Chamber pots and table cloths: William Gell and the domestic life of Pompeii
Rosemary Sweet, University of Leicester, discusses her forthcoming article, William Gell and Pompeiana (1817-19 and 1832), in Papers of the British School at Rome (2015) which is due to be published later this year.
There was an old woman at Turin
Who spattered her stockings with urine
She looked to and fro, but could not find the Po
This foolish old woman of Turin
The moment when I came across this limerick by William Gell in the Countess of Coventry’s scrapbook at the British School at Rome was the point at which I decided that Gell was worthy of further attention. Knowing my interests in the history of travel, antiquarianism and the reception of classical antiquity in the long eighteenth century, Valerie Scott had already shown me Gell’s intriguing and beautifully illustrated notebooks covering his travels in Spain and Portugal. These had alerted me to Gell’s interest in domestic arrangements, his eye for costume, and the humour he was able to find in the quirks of everyday life. With the discovery of this limerick (and the sketches of his dogs) I was hooked.
Further research on Gell suggested that remarkably little had been written about him as a person or an antiquary. This is despite the fact that a substantial amount of his correspondence, as well as his manuscript notebooks, survives in Britain, Rome, Athens and the USA. I was fortunate to be successful in an application to the Society of Antiquaries of London to pursue further research on Gell, one strand of which led me to a much more intensive scrutiny of Pompeiana, its preparation, content and reception, and the relationship between the two separate editions of 1817-19 and 1832. Pompeiana is one of the most influential texts written on Pompeii in the nineteenth century and still of considerable value to art historians and archaeologists for the accuracy of Gell’s drawings of the excavations (executed with the aid of the camera lucida), which provide a record of unprecedented accuracy of finds that have since deteriorated or disintegrated into oblivion. Its influence over Victorian representations of Pompeii, from Bulwer Lytton to the Pompeii Court at Crystal Palace is huge; but, as I came to appreciate while pursuing other research on Romano-British antiquarianism in the same period, Gell’s text was also a powerful influence upon the conceptualisation of Roman Britain which was increasingly understood not just as a military outpost but as a thriving colony with prosperous towns. Pompeii: a small, provincial Roman town provided an invaluable point of comparison in antiquaries’ attempts to interpret the evidence of urban and domestic life that was regularly uncovered in the process of urban improvement.
The interest in domesticity is one of the defining features of Pompeiana and was deliberately highlighted, particularly in the first volume in which Gell shared authorship with John Peter Gandy, as a means of appealing to the public. Their correspondence shows how Gandy urged Gell to provide more human detail, asking him, for example, ‘whether it is probable they used chamber pots or pissed into the compluvium whether each house had a boggery or if you do not think the outside of the door was the midnight place of deposit for the cacatorial exuberance’. Disappointingly, no such discussion on the rival merits of pissing into chamber pots or the compluvium made its way into the published version, although Gell did make discreet allusion to and illustrated the ‘ultimate receptacle of the aliments’, although the vignette’s caption alluded only to the ‘Kitchen in the House of Actaeon’.
This interest in hygiene goes further than simple scatological humour: it was indicative of a way of thinking about archaeological evidence that was fundamentally different from eighteenth-century approaches and raised questions about the conduct of everyday life in a Roman city that had not been framed before. His contemporaries were often dismissive of his approach to the past – particularly his fascination with the colour schemes and wall paintings of Pompeian interiors– seeing it as dilettantism, but in asking questions about the way in which domestic space was organized, the rituals of dining (did the Pompeians use table cloths?) and the customs of the bathhouse, Gell anticipated many of the problems of social and cultural history that preoccupy historians and archaeologists today. These are some of the themes I explore in the article, demonstrating in the process, I hope, the value of Pompeiana not just as a document of record but for the insight it offers into early nineteenth-century conceptualizations of the past.
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