Thursday Lecture Series

The Formation of a Taste Judgement: How Benjamin Haydon Came to Observe & Evaluate the Elgin Marbles

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

When the Elgin Marbles arrived in Britain in the early nineteenth century, they were objects of uncertain aesthetic value. Centuries-long Ottoman rule had limited European travel to Greece and restricted the study of antique Greek sculpture. The fragmentation of the marbles presented another obstacle to their evaluation. Not for Benjamin Haydon. A young historical painter, Haydon first saw the marbles in 1808 in London and later claimed to have immediately judged them the finest artworks ever made. The claim is not surprising — instantaneousness of operation was often presumed to be the defining trait of refined taste. It was also what made taste subjective, frustrating contemporary and historiographical attempts to account for it. The diary Haydon kept for several years after 1808 and drawings he made during the same period indicate, however, that he took a long time to come to a judgment about the marbles. In this lecture, I examine how he used anatomical knowledge and drawing to observe the marbles and comparison with various artworks to determine their aesthetic value. I also analyze how the overlapping of the medical and art worlds provided the crucial condition for Haydon’s judgment. My aim is to delineate practices used in the period to render taste judgments objective, that is, to root them in the referential aspects of objects and to make them as certain as judgments of matters of fact.

Image: Study of the Parthenon “Theseus” by Benjamin Haydon, 1809, British Museum, Department of Prints & Drawings.