All the elements for a great art-history drama are here, but this falls disappointingly short of entertaining. The great...


FROM NINEVEH TO NEW YORK: The Strange Story of the Assyrian Reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum and the Hidden Masterpiece at Canford School

All the elements for a great art-history drama are here, but this falls disappointingly short of entertaining. The great marble statues and wall reliefs of ancient Assyria (704-612 B.C.) and its capital, Nineveh, were largely excavated by adventurer Henry Layard, who was deemed their legal owner. Accordingly, he shipped some of his finds to the British Museum and others to his cousin and patron, Lady Charlotte Guest. Two of the pieces--colossi of a lion and a bull--were so large that Lady Guest had nowhere suitable to display them at her home, Canford Manor. With the help of noted architect Charles Barry and Layard, she built the ""Nineveh Porch,"" designed specifically to showcase the Assyrian statues and reliefs. The porch was decorated with Assyrian-style engravings and shared other features of the artworks' original palace context. Russell's exposition of these events reads more like dry art history than the compelling human-interest story promised in the title. But the section on the colossi's circuitous path to New York City's Metropolitan Museum moves quickly and dramatically. After Canford Manor was sold and became Canford School, much of the art was sold and the porch transformed into a store for the students. Art patron John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought the sculptures from an art dealer and eventually settled on the Met as the recipient of a major gift. The author creates tension about Rockefeller's pending choice and uses it to explore the works' merits--are they historic remnants or beautiful objects? Years after the sale of Canford Manor, some remaining Assyrian pieces were discovered. Russell, an art historian and archaeologist at Columbia University, was called in to determine their authenticity. Iraq, which now comprises ancient Nineveh, tried to block their sale, claiming they were stolen. But Russell addresses only cursorily the important contextual issue of cultural appropriation. This will hold the greatest appeal for fans of ancient Assyria.

Pub Date: May 1, 1997


Page Count: 240

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1997