In Room 16

Nicholas Penny

© The Trustees of the British Museum

‘What a shame that the ancient painted vase illegally exported from Turkey or the bronze leopard brutally looted from Benin or the sandstone deity clandestinely excavated in Cambodia should be returned to their countries of origin, where they would be seen by a smaller and less varied public and would be less well displayed, or perhaps not be displayed at all and only possible to view by appointment.’

Hearing such muttered laments you might have supposed that there were no closed galleries in the great museums of the Western world, and no fine things in storage.

In fact there are many major works of art in our museums which are not on view, and of which the British public, for whom they were acquired, know little. Of course, some of these – most notably the light-sensitive works on paper – should only be exhibited occasionally. And it is always possible to argue about what is meant by a major work of art. A convenient definition might be an object which a comparable foreign institution would regard as a great acquisition and would not dream of consigning to a store.

The upper part of Room 16 in the British Museum, entered by a short staircase from the main circuit of Greek and Roman galleries, was devised half a century ago (before the needs of the disabled were properly considered) to exhibit the frieze of the cella (inner chamber) of the ancient temple of Apollo Epicurius (‘the Healer’) at Bassae in Phigaleia. It would qualify as a major work of art by any reasonable criterion. But for a long time the staircase has been closed.

The temple at Bassae was much admired in antiquity when it was said to have been designed by Ictinus, one of the architects of the Parthenon, and it also enjoys textbook prominence as the earliest building known to have featured the three orders of classical Greek architecture: Doric was employed outside for the peristyle; Ionic columns, engaged to internal buttresses, were ranged around the cella; and a single, free-standing Corinthian column – the earliest known example – marked the entrance to the inner sanctum. The substantial remains of the building, situated high on the slope of Mount Kotylion, were provided in the 1980s with special protective scaffolding and a temporary canopy, so the temple has, so to speak, entered emergency care, whereas its frieze now has a new, or at least a renewed, home. At the end of April, the upper part of Room 16 was reopened, repainted and supplied with improved lighting and labels.

The frieze, which had long been dislodged, was excavated in 1811 and 1812 by Charles Robert Cockerell and Carl Haller von Hallerstein with their colleagues. It was bought for the British Museum in 1814. Three years later it went on public display in a temporary room beside the one housing the Parthenon marbles. For well over a hundred years the Phigaleian frieze, as it was known, was regarded as complementing those great sculptures. The upper part of Room 16 was not intended to marginalise the frieze but to create a space around which it could be completely wrapped, as it would have been in the interior of the cella for which it was made.

On account of the dimly lit interior of their original setting, the 23 marble slabs of which the frieze is composed are carved in unusually high relief, each with a separate episode but in no discernible sequence. The two subjects – Amazons in combat with Greeks, and Centaurs in combat with male and female Lapiths – seem to have been jammed together and the frieze as a whole has a ‘staccato violence’, a ‘curious irregularity of rhythm’, as Martin Robertson puts it in A History of Greek Art (1975), an insistent repetition of the tense diagonals of both straight and bent legs, which contrasts with the later Amazon frieze that once surrounded the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and now adorns the long walls of Room 21 in the British Museum.

There are also scenes that Robertson describes as ‘uncommonly brutal’. One biting and kicking centaur makes those of the Parthenon metopes seem quite tame, and a foreshortened centaur below daringly disrupts the front plane. The drapery of the Amazons is pulled across their thighs in jagged horizontal folds of ‘curious and convincing ugliness’, in contrast to the melodic flutter where it is loose. Alongside the brutality there is pathos. The warriors clutching the sinking forms of dying or dead companions anticipate the later, more famous three-dimensional groups with comparable subjects. But, apart from the fixed grimaces of the centaurs, there seems to have been little facial expression, even on the face of the Lapith woman being abducted by a centaur.

The previous wall text characterised the frieze as ‘a collection of formulaic motifs probably borrowed from contemporary Athenian art’ but Robertson devotes two dense and impressive pages to its distinctive dramatic character. The new presentation brings this out but does not conceal the compositional failures determined, as the new wall text succinctly notes, by the miscalculations of the sculptors, who were not working on site.

The frequent closure of Room 16 had weakened the claim (sometimes advanced in the debate that most absorbs the British Museum today) that ancient Greek sculpture occupies a special place in the artistic imagination and education of the British people. Few today would echo the words of Shelley in his preface to Hellas:

The human form and the human mind attained to a perfection in Greece which has impressed its image on those faultless productions whose very fragments are the despair of modern art, and has propagated impulses which cannot cease, through a thousand channels of manifest or imperceptible operation, to ennoble and delight mankind until the extinction of the race.

But the mere fact that such ideas were so widely and so long believed is adequate reason for their legacy to be properly respected, and even to regain some pre-eminence, in the British Museum.

Cockerell, who excavated the frieze, decades later embodied casts of it in the staircase hall of the University Galleries in Oxford. He also employed, for the exterior of that building (now the Ashmolean Museum) and the conjoined Taylor Institute, the combination of golden brown and white stone that is a feature of the Temple at Bassae, together with the exquisite Ionic order that he had found there. Cockerell was an architect, an art historian and an archaeologist. The institutionalised separation of these three disciplines has contributed to the closure of many of the channels to which Shelley referred. The reopening of Room 16 merits more notice than it has received.


  • 4 May 2023 at 6:35am
    Byron Black says:
    How dismaying. I had eagerly commenced reading, thinking I was about to be presented spicy fare deemed improper and offensive by the Victorians but common with adherents of "Greek love" and its variants. Naw, no porno. Crushed, I withdraw to my dim salon to gaze upon the embers of a dying fire.

    Come on - it deserves mention at least: how many museums, confronted with vases showing figures engaged in mutual masturbation or at least fiddling with another's microscopic John Thomas (pace Monty Python), stash them away to "...protect the children..." from reality?

    • 4 May 2023 at 3:56pm
      prwhalley says: @ Byron Black
      Many years ago I delivered a 14th century Burmese temple lintel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. While I was pushing it across a gallery floor one of the dolly wheels stuck and the lintel fell off on to my leg, ripping a big gash in my calf. It was very painful. An ambulance was called and after a while two EMT drivers with a folded up wheelchair showed up. They put me in the wheelchair and rolled me towards the loading dock. Quite a long journey as the Met is a pretty big museum. About half way one of them said to me "Hey, you wanna see something cool?". I said sure. They wheeled me over to a display cabinet and pointed up at a bowl on the top shelf with a relief running around it. I looked up and squinted, "What is it?".
      "Two guys fucking!"
      True story :-)