Topham Drawings

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Marble on Paper. Italian Anti­qui­ties Collec­tions of the Early 18th Century in Light of the Drawings Collec­tion of Richard Topham in Eton College

Richard Topham (1671–1730) created a virtual museum using the tech­no­logy of his own time. During his reti­re­ment, from 1713 until his death, the wealthy English lawyer and poli­ti­cian collected meti­cu­lous drawings of ancient monu­ments in Italy. Using agents, he commis­sioned a large team of artists to docu­ment anti­qui­ties collec­tions in Rome, Florence and other sites. In this manner, in a span of less than 20 years, he amassed over 2,200 drawings and water­co­lours. He would bequeath these to the library of Eton College, where they are still preserved intact today.

The drawings are of ancient works of art of almost all genres, but are concen­trated on sculp­ture (statues, busts, reliefs), wall pain­ting, minor arts (vases, coins, gems) and, to a lesser extent, archi­tec­ture. His collec­tion aimed for comple­teness, as his writings show, and it parti­ally achieved this goal. He was careful to note the names of the artists of his drawings, along with iden­ti­fi­ca­tions of the objects depicted and their current locations.

The focused campaigns of Topham’s draft­smen in narrowly-defined moments in time in Rome, Florence, Venice and else­where created a visual inven­tory of the private collec­tions which were visible at the time. Given the circu­la­tion of many ancient works of art on the art market, which was already common at that time, and the later disso­lu­tion and disper­sion of collec­tions of anti­qui­ties, the Topham drawings take on a unique docu­men­tary signi­fi­cance. Topham’s topo­gra­phical approach, that is, his inte­rest in the context of the collec­tions, differs funda­ment­ally from that of simi­larly-ambi­tious anti­qua­rian campaigns, of which Cassiano dal Pozzo’s ency­clo­pedic collec­tion of drawings from the 17th century (a better-known prede­cessor to Topham’s) is the most signi­fi­cant. The fact that Richard Topham appar­ently never intended to study anti­qui­ties in the original is another curious feature of this collec­tion. His desire was to have drawings of  them ‘on file’.

A one-year (2018) project, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foun­da­tion, aimed to develop a history of Topham’s drawings, which have gene­rally been underva­lued in anti­qua­rian rese­arch. The project was welcomed by Eton College Library, who actively supported it in close coope­ra­tion with the Census. In 2019, the Volks­wagen Foun­da­tion funded the project during a final year.

The project focused on circa 1,850 drawings after antique sculp­ture and antique objects in Italian collec­tions. These drawings were fully digi­tised and cata­logued. Through their inte­gra­tion into the data­base of the Census they were published syste­ma­ti­cally for the first time,

Eton College Library, Bm. 2, no. 24

Eton College Library, Bm. 9, no. 56