Owning the Past

Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640–1840

Ruth Guilding

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In a lively re-examination of the British collectors who bankrupted themselves to possess antique marble statues, Owning the Past chronicles a story of pride, rivalry, snobbery, and myopic obsession with posterity and possession. Analyzing the motives that drove “Marble Mania” in England from the 17th through the early 19th century, Ruth Guilding examines how the trend of collecting antique sculpture entrenches the ideals of connoisseurship and taste, exacerbates socioeconomic inequities, and serves nationalist propaganda. Even today, for the individuals or regimes that possess them, classical statuary performs as a symbol of authority or as the trophies of a “civilized” power. From Adolf Hitler posing for the press beside an ancient copy of Myron’s Discobolus to the 2002 sale of the Newby Venus for a record price of about $13 million to the Emir of Qatar, marble mania remains unabated. With insider access to private collections, Guilding writes with verve and searing insight into this absorbing fixation.
Ruth Guilding is an independent scholar and critic.

‘The result of years of research and exclusive access to little-known private collections, Guilding’s book tackles the bankruptcies, rivalries, unbridled snobbery and social snakery in the world of collecting. More riveting than Downton Abbey.’—Vanity Fair

'Most unusually, the actual reach of Ruth Guilding’s mighty and compelling new study is far wider than the already large subject of ‘Why the English Collected Antique Sculpture, 1640-1840.'— David Ekserdjian, The Spectator

‘Sculpture in this book is not the neutral stuff of museum collections… Once you have had your eyes opened to such ideas by this lively and intelligent book, you will not look at country house sculpture again without asking what the sculpture and its presentation tells you about the collector’s personality and motives.’—Society of Antiquaries of London.

‘Beautifully illustrated, particularly with installation photographs both old and new, this enthralling book has a lifetime’s use ahead as the intelligent wanderer’s companion.’—Brian Sewell, Evening Standard.

‘For anyone wishing to pursue an interest in the subject, there could hardly be a more alluring or stimulating guide than this impressive work.’—Giles Waterfield, Art Newspaper.

‘On the whole, Guilding dextrously avoids what can become circular reasoning and ahistorical sweeping statements in other hands. Her in-depth knowledge produces a complex account of the diverse collecting practices, although her strength is in the detail, rather than the overarching narrative…’—Tiffany Jenkins, Apollo.

‘Designed by Gillian Malpass, Guilding’s book is an exceptionally handsome production… The text, accordingly, engages courteously with the personalities of the collectors and the “dynastic thickets” around them.’—Nigel Spivey, TLS.

‘This is an essential volume for anyone interested in the history of collecting and the influence of classical culture on the English country house.’—Jeremy Musson, Historic House.

‘The riveting story of how the rich and powerful attempted to annex these objects both to their collective culture and individual dynasties for posterity.’—Raci, GDC Interiors.

‘Guilding’s book authoritatively reconstructs the ambition of such men to build chambers in which marble sculpture would inspire for centuries to come.’—Christopher Woodward, World of Interiors.

"Splendidly illustrated, its target audience is not only scholars. . . . [It] covers an impressive range of material and contains a wealth of new observations . . . an admirably written, beautifully produced, and extremely informative book."—Hans Christian Hönes, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“[An] erudite and handsome book”—Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Burlington
ISBN: 9780300208191
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Publishing Partner: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
412 pages, 9 1/2 x 11 1/2
100 color + 200 b/w illus.