing the reader to experience particular historical moods. The illustrated press was particularly suited to convey such moods. By means of vivid descriptions and large, beautiful images, the ILN transported the reader back to an imaginary past — a shared dream of a ‘new antiquity’, as Bohrer puts it (2003: 1–6). The emphasis on reception makes the illustrated press key to understanding the changing attitudes to art and architecture in 19th century Europe. From the rule-bound neo-classicism of the early 1800s, 19th-century historicism would increasingly seek the legitimacy of art and architecture in their capacity to evoke specific moods and atmospheres. The ILN and its many continental copycats were significant drivers in this development.
The bystanders watching the winged lion being hauled up Smirke’s monumental stairs in London in 1852 came well prepared to catch the emotive impact of the moving monument. Through texts, images, displays, and performances, they had had been trained to view history, not simply as an amalgamation of facts or as a model for emulation, but as an emotive sphere, accessible for contemporary immersion.
A man who must have followed Layard’s lion with interest was the German architect Gottfried Semper. Fleeing Dresden after the 1849 uprisings, he had arrived in London in September 1850 after having stayed in Paris for a little over a year. Semper had been interested in Assyrian art and architecture for some time. In Paris, he had become familiar with the French archaeologist Paul Emile Botta’s Assyrian excavations and studied his finds first hand in the Louvre (Herrmann 1989: 24; Chestnova 2017: 45–140). Semper’s initial reaction to the collection was one of frustration. In a letter to his publisher, Eduard Vieweg, in February 1850, he complained that the Assyrian finds had forced him to reject all previous theories about the origin and essence of architecture, starting from scratch (Semper 1976). An early attempt at doing just that was Vergleichende Baulehre, a 380-page manuscript that Semper sent to Vieweg in May 1850, a few months before going to England. He seems to have overcome his initial exasperation, for now an entire chapter was dedicated to Assyrian architecture (Semper 1850). Though never published in full, this text is rightly famous among Semper scholars for it contains one of the earliest articulations of the principle of Bekleidung [dressing] — a key point in Semper’s theory of the origin and development of architecture.3
Before turning to the issue of Bekleidung it is worth paying attention to Semper’s overall ambition on behalf of Vergleichende Baulehre. ‘The author’s intention’, Semper wrote, ‘is to put the reader into a frame of mind that will make the works of these nations understandable to him’ (Semper 1850: 197–198). What did Semper’s ‘frame of mind’ consist of? It was not the grand narrative of Winckelmann, judging historical architecture by its adherence or non-adherence to the classical ideal. Rather, Semper evoked a particularizing frame of mind, one in which the work was understood and judged according to the particular social, material, and geographical conditions that had produced it (Semper 1850: 204). To be sure, by the early 1850s this was a well-established lesson of historicism, but Semper went further. The essence of the artwork, he suggested, its raison d’être so to speak, was not found in its structural or even its stylistic coherence, but in its effect on the beholder. The role of the historian, then, was to establish the context in which this effect could be felt, thus making the emotive power of the past accessible to the present.
The notion of effect brings us back to the principle of Bekleidung. In Semper’s well-known analysis, articulated most fully in the first volume of Der Stil, structure is subordinate to surface and construction is subordinate to cladding (Semper 2004: 237–255). The material reality of the wall is less important than the atmosphere created by its dressing. In Assyrian architecture, Semper found a primordial example of this subordination. ‘Walls never appeared in their structural nakedness; they were always covered on the inside as well as on the outside’, wrote Semper, vividly describing the festive arrangements of carpets hung on ancient Assyrian walls ‘as they still are’, he wrote, ‘in the contemporary Orient’ (Semper 1850: 208–209).
The study of Assyrian architecture persuaded Semper that architecture originated in the emotive enclosure — an origin that continues to echo in all later architecture, he thought, all the way up to the present. Tracing the development of the enclosure from the wickerwork wall, via hanging carpets, to stone reliefs, he outlined the history of Assyrian architecture as a material metamorphosis in which the original atmosphere is preserved even when the material changes. ‘On festive occasions the display of carpets would have recalled the original motif in its proper form’, Semper wrote (1850: 209) — an idea he would famously develop in Der Stil a decade later.
For Semper, architecture originates in a historically particular practice. As such, his architectural origins constitute an anthropological, not a typological or art-historical category (Hvattum 2004: 64–85). To understand this anthropological origin required thorough, comparative analysis, but it also demanded a certain ‘frame of mind’ — a particular empathy with the historical material by which its atmosphere or mood could be experienced. The famous footnote in Der Stil in which Semper encouraged students of architecture to forget ‘the means that must be used to achieve a desired effect’ and concentrate instead on the effect itself, is the ultimate consequence of this line of thought, sparked by his encounter with Assyria (Semper 2004: 438–439 n84). The ‘frame of mind’ into which Semper wanted to transport his reader, then, was an anthropological framework in which the acting human being, both as maker and perceiver, took centre stage.
Semper, Layard, and The Illustrated London News
We do not know whether Semper was one of the curious bystanders watching Layard’s lion being hauled into the British Museum, but we can reasonably guess that he knew of the event, at least from the Illustrated London News. Semper was a keen reader of the illustrated press and contributed himself to the ILN and other popular magazines (Semper 1851; Semper 1853). He continued reading the ILN long after leaving London, at least it is frequently cited in the footnotes to Der Stil (Semper 2004: 441–442 n124, 447–448 n194, 448 n214, 451 n45). Several of his illustrations bear close resemblance to xylographic prints in the ILN (Chestnova 2015), such as for instance the Assyrian stool shown in §70 of the first volume of Der Stil, which is clearly the same as the stool depicted in the ILN on 21 December 1850 (Figs 6, 7).
A far more detailed investigation is required to ascertain the exact genealogy of Semper’s illustrations, but there is no doubt that the close-knit relationship between text and image on the pages of Der Stil has much in common with the illustrated press. The affinity is more than a matter of layout. Presenting the past as an atmospheric attribute of the present, the ILN’s richly illustrated accounts turned history into a contemporary event through visual association. In doing so, it contributed historical depth to a transient modernity and gave new legitimacy to the study of the past. With the emergence of a mass audience, the study of ancient monuments took on a new urgency. No longer an exclusively scholarly pursuit, architectural history, in a popularized form, provided atmospheres for contemporary appropriation and consumption (Bohrer 2003).
Semper was not alone in adopting strategies from the popular press. His role model in that respect may well have been Layard, whose entire authorship depended on this synchronic anthropology by which ancient history became a source for modernity’s empathic self-recognition. According to Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains, for instance, was not only a study of ancient ruins but of contemporary people; their habits, their dress, their beliefs — in a word, their way of life. The contemporary people of the Middle East, Layard wrote,
are, indeed, as much the remains of Nineveh, and Assyria, as are the rude heaps and ruined palaces. A comparison between the dwellers in the land as they now are, and as the monuments of their ancestors lead us to believe they once were, will not, perhaps be without useful results. (Layard 1849: ix–x)
Ancient monuments are testimonies to ways of life, Layard asserted. They tell us not only how the people of Mesopotamia ‘once were’ but also how they are today. In doing that, they also allow, as it were in relief, the cultural conditions of the modern Western world to come to the fore, made visible by a double comparison between the past and the present, the far and the near. The ILN’s Assyrian coverage shows a similar anthropology at work. The meticulous descriptions of Assyrian monuments do not speak, a la Winckelmann, about the development of style. Nor do they touch on execution, technique, or anything else that the art historian might find interesting. Instead, they set out to tell a story about the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. Constantly interspersed with biblical quotes — this was, after all, the Caleh of the Old Testament — the story is one of war and devastation, rebuilding and redemption, human life and divine intervention.
What is at stake, here, is not a cool, art historical analysis, but an emotional drama, involving the mythical (and biblical) origins of modern civilization and the possibility of a contemporary audience to comprehend it. The aim of the ILN, as the editors proclaimed, was to describe Layard’s collection in such a way that ‘a consecutive story was made out’ (ILN 16 Dec. 1848). The weekly newspaper The Era was even more articulate regarding the aim of such a ‘consecutive story’. Layard’s finds, the editors wrote, brought ‘home to our very doors the trophies and the proofs of the existence of a kingdom long blotted out from modern charts’. Bringing together past and present, the mediated collection would ‘permit us to realize the habits and the customs of the mighty dead, and […] after a lapse of 2500 years, enable us to verify the truth of holy writ and the inspiration of those prophets in olden time foretold the destruction of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire’ (The Era, 19 June 1853, in Malley 2012: 83). The drama unfolding here was a double drama, involving actors both past and present, and a double anthropology too, for by studying them, the ancients, we study ourselves, the moderns.
Layard’s Assyrian treasures — thousands of miles removed from their original context — became both a testimony to their own particular origins and a vehicle for shaping and moving the present. Through the careful orchestration of the past — in the press, in the theatre, and in the museum — the public was trained to appreciate this drama and to project themselves into it. Monuments moved, and in the process, they moved their spectators, allowing the present to feel its way into a bygone age.
Feeling One’s Way Into History
To immerse oneself emotionally in history was not a new idea in the 1850s. Already in 1774, Johan Gottfried Herder encouraged the historian not merely to assemble facts, but to ‘feel [his] way into everything’ (Herder 2004: 24). A few years before, Goethe had encouraged students of history to measure less and feel more (Goethe 1980: 4). The past cannot be accessed through rational explanation, Goethe implied, let alone be learnt from examples. Too different to be understood, history can only be felt, as a living totality with its own, unique spirit and expression (Hvattum 2017).
By the mid 19th century, this lesson had been thoroughly learnt. Not that they had stopped measuring: Excavations and registrations of monuments were going on at full speed. Yet the vigorous dissemination of historical monuments in publications, performances, museum displays, and dioramas happened in the form of stories, encouraging the audience to immerse themselves in the spirit of ancient life. The public press provided a place for such emotive immersion, educating the viewer and reader in how to participate in the living, breathing spirit of history. The precondition for such immersion was not that the past and the present were the same: On the contrary, it was the fact that they were radically different. The difference allowed for two things. On the one hand, it demonstrated the historical relativity of architecture — indeed of every cultural product — thus sanctioning the comparative analysis that had quickly become the key methodology of 19th-century science. Even more importantly, however, it allowed for a new experience of the past in which historical art and architecture became emotional triggers.
Perhaps this is why Semper thought he had to start ‘all over again’ when encountering Assyrian art. To encounter a culture so radically different from the classical forced him to conceive his own work as a comparative theory — a Vergleichende Baulehre — but it also forced him to consider, not only the origins of these works, but also their impact on the present. It forced him to dedicate years of his life trying to put ‘the reader into a frame of mind that will make the works of these nations understandable to him’.
Distributed in magazines and books, as collections, souvenirs, theatre sets, and panoramas, the Assyrian treasures carried a paradoxical lesson. On the one hand, it was a lesson in the historical specificity of art and architecture: its existence relative to time and place. On the other hand, it was a demonstration of the transferability of a site-specific cultural expression, testifying to the possibility of contemporary men and women to partake in the mental and material life of a remote, ancient civilization. Just like the railway and the telegraph had reconfigured space by connecting the most remote corners of the world, ancient monuments — disseminated in print as well as in the museum — reconfigured time (The Era, 19 June 1853). Although radically different from the present, the past was nonetheless accessible for emotional immersion.
A place where this dual mode of legitimization — comparative anthropology and emotive immersion — came together spectacularly was the Crystal Palace, not least in the way it re-emerged at Sydenham as a sort of interactive panorama of human history (Nichols 2015; Lending 2017). Here, the audience could walk through carefully choreographed sequences from architectural history from all corners of the world. As the official guide put it, ‘nothing better aids us in realizing the people and customs of the past, than the wonderful monuments happily preserved from the destructive hand of Time’ (Phillips 1854: 38). Both Semper and Layard were involved at Sydenham, Semper as curator of the Mixed Fabric Court, Layard as consultant to the Assyrian Court. Although based on meticulous archaeological evidence, the latter did not correspond to any particular building, Layard wrote in his guidebook to the Assyrian Court. Rather, it was built to ‘convey to the spectator as exact an idea as possible of Assyrian architecture’ (Layard 1854: 52). What was the ‘idea’, in this context? Not abstract rules or universal principles. Rather, the idea to be conveyed, here, was the unique spirit, the particular, emotive atmosphere of a bygone age. To convey this ephemeral idea, the curators built up, not a random copy but an ideal totality, whose brilliant colours, sequences, and arrangements allowed the visitors to relive a past that for a moment was recreated before them.
The comparative tableau established at Sydenham did not present mere facts, nor did it establish models for direct emulation. Instead, it suggested a third possibility for architectural history: to enter into dialogue with the past through emotive immersion — to facilitate an intense, emotional identification with the spirit of a bygone age. Layard’s — and Semper’s — insistence on the historical monument as simultaneously timely and timeless mirrors the paradoxes of 19th-century historicism itself, caught as it was between a belief in the inviolable uniqueness of all cultural expression and the repeatability of historical experience.
Pondering the aporias of historicism, we may get some unexpected help from the Kantian notion of heteronomy. In the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Immanuel Kant contemplated what it is that influences human actions and choices. Moral choices made according to innate moral principles — most notably the categorical imperative — Kant defined as autonomous. Choices made according to other circumstances, on the other hand — considerations of gain, for instance, or other external factors outside the will itself — he referred to as heteronomic, i.e. ruled by laws from without (Kant 1996: 96–102). In other words, if moral autonomy is the state of being ruled by one’s inner principles, heteronomy is the opposite: to be ruled by external circumstance. Kant was critical of such heteronomic impulses, famously deeming them ‘the source of all spurious principles of morality’ (Kant 1996: 96). In his universe, moral judgment should be categorical, not circumstantial; ruled by an autonomous inner imperative rather than by external ideas and vested interest.
Stretching Kant’s terminology well beyond its intended use, it is tempting to suggest that the 19th-century crisis of legitimacy for architecture moved along similar lines to the moral crisis outlined by Kant. If Winckelmann evoked classical architecture as an autonomous entity — grounded in its own, universal, and largely immanent laws — the 19th century saw that autonomy crumble. Semper, I suspect, had an inkling of that collapse. When he exclaimed that Assyrian art had forced him to rethink his entire theory of architecture, he intuited, perhaps, the emergence of an heteronomic architecture in a Kantian sense; an architecture whose conception and reception were ruled by external circumstance rather than intrinsic principles. To 19th-century thinkers, the originary principle of architecture was no longer found within architecture itself but in its relations to place and time, Zeitgeist and Volksgeist, materials and technological progress, new building tasks and changing human practice. In a word, architecture originated, not in architecture itself, but, as Semper put it much later, in ‘the constituent parts of form that are not form in itself’ (Semper 2004: 72).
Just as Kant lamented the instrumentalization of the human will to external circumstance, 19th-century architects and theorists — or at least many of them — dreaded the relativization of architecture to time and place. Faced with the loss of architectural autonomy, the 19th century sought new legitimacy for architecture in historically specific and anthropologically defined origins. From the autonomous body of the primitive hut, the essence of architecture was now sought in much more unruly — indeed heteronomic — forms of origins, encountered not so much in actual works of architecture as in fragments, replicas, and representations circulating in the museum, the world exhibition, and on the pages of the illustrated press.
The 19th-century monument moved, swiftly and vigorously, in stone and on paper, challenging and renegotiating the legitimacy of architecture in the modern world. In the process, it managed both to move its spectators and to forever move the boundaries of architectural thinking.