Townley’s dogs

Townley's dogs

Townley’s dogs

© Trustees of the British Museum: the Townley Collection – Wolfson Gallery, Room 84

This is a Roman marble statue of a pair of dogs – a bitch (probably a greyhound) caressing a dog, nibbling his ear, dating probably from the 2nd century.  I thought it rather charming when I came across it on the ‘explore’ feature of the British Museum website.

It was acquired by a certain Charles Townley (1737-1805; also spelt Towneley) in 1774 from the Scots dealer/agent, archaeologist and painter Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), who had carried out excavations at Monte Cagnolo, or Dog Mountain, near Civita Lavinia (modern name Lanuvia), Lazio in 1772-73.  Hamilton, who came from a prominent family after whom the town of Hamilton, Lanarkshire is named, recognised the significance of this archaeological site’s name, and found there other similar marble pieces, as well as a sphinx with the body of a dog, and two statues representing the tearing apart by hunting hounds of Actaeon; he supplied Townley with several other ancient pieces of artwork during his digs in the Lazio area.  Hamilton was a colleague of Piranesi, and advised the young sculptor Canova.

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Townley by Joseph Nollekens, 1807. Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum also preserves a 13-page letter written by Hamilton to Townley (one of over 120 such examples written over a 25-year period), in which he describes these excavations – p.3 of that letter is displayed on the BM website.

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

Hamilton letter to Townley, BM website

In this letter Hamilton suggests that the site was the home of the emperor Antoninus Pius, who reigned AD 138-161, but this is now believed to be inaccurate, and the precise date of the statue’s creation is unknown.

Also on the BM website is Hamilton’s list of marbles found by him near Rome since 1769, many of which he indicates were acquired by Townley.

Townley was a wealthy English gentleman, with a country house (called Towneley Hall; Charles favoured the alternative spelling) near Burnley; he was an antiquarian and collector of antiquities, who made three Grand Tours to Italy.

Zoffani's portrayal of Townley's sculpture gallery, 1782

Zoffani’s portrayal of Townley’s sculpture gallery, 1782. Wikimedia Commons