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From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum & the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School

From Nineveh to New York: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum & the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School

by John Malcolm Russell, Judith McKenzie (Contribution by), Stephanie Dalley (Contribution by)
The strange story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School. This volume includes previously unpublished photographs, illustrations from rare nineteenth century sources, and passages from the diary of Lady Charlotte Guest (cousin of Austen Henry Layard). With an interesting discussion of the English reception of


The strange story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School. This volume includes previously unpublished photographs, illustrations from rare nineteenth century sources, and passages from the diary of Lady Charlotte Guest (cousin of Austen Henry Layard). With an interesting discussion of the English reception of Ninevite art, and the Assyrian Revival, the book continues with the events surrounding the rediscovery of the Ninevah Porch and the last of Layard's sculptures recently sold at auction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
A good story lurks behind the odyssey of a splendid collection of Assyrian art, but art historian Russell (Sennacherib's Palace: Without Rival at Nineveh), does not tell it. Roughly half the book deals with the activities of Lady Charlotte Guest, the wealthy Victorian who built the neo-Gothic structure known as the Nineveh Porch in Dorsetshire to house treasures from the extinct city of Nineveh in what is now northern Iraq. Here, Russell succeeds in setting the structure within the lively context of England's mid 19th-century Ninevite revival that followed the discovery-and importation-of important artifacts. Once the treasures leave Dorsetshire, though, the narrative splinters. Tacked onto Russell's account of the sculptures' travails until their current installation in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is a chapter written by scholar Judith McKenzie that chronicles the discovery (and Russell's part in it) of another slab in Dorsetshire and a second on sale for $11.9 million in 1994. While his research into previously unpublished materials is welcome, the author never offers a simple formal analysis of Assyrian art nor does he cite its contributions, if any, to the ongoing history of art. Russell's earlier book possessed focus and a smooth writing style-the reliefs and colossi that were once the toast of Dorsetshire deserve no less.
Kirkus Reviews
All the elements for a great art-history drama are here, but this falls disappointingly short of entertaining.

The great marble statues and wall reliefs of ancient Assyria (704612 b.c.) and its capital, Nineveh, were largely excavated by adventurer Henry Layard, who was deemed their legal owner. Accordingly, he shipped some of his finds to the British Museum and others to his cousin and patron, Lady Charlotte Guest. Two of the pieces—colossi of a lion and a bull—were so large that Lady Guest had nowhere suitable to display them at her home, Canford Manor. With the help of noted architect Charles Barry and Layard, she built the "Nineveh Porch," designed specifically to showcase the Assyrian statues and reliefs. The porch was decorated with Assyrian-style engravings and shared other features of the artworks' original palace context. Russell's exposition of these events reads more like dry art history than the compelling human- interest story promised in the title. But the section on the colossi's circuitous path to New York City's Metropolitan Museum moves quickly and dramatically. After Canford Manor was sold and became Canford School, much of the art was sold and the porch transformed into a store for the students. Art patron John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought the sculptures from an art dealer and eventually settled on the Met as the recipient of a major gift. The author creates tension about Rockefeller's pending choice and uses it to explore the works' merits—are they historic remnants or beautiful objects? Years after the sale of Canford Manor, some remaining Assyrian pieces were discovered. Russell, an art historian and archaeologist at Columbia University, was called in to determine their authenticity. Iraq, which now comprises ancient Nineveh, tried to block their sale, claiming they were stolen. But Russell addresses only cursorily the important contextual issue of cultural appropriation.

This will hold the greatest appeal for fans of ancient Assyria.

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Yale University Press
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The story of the Nineveh Porch is a part of the larger story of the European rediscovery of ancient Assyria and its fabled capital, Nineveh, in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early 1840s, no one could read Assyrian cuneiform and only fragments of Assyrian remains were known. By the late 1850s, the language had been deciphered and six Assyrian palaces had been excavated. Though the memory of Nineveh as the center of a great empire and as a fearsome foe of the Hebrews had been perpetuated in the works of Classical historians and especially the Bible, these images proved to bear little resemblance to the historical Nineveh. The story of the rediscovery of Nineveh is the story of the reconciliation of cherished religious legends with hard archaeological facts, and of the threat to cherished Classical aesthetic norms from an entirely new style of art. The Canford marbles, among the first Assyrian sculptures brought to England, and the Nineveh Porch, the first expression of the Assyrian Revival, played major roles in this realignment of values.

The city of Nineveh has at least three histories. The first is its history as a place where people lived, a period of some 5000 years of occupation that culminated in its elevation in 704 BC to be the capital of the Assyrian empire. Then, as the chief residential and administrative city of the Assyrian kings, it became the capital of the world, center of the four quarters of the earth. The second is its history as a memory, the legends of Nineveh that grew up after its physical destruction and abandonment in 612 BC. The thirdis its history as an archaeological site since its rediscovery by A. H. Layard in 1847, a complex puzzle that generations of scholars hoped (and still hope) would reward care, diligence, and patience with authentic images of the past.


The ancient Assyrians were the people of Assur, state god of the land of Assur (Assyria). The Assyrian heartland was the part of northern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) centered on the upper Tigris river valley, bounded on the north and east by the Zagros mountains and on the south and west by arid plains (fig. 4). The Assyrians appear in the historical record as traders at the beginning of the second millennium BC and continue as an important regional and then world power until the fall of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC. From the ninth through the seventh centuries BC, the so-called Neo-Assyrian Period, Assyria expanded from a small nation state into an empire larger than any previously known, encompassing at its maximum extent all of what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, and large parts of Turkey and Iran.

Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC), one of the most powerful kings of the ninth century, pursued a successful policy of territorial expansion and also carried out substantial building projects in the traditional capital cities of Assur and Nineveh. His primary architectural and artistic activity, however, was lavished on a new capital city, the former Middle Assyrian provincial capital of Kalhu (modern Nimrud, biblical Calah, Xenophon's "Larissa"), on the east bank of an ancient bed of the Tigris river, some 35 kilometers south of Mosul. Around his fifth year, Assurnasirpal moved the chief royal residence and administrative center of the realm from Assur to Kalhu and began rebuilding it on a massive scale, constructing a new city wall some 7.5km in circumference, a palace, and nine temples. The most elaborate of these structures was the palace—called the Northwest Palace in the modern literature—which filled most of the northwest quarter of the citadel mound (fig. 5). Its known area measures 200 meters north to south and 120 meters east to west, and it may originally have extended further to the south and east.

Its northern third was a large outer courtyard, not shown in fig. 5, the south side of which was the throne-room facade (marked D and E on the plan). This, along with several other major entrances in the palace, was decorated with human-headed bull and lion colossi (fig. 6). Apart from their size—the largest were nearly six meters in length and height—their most striking feature is their combination in a single figure of two distinct relief images: a static frontal view showing two legs and a striding side view showing four legs, the result being a five-legged creature. The spaces between the legs and behind the tails of these colossi were carved with a text that identifies the king and summarizes some of his accomplishments. The walls to either side of the two preserved entrances, c and d, in the throne-room facade were lined with stone slabs carved in relief with foreigners bringing tribute before the king.

Beyond this was the throne-room suite (Rooms B and F), which opened onto a smaller inner courtyard (Y). This courtyard was lined on its other three sides with suites of large state apartments, each entered through a large doorway flanked by human-headed bull or lion colossi: G and H to the east, S and X to the south, and an unmarked suite of rooms to the west. The walls of all the rooms in this part of the palace were lined with stone slabs. Most of these were carved with relief images, many of which survive relatively intact. Also carved on each slab was a text that we call the "Standard Inscription," which gave the name, titles, and epithets of the king, summarized his military achievements, and described the appearance of the palace (see Appendix 6).

Taken as a whole, the relief decoration of the palace seems to be intended as a visual expression of the main points of Assurnasirpal's royal ideology. Within this overall scheme, the relief subjects vary from suite to suite. This may perhaps be explained in part by hypothesizing different primary functions for each suite. The relief decoration in the principal rooms of the west suite (Rooms WG and WK/BB, not shown in fig. 5) was poorly preserved, largely because many of its wall slabs had been removed in the seventh century BC for use in a new palace nearby. The slabs that do survive from these rooms show royal military campaigns and royal lion hunts. If this sample is representative of the decoration of the entire suite, then the theme in these rooms was royal power: the king's ability to subdue the enemies of Assyrian order, both man and beast. Since this was the only suite in the palace that overlooked the Tigris, and was therefore well-ventilated and scenically sited, we may imagine that these would have been the rooms of choice for court activities that did not require the formal setting of the main throne room, possibly being used as a secondary throne room and for such occasions as state banquets. The relief images on the walls of these rooms would have served their occupants both as reminders of the effectiveness of the power at the disposal of the king and as statements of the king's tireless activity as protector of Assyria from its enemies.

The east suite housed what I believe may be the palace shrines. Here, the decoration of the two large outer rooms, G and H, features the king, shown sitting or standing, usually holding a bow in his left hand, and accompanied by attendants. In half of the representations in Room G and all of those in Room H (figs. 7, 8), he holds a bowl in his right hand and is engaged in an activity that may most plausibly be identified as pouring libations. In the other half of the images from Room G, the king holds two arrows in his right hand and is flanked by two winged deities who extend an unidentified implement towards him. The two small rooms at the back (I and L), which on the evidence of their unusual L-shaped plan, paved floors, and wall niches may perhaps be shrines, were decorated with reliefs that showed winged human figures, some with bird heads and others with the horned crown of deities, pollinating or sprinkling a stylized palm tree with the same implement seen in Room G. This subject recurs throughout the palace and in most cases the figures are the entire height of the slab. In Room I, however, the slabs were divided into two registers of relief with the Standard Inscription in between (see fig. 38). Similar deities are described in seventh-century BC texts, where they are identified as apkallu or "sages," and are invoked for their protective powers. In the context of the palace reliefs, the tree evidently symbolizes Assyria, shown under the care of protective deities. If this interpretation is correct, then the east wing could be the location of royal rituals that involved liquid offerings to Assyrian deities, offerings that are depicted in the two outer rooms and that may actually have been made in the smaller back rooms that were lined with apotropaic figures.

The main room in the south suite (Room S) was decorated exclusively with images of the human- and bird-headed apkallu flanking the stylized tree, except that one of the end walls showed the king standing, flanked by attendants. In effect, the image of the king presided over images of protective deities who assured the well-being of Assyria. Since the meaning of the images in this suite is less obvious to outsiders than those of either the western or eastern suite, and since this suite is the furthest removed from the palace entrance, we may speculate that this suite was used for private or strictly court-related functions. The decoration of the three suites around Court Y, then, seems to emphasize three different aspects of Assurnasirpal's rule: military success in the west wing, service to the gods in the east wing, and Assyrian prosperity in the south wing.

In the relief decoration of the throne-room suite, all three of these ideals were brought together. All of the doors in Room B (the throne room) were lined with human-headed bull or lion colossi flanked by winged protective deities. The slabs opposite the main door and at the east end behind the throne base showed the king together with winged deities attending the stylized palm tree, and the tree with deities appeared in the corners as well. The remaining stretches of wall were covered with hunting and military reliefs (figs. 9, 10), divided into two registers separated by the Standard Inscription. The area above the wall reliefs in the throne-room was decorated with wall paintings and glazed bricks, which may have given an effect something like that of fig. 81. The reliefs in Room C, a shallow alcove that opened off the west end of the throne room directly opposite the throne base, showed the king holding a bowl, again apparently pouring libations, accompanied by attendants. Room F, the large room directly behind the throne room, was also decorated with the stylized tree flanked by bird-headed winged deities.

The decoration of the throne-room, therefore, expresses the same ideology of power, piety, and prosperity that was developed individually in each of the three inner suites of rooms. To this mixture, the throne-room facade adds the further ideal of the peaceful delivery of tribute from subject peoples at the extremity of the empire. The message seems to be that the maintenance of order, as shown inside the throne-room and in the inner suites of the palace, will assure prosperity in the form of the flow of wealth from the outer reaches of the empire into its capital.

Kalhu continued as the chief Assyrian royal residence until Sargon II (721-705 BC) built a new capital north of Nineveh at Dur Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad). Immediately upon Sargon's death, however, Sennacherib (704-681 BC), best known today for his unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, moved the capital to Nineveh, one of the oldest and most important cities of ancient Assyria. Once on the Tigris, Nineveh is now about a kilometer east of the river, directly opposite modern Mosul. Sennacherib made Nineveh the largest city in the known world, building a new city wall with 18 gates, a huge new palace, an arsenal, temples, roads, bridges, and canals. Sennacherib's new palace, which he called "The Palace Without Rival," was the largest of the Assyrian palaces (fig. 11). It was built in the oldest part of the city, along the southwest side of the large citadel mound of Kuyunjik, overlooking the former junction of the Tigris and Khosr rivers. According to Sennacherib's texts, the terrace for this new palace measured 914 by 440 cubits (about 500 by 240 meters) in extent. As in the palace of Assurnasirpal II, only rooms in or around major reception suites were decorated with wall reliefs and gateway colossi, but the number of such rooms in Sennacherib's palace was considerably larger: some 70 rooms covering an area about 200 meters square at the palace's southwest end, from which a total of some 9880 feet (3011 meters) of wall reliefs was recovered during excavations.

As in Assurnasirpal's palace, Sennacherib's throne-room was decorated with human-headed bull colossi, also inscribed with texts in the spaces between their legs. An interesting innovation is that these colossi have only four legs—one of the front legs in the side view having been eliminated—which gives them a more naturalistic appearance than that of their five-legged predecessors. Bull colossi also occurred in a number of other major palace doorways, and a well-preserved example was found in the Nergal Gate in the city wall (fig. 12). The vast majority of the wall reliefs throughout the palace showed military campaigns, depicted in a lively manner that employed relatively convincing perspective effects (figs. 13, 14). Other subjects included the procurement of palace building materials and royal processions. The only texts that intrude on any of Sennacherib's reliefs are brief captions inscribed next to the king or the cities he encounters. The palace had been thoroughly burned at the fall of Nineveh and most of the reliefs were badly cracked and scarred by the heat.

Assur fell to the Medes in 614 BC and Nineveh and Kalhu followed in 612 BC. The three capitals were sacked and burned, their populace of foreign deportees went home, and the remnants of the Assyrian court and army fled to Harran and were finally defeated in 609 BC. The deserted ruins of the Assyrian palaces were filled in with blown sand or were leveled and built over. Everything the world had come to admire and fear as Assyrian vanished almost without trace. Though gone, the Assyrians were not forgotten: they lived on in the Bible and in the writings of Classical historians, waiting for their day to come again.


The second history of Nineveh is the body of stories that were told about it after its fall. So complete was its destruction that Xenophon, who passed by it in 400 BC, was unable to find anyone who knew its ancient name, and so took it to be a Median city destroyed by the Achaemenids. The primary sources for these stories are historical and moralistic texts that were written in the centuries after Nineveh had ceased to exist as a major city. They include Classical authors (Herodotus, Cresias, Arrian, Berossus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Lucian, Philostratus, Tacitus, Ptolemy, and others) and the Old Testament (Genesis, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah) and Apocrypha (Tobit, Judith).

These were the sources for accounts of the Assyrian empire as the first in a succession of five great empires chronicled in a series of universal histories that aimed to demonstrate that the rise and fall of empires is a natural cycle, and therefore the rise of the fifth empire—Rome in the histories of Polyhistor, Diodorus, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Christianity in those of Eusebius, Augustine, and Orosius—was inevitable. These were still the only sources available to nineteenth-century historians such as Hoefer (1852) and Niebuhr (1857), who drew on the entire Classical and biblical corpus in compiling their great synthetic histories of Assyria and Babylonia. The problem with all these "histories" is that their authors neither had first-hand knowledge of the cultures they were recording, nor could they read cuneiform, so their accounts seem today little more than anthologized legends. They are of interest because, for two and one half millennia, they were all that was available to even the most educated scholar.

Concurrent with this "historical" tradition, and for a time supplanting it almost completely, was the Christian exegetical tradition, which was based exclusively on references to Nineveh in the Bible. Its foremost exponent was Saint Jerome, whose commentaries on Jonah, Nahum, and Zephaniah laid the groundwork for all subsequent Christian exegesis on these prophets. Nineveh plays a unique role in this tradition as a gentile city that was both saved by God's incomprehensible mercy (Jonah) and destroyed by God's unimaginable wrath (Nahum, Zephaniah). Reliefs on the west portal of Amiens Cathedral, for example, show the forgiven Nineveh, represented as a contemporary European city, as part of the Jonah story, while the destroyed Nineveh illustrates Nahum and Zephaniah. Clearly, the model of urban Nineveh is equated with urban Amiens. Nineveh's role as a moral example falls somewhere between that of two other great biblical cities, Jerusalem, which generally evoked positive associations, and Babylon, whose reputation was very unfavorable.

There are other bodies of tradition about Nineveh in the period between its fall and rediscovery. One is the medieval Hebrew Midrashic and Rabbinic tradition—R'Bachya, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rambam, Rashi, and others—which flourished especially from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and influenced Christian exegesis of the period. Another is the tradition of the Arab geographers—Mas'udi, Ibn Hawqal, Muqaddasi, Ibn Zubayr, Ibn Battuta, and others—who correctly identified the ruins of Nineveh as they appeared in their own day. Interestingly, though the people who lived in the neighborhood of Nineveh knew its two large mounds by several names, most commonly Kuyunjik ("little lamb") and Nebi Yunus ("Prophet Jonah"), they never ceased referring to both mounds as "Nineveh" (in contrast to the Classical historians, who could not even agree on whether Nineveh had been on the Tigris or the Euphrates).

Still another is the tradition of the European travelers from the twelfth to early nineteenth centuries—Benjamin of Tudela, Ricoldo Pennini, Leonhard Rauwolff, John Cartwright, Carsten Niebuhr, C. J. Rich, and others—all of whom accurately identified Nineveh's site. Loosely tied to this is the European geographic tradition, inspired by the Crusades and voyages of exploration. This produced such works as the Histoire ancienne (ca. 1210) and Munster's Cosmographia (1550), both of which give imaginary physical descriptions of Nineveh, and Ortelius's Thesaurus geographicus (1596), which based its nearly correct location of the site on accounts of European travelers.

Finally there is the European romantic tradition of Rubens (Defeat of Sennacherib, Munich, Alte Pinakothek, 1616-18), Byron (Sardanapalus, 1821), and Delacroix (Death of Sardanapalus, Paris, Louvre, 1827), who drew on both the Classical and biblical traditions for their strikingly original and powerfully expressive renditions of Ninevite subjects. The most memorable of these, Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" ("The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold ..."), was penned in 1815, twenty-five hundred years after Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem, the event it recounts. Thirty-two years later, Layard discovered Sennacherib's own account of the siege, and Byron's biblical source was confronted with the first serious competition it had faced since the fall of Nineveh.


The third history is the story of the major role Nineveh and Nimrud played in the creation of an image of Assyria that was based on records—texts, architecture, and sculptures—of the Assyrians themselves. In 1847, no one in the world could read Assyrian cuneiform. In 1857, four prominent Assyriologists were given identical copies of an unpublished Assyrian inscription, and all four arrived independently at essentially identical translations. In 1843, only a few Assyrian cuneiform texts were known and only fragments of Assyrian remains had been excavated. By 1853, the palaces of Assurnasirpal II, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Assurbanipal were all at least partially excavated, and tens of thousands of cuneiform texts had been uncovered. In 1852, Hoefer published his




In early 1846 Sir John Guest (1785-1852), principal owner of the great Dowlais Iron Company in Glamorgan, South Wales, and his wife, Lady Charlotte Bertie Guest (1812-95), daughter of the ninth Earl of Lindsey (figs. 15, 16), purchased Canford Manor, on the River Stour just north of Poole in Dorset, from W. F. S. Ponsonby, the first Baron de Mauley, for the very considerable sum of 335,000[pounds sterling]. The manor at that time consisted of a large fifteenth-century kitchen building, traditionally known as "John of Gaunt's Kitchen," a Gothic Revival house built by Edward Blore between 1825 and 1836, and 10,000 acres of land. In April 1847 the architect Thomas Hopper was commissioned to enlarge and improve the house at an estimated cost of 6000[pounds sterling]. Costs mounted "alarmingly," however, and Lady Charlotte seems to have been dissatisfied with the progress of the work. At the beginning of October she wrote, "George Clark [a close family friend] ... accompanied Merthyr [her nickname for Sir John] to see [the architect Charles] Barry about our Canford alterations. We find it will be impossible to go on with Hopper. He has not the slightest taste in Gothic decoration."

Charles Barry's reputation was then at its peak (fig. 17). In 1836 his design had been selected in a competition for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, a project that occupied most of his time for the next 20 years. Work on the Houses of Parliament was well-advanced when, in late November 1847, Lady Charlotte wrote: "Merthyr ... had called upon Barry and arranged for him to undertake finishing Canford. We have quite given up on Hopper whose taste is hopeless. Barry talks of coming down in Christmas week." Barry spent the Christmas holidays at Canford with the Guests discussing the improvements. In late March 1848 Lady Charlotte visited the House of Lords to see Barry's work: "We were there just long enough to see the House lighted up, which certainly has a very fine effect. We afterwards walked through some portions of the building. I think some hints may be taken from the robing room for our Hall at Canford."

On 7 April 1848 Lady Charlotte had "a long visit from Mr. Barry with plans of Canford as it is at present, and plans of the mode in which he suggests altering it.

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