Vase brought back from Pompeii by Sir William Gell
It doesn’t happen that often but occasionally there’s an opportunity to leave the office to go and see something really interesting. I found myself on the road to the village of Carsington in Derbyshire in the New Year with Sam Sportun, Senior Conservator at Manchester Museum. We’d received word of a large stone vase that was brought back from Pompeii by Sir William Gell (1777-1836).
Willliam Gell from frontispiece to Pompeiana (1832) courtesy of John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester
Sir William was a Classicist, a diplomat and topographer who travelled extensively in Greece and other Mediterranean lands during the early decades of the 19th century [these details are extracted from the introduction in Edith Clay’s Sir William Gell Letters to the Society of Dilletenti 1831-5 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976)]. He led a mission on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti to Ionia and published the results of this as well as other archaeological and topographical works. Gell produced illustrations for his handsome publications using a camera lucida. Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan, lent me a book Views of Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte (UCL Press, 2003) with a chapter on Gell by Jason Thompson, in which he’s described as an ‘Egyptological clearing-house’. He even taught John Gardener (Sir Gardener Wilkinson) before he went to Egypt and corresponded with Thomas Young, Champollion and Henry Salt to name but a few of the famous names in the discipline.
Princess Caroline and her child are neglected by Prince George (image from ‘Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder’ with Cruikshank cartoons courtesy of Chetham’s Libary and with thanks to Fergus Wilde )
Sir William was part of the entourage of Caroline, Princess of Wales, when she was granted permission to travel abroad. The background to this story
is tragic. Caroline married George Prince of Wales in 1795 but it was a disastrous marriage to say the least. George was using the marriage to gain the good will of parliament to pay his debts and as cover for a relationship with his mistress. George and Caroline were only together as man and wife for a few weeks and although Princess Caroline gave birth to a daughter, George refused to see his wife except at formal occasions. Caroline was treated atrociously and was later wrongly accused of having had an illegitimate child. In 1814 she was granted permission to travel abroad by George’s father George III, and Sir William Gell accompanied her as Chamberlain. He left her entourage when it arrived in Italy and from then on spent a lot of time working on the site of Pompeii. Pompeiana: The Topography, Edifices and Ornaments of Pompeii
was the first account in English of the site (Clay – see ref above).
Sam, Bryan and the Pompeii Vase
There can be little doubt that the vase in the garden of a beautiful house and garden near Carsington is a souvenir of Sir William’s work at Pompeii. The vase is known as the Pompeii vase but if further proof was wanted there is a volcanic deposit around the base of the vase that strengthens the attribution. I asked David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology at Manchester Museum, and he referred it as tufa or ‘pyroclastic flow/deposit’. David thinks it probably survived as a deposit because it was welded together in the super high temperatures. The effort and expense of bringing the vase to England from Italy must have been considerable. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a reference to the vase in William Gell’s Pompeiana so if anyone out there knows do please get in touch.
Volcanic deposit on the base of the stone vase
And Princess Caroline? She should by rights have been recognized as Princess Consort and in due course crowned Queen when her husband was to become King George IIII in 1820. However, an enquiry was held (at which Sir William Gell gave evidence in her favour) to look into Princess Caroline’s conduct when she was abroad – it was public knowledge that she’d had affairs – and George wanted to divorce her. Although this did not happen because she enjoyed public sympathy, when Caroline went to the Coronation to be crowned alongside her husband she was turned away. She died a few weeks later.
And so it is that a quiet corner of Derbyshire has a fine piece of worked stone that was at Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. It’s not everyday that you have an opportunity to see something like this.
At a time when trailers for the new film about the destruction of Pompeii are starting to appear in cinemas this makes our visit to see the vase very topical.