Collection history

When its doors first opened in 1753 the Museum was not, as now, conceived as a collection of art and antiquity. Rather it was a great assemblage of books, manuscripts and specimens of natural history.

The founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) certainly contained Classical and other antiquities but, with few exceptions, these had been purchased simply to make up his cabinet of curiosities of 'natural and artificial rarities'. Apart from coins and engraved sealstones, there were few objects among them of great distinction.

The Sloane antiquities, however, acted as a magnet and drew others to them. In 1757, for example, Thomas Hollis presented a number of small Classical busts and inscriptions, followed by other gifts. An outstanding early acquisition was a fine bronze head, probably of the playwright Sophokles, donated in 1760. It had been part of the important collection of Classical antiquities formed by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), which was one of the first of its kind in England. In 1772 the lawyer and antiquary Matthew Duane, together with Thomas Tyrwhitt, presented sculpture that had been bought in London, which came originally from Asia Minor. There the English community of the trading post at Smyrna (modern Izmir) were responsible for some of the first Greek antiquities to come to England. These often changed hands several times before they entered the Museum's collections.

This development of the collection received impetus through the vision of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), who for more than thirty years served HM King George III as British ambassador to Naples. There he amassed a vast collection of Greek vases, bronzes, sealstones, coins and numerous other Classical antiquities of high quality, which were offered to the British Museum for purchase in 1772. Sir William himself augmented this purchase with numerous gifts, and other collectors followed suit. In 1799, for example, Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode gave his important collection of coins and sealstones.

The Portland Vase, the most famous cameo-glass vessel from antiquity, had been in Hamilton's collection before it was bought by Margaret, dowager Duchess of Portland. It was deposited in the museum by the fourth Duke of Portland in 1810, and finally purchased from the seventh Duke in 1945.

The Museum is famous now for its great collection of Classical sculpture. It made its first major acquisition, largely of Roman sculpture, when in 1805 it purchased the collection of the great eighteenth-century antiquary Charles Townley. In 1814 came the marble frieze of the fifth-century BC temple of Apollo Kourios at Bassae in western Greece, and in 1816 there followed the extraordinary collection of the 7th Earl of Elgin; a collection that included sculptures from the Parthenon.

In less than twenty years the Museum's holdings of ancient objects had been transformed by these acquisitions, and a new understanding of Greek sculpture made possible.

A new Department of Antiquities and Coins had been formed in 1807, with Taylor Combe as the first keeper. A new gallery, built for the Egyptian and Townley sculptures and Hamilton's vases, was completed in 1808, but proved inadequate for housing the ever-growing collections and was pulled down in the 1840s to make way for the western wing of the present building. The Department of Antiquities also grew until in 1860 it split several ways and the present Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities was formed.

The first keeper was Charles (later Sir Charles) Newton (1816-1894), a distinguished and far-sighted scholar who was committed to the acquisition and display not only of major monuments and works of art, but also of smaller-scale objects illustrative of daily life in the Classical world.