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