Smith & Porcher

by sarahkburke

Tombs to the Westward of Ptolemais

Captain Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900) and Commander Edwin A. Porcher (1824-1878), History of the recent discoveries at Cyrene: made during an expedition to the Cyrenaica in 1860-61, under the auspices of Her Majesty’s Government. London: Day & Son, lithographers to the Queen, 1864.  [HOLLIS]

Ruins of the Christian City of Cyrene

Cyrene was an ancient Greek settlement, later a Roman city and an early center of Christianity.  Robert Smith and Edwin Porcher were the first team to dig extensively at Cyrene. The British government and the British Museum sponsored their project in 1861 and 1862 and, as a result, the museum received many of the finds from the excavations.  While in Malta in spring 1860, Smith wrote to Charles Newton (of both the British Museum and the Foreign Office) requesting help with the expedition:

“I should like to go and make plans of the principal sites between Cyrene and Bengazi [sic] but chiefly Cyrene itself.  The country is covered with beautiful architectural tombs.  I should make plans of the principal ones and take photographic views of them & of any architecture or sculpture I might find.  Captain Beechey [Frederick William Beechey, who explored Libya in 1822] says there are many Greek statues above ground… The place is quite at one’s door here, the means are ready and would cost nothing, there is a long summer before me, in fact such a coincidence of favorable circumstances may never offer itself again.  The French will probably in a few years extend their conquests in Africa so as to exclude us altogether… I should be much indebted to you if you favour & forward the scheme in whatever way you think best, such as writing to Panizzi &c.”

(This letter is transcribed from Dorothy M. Thorn’s The Four Seasons of Cyrene.  Anthony Panizzi, referred to in the final sentence, was the Principal Librarian of the British Museum and, incidentally, one of the designers of that museum’s famous circular Reading Room.)

Libyan history did not unfold quite as Smith anticipated, but he was correct to predict the European scramble for African colonies that began in the late 19th century.

Plan of Cyrene

Although the necropolis had been romantically illustrated and described by previous travelers, Smith and Porcher focused on the ancient city.  Porcher himself produced the drawings and watercolors that were subsequently lithographed by T. Picken and produced for publication by Day and Son.  Porcher’s watercolors remain in the collection of the British Museum.  The chromolithographs, some of which are reproduced here, are valuable archaeological documentation of the site before the many excavations and restorations that followed.  They are also picturesque 19th-century images, frequently featuring small details that would increase their charm to casual viewers.

Ruins of Ptolemais

Interior of a Painted Tomb in the Northern Necropolis of Cyrene

Robert Smith was subsequently involved with the project to install an overland telegraph connecting England to India, overseeing the Persian component of this project during the 20 years he was stationed in Tehran.  Beginning in 1885 he was director of the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh.  He also consulted on Persian art for the South Kensington collections that were to become the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Edwin Porcher participated in naval voyages to Australia, South America, and the Middle East, in addition to serving as commander of the HMS Sparrowhawk from 1865 to1868 in Alaska and British Columbia (where Porcher Island bears his name).

Day and Son, lithographers to the Queen, was the same lithographic firm (soon to become Vincent Brooks, Day & Son) that produced the chromolithographs in Gaspare Fossati’s Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid, the topic of an earlier post on this blog.

The book also contains a series of photographs of statues from the site.


Aphrodite & Female Torso

Thanks to Deb Brown, Byzantine Studies Librarian at Dumbarton Oaks, for the topic and for contributing content for this post!