1875 Babylonians in Burlington House
The scales for Orientalism as a genre tipped at the 1875 Summer Exhibition. For more than half a century, the Western European powers had enmeshed themselves politically, financially, and culturally in the East. Concurrently, their painters had become equally invested in what the visual idea of “the East” could offer them. In 1875, this confluence of social investment and painterly interest emerged at the Royal Academy with a number of orientalist paintings at the Summer Exhibition and Edwin Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market crowned as the show-stopper of 1875 (Fig. 1). The painting, a rich composition which William Michael Rossetti described as a mixture of “antique fact and modern innuendo”, depicts a sumptuous scene of a fabled Babylonian custom.1 But while critics such as John Ruskin initially identified the “modern innuendo” as a contemporary reflection on Victorian marriage, Long’s painting is more visually striking and impactful physically, measuring ten by six feet, as a painted display of the archaeological artefacts that had been acquired by the British Museum.2 To contemporary audiences, this show-stopper appealed because of its evocation of the physical and aspirational routes travelled when the British turned so emphatically towards the East during the nineteenth-century.
The timing of the Summer Exhibition was ideal for painters of the Orient. Trips to the Levant were usually taken during the winter months, October to March, with the return to Britain coinciding with the Academy’s April deadline. Long had visited Egypt and Syria in the winter of 1874.3 In this period, thousands of Britons were taking advantage of new technological and political circumstances that facilitated safer, easier, and faster trips to the East and promised the potential for new discovery for the amateur, artist, and archaeologist alike.
Among the Selection Committee for the 1875 show were several veteran travellers, each of whose work was already invested in the growing body of British orientalist painting. Frederic Leighton had travelled extensively and regularly from the late 1850s—to Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Two years after this Summer Exhibition, to accommodate the abundance of Islamic art objects he had collected, he would break ground on his best-known orientalist project, the Arab Hall at Leighton House.4 At the 1875 Summer Exhibition, Leighton exhibited three works from recent trips to Egypt and Damascus.5 Another member of the committee, John Frederick Lewis, had taken the rare step of living in Cairo between 1841 and 1851. His conversion from watercolours to oils in the 1860s had established him within the Academy as the interlocutor of harem life. Finally, Edward Armitage had spent 1855 as a war artist in the Crimea, publishing scenes of his travel through Turkey for The Illustrated London News. To the Hanging Committee of Orient-bound travellers who selected Long’s painting along with other Eastern subjects such as Henry Wallis’ Fugitives from Constantinople and Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Mediterranean inflected The Sculpture Gallery, the artistic sources of this region were too great a subject to be ignored.
Babylonian Marriage Market is based on the popular 1870 translation of Herodotus’ Histories by George C. Swayne. In the nine volumes that chronicle the history of the Persian Empire, Long selected Swayne’s embellished account of the Babylonian’s marriage custom. Young women are offered up to a room of male bidders where their attractiveness directly correlates to the price they fetched. The women with the misfortune of being judged low in price, according to Swayne, fell to the back of line.
Nudity, at this point an expectation of Orientalism from the French precedent established by painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme in The Slave Market (1866), is fundamentally withheld in this painting as the women in line all wear dresses or drapery. The painting almost entirely withholds the opportunity to gaze upon the female body. The women’s sitting positions conceal breasts, stomachs, and hips. The woman on the podium, the first in line and therefore the most beautiful is not visible within or out of the picture space. She is turned away from us and her veil is not yet fully lifted for her potential husbands. In the work of fellow British Orientalists such as Lewis in The Reception (1873) or Leighton’s Old Damascus: Jew’s Quarter (1873–1884) formalist, compositional, and decorative interests have been prioritised over a study of the nude and in this painting, Long has followed suit. Alongside raging debates among Academicians regarding the nude, these paintings make evident that British Orientalism does not have erotic bodies at the centre of its works.6 In place of the nude, real artefacts and archaeological finds became the objects for display, consumption, and pleasure; not only as symbols of conquest but also of authenticity and the strength of inter-institutional relationships in the London art world.
Austen Henry Layard, the diplomat cum archaeologist, had excavated the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh in 1849 and provoked an intense public fascination with the former Eastern Empire and the inheritors of the Babylonian territories (Fig. 2). The first pieces of Assyrian sculpture arrived at the British Museum in 1851. One commentator noted, “Since the Elgin marbles were brought to England, no similar arrival has occurred so calculated to excite the interests of artists and archaeologists”.7 Several of the most famous Assyrian sculptures including the Lamassu, or winged bull, were cast in plaster and displayed in James Fergusson’s Assyrian Court at The Crystal Palace. These initial displays would have been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors in both venues, making the sculptures instantly recognisable when viewing Babylonian Marriage Market.
In Babylonian Marriage Market, Layard’s discoveries make their impact in direct translations of the relief sculptures and particularly the depiction of male subjects. These can be seen most clearly in the faces of the bearded men in the suitor’s crowd echoing the panels of the King Ashurbanipal and his soldiers. The intricate decorative back wall panel with fierce lions is reminiscent of the Hunt of Ashurbanipal panel, connecting ancient rituals of violence, contemporary symbols of Imperialism, and visually reinforced by the animal skins that lay at the women’s feet. These painted versions of the sculptures collapse the boundaries of orientalist fantasy into the growing archaeological corpus of artefacts circulating in British museums and collections, asserting their authenticity with regards to the ancient Eastern world. Long’s authentic reproduction of Assyrian sculptures and the painting’s successful reception at the Summer Exhibition reflect the interconnectedness between the objects in the British Museum and new work from the Academy. It also suggests the way that relationship depended on a robust programme of excavation and continued Imperial dominance in the region.
The visual dominance of archaeology in Babylonian Marriage Market realigns our understanding of British Orientalism towards its Imperial and museological priorities. The East was firmly on the Academy’s agenda by 1875, as travel and collecting artefacts became key components in depicting the exotic. Long’s translation of the Assyrian relief sculptures into this scene blurred the boundaries between fantasy and history and placed the politics of Britain’s involvement in the East at the centre of the Summer Exhibition.
W.M. Rossetti, “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, Academy 8 May 1875, 486.↩︎
John Ruskin, Academy Notes (1875), in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1908), Vol. 14, 277.↩︎
Mark Bills, Simon Olding, and Juliet Kinchin, Edwin Longsden Long RA (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998), 9.↩︎
Daniel Robbins and Reena Suleman, Leighton House Museum (London: The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 2011).↩︎
These included Little Fatima, Eastern Slinger, and Interior of the Grand Mosque at Damascus.↩︎
Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).↩︎
Sidney Smirke to Joseph Scoles, 28 June 1857. Royal Institute of British Architects Archives, London.↩︎
Thematic categories: Academy Notes, archaeological influences on art, British Empire, casts (plaster casts), cultural representation, female iconography, history painting, Imperialism, nudes in art, Orientalism, Selection and Hanging Committee, women as subjects