George Cockburn
An Irish traveller and collector

Raymond Astbury


University College
Dublin

For many years, when University College was located in Earlsfort Terrace, there stood outside the library a marble sarcophagus upon which generations of students have sat and kicked their heels. The name of Sir George Cockburn will have meant nothing to most of them, yet it was he who first brought the sarcophagus to Ireland and he is the subject of this article.[1]

He was born in 1763[2] and died at the age of 84 on August 14, 1847. He joined the army in 1781 as an ensign and by 1830 he had reached the rank of general; though he was in the army throughout that period he was not always actually in service - from 1793 to 1806, for example, he was on half-pay, and after about 1812 he had effectively retired to Shanganagh Castle and devoted himself to the life of a member of the local gentry, serving as magistrate and involving himself in politics. In 1790 he married his cousin Elizabeth Riall.

He travelled very extensively throughout Europe, both in the course of his military duties and as a private traveller. His first stint in the army was in Gibraltar in 1781-2, when the island was under siege by Spain; when that period of service ended he sailed to Leghorn and embarked on a tour of Italy, visiting Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples and Turin and returning to London in May of 1783 via Switzerland and France. In June 1785 he was at Cork on the point of embarking with his regiment to Canada, but he was kept behind to assist with recruiting and was then sent as an observer of the autumn manoeuvres of the Prussian army, visiting Belgium, Holland and France as well as Germany.

In late 1788 another tour took him through Germany, France and Spain, but after that he does not seem to have embarked on any further travels until 1810, perhaps because travel in Europe was made difficult by the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars. It was the war with Napoleon that led to his next trip abroad, when in 1810 he was placed in command of a part of the army which was at that time in occupation of Sicily and given charge of Messina. At the end of that year he was awarded the rank of Lieutenant-General and as a consequence was obliged to resign his position in the army in Sicily. His later travels are so far not well documented but, as we shall see, he was in Rome in 1821 and at least once after that, possibly in 1824/5 when we have evidence of a trip through France, Switzerland and northern Italy.[3]

For the classicist Cockburn is of interest for his writings and his collecting activity. In 1815 he published a work in two volumes entitled A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar, up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta, in 1810, & 11, including a Description of Sicily and the Lipari Islands, and an Excursion in Portugal. He sailed from Portsmouth in June 1810, travelling via Cadiz and Gibraltar to Malta, where (following the example of St. Paul) he was shipwrecked; eventually he arrived at Messina in Sicily at the beginning of September.

He remained in Sicily until the end of April 1811, sailing from there to Malta, and then by way of Gibraltar and Lisbon to England, arriving back in Portsmouth on June 18. 'What a contrast the perfect cleanliness of an English inn exhibited, to the filth of Sicily and Portugal!' (Vol. II pp.215-6) His chief topics in his account of Sicily (which forms the bulk of the book) were the military arrangements in the various towns, diatribes against the 'mis-management of their governments, the power of their clergy, and the degraded superstition of the people', volcanoes - he made arduous expeditions both to Etna[4] and the Lipari Islands,[5] - and the general squalor of the island. Soon after his arrival in Messina he writes:

In the cool of evening I walked up the main and other streets; all were, like the people, shockingly dirty. The people are busily engaged in lousing themselves, - all ages, sexes, and almost conditions, are without the least shame, hard at work at this occupation; and men, women and children squat down in the streets, for certain occasions, without ceremony. (Vol. I p.77). In Catania

they have no other conveniences for certain uses, but a thing like a flower-pot, and they empty it, without ceremony, into the street. I am every day more astonished at their dirt and total want of delicacy. (Vol. I p1.66). Later he writes:

I must mention one filthy custom - ladies and gentlemen spit most unmercifully every where, on the carpet, mosaic or painted floor, in a carriage; in fact, anywhere but in their hand kerchief; - a nasty custom, and most disgusting in women. I declare I saw a very pretty Sicilian young lady, at a private ball in Messina, spit so profusely on the floor, that I thought she must have been under salivation. They spit anywhere, and every where, so that no wonder the houses are dirty. (Vol. I p.436) His appointment as Lieutenant-General in October, 1810 gave him the leisure to spend most of the next six months sight-seeing in Sicily. He quite frequently refers to classical sites and the book is of interest for the perspective it gives us on the reactions of an interested amateur to the classical remains which he came across. At Messina he visited the cathedral,

in which are twenty-two columns of granite, formerly belonging to a temple of Neptune at the Faro, two of them appear entire pieces. The order I am unacquainted with, the capitals being unlike any I have seen elsewhere (Vol. I p.114). He gives a long account of Scylla and Charybdis (on either side of the Strait of Messina); the latter was somewhat disappointing:

The present Charybdis generally appears to be little more than a tumultuous agitation of the sea at a small distance from the shore, which would scarcely excite notice, were it not from the celebrity it has acquired in poetry (Vol. I p.116); but he was much more impressed by Scylla:

Scylla is a lofty rock, distant twelve miles from Messina, which rises almost perpendicularly from the sea on the shore of Calabria, and beyond which is the small city of the same name. Though there was scarcely any wind, I began to hear, two miles before I came to the rock, a murmur and noise like a confused barking of dogs, and, on a nearer approach, readily discovered the cause. This rock, in its lower parts, contains a number of caverns....The waves, when in the least agitated, rushing into these caverns; break, dash, throw up frothy bubbles, and thus occasion these various and multiplied sounds. I then perceived with how much truth and resemblance of nature, Homer and Virgil, in their personifications of Scylla, had pourtrayed this scene, by describing the monster they drew, as lurking in the darkness of a vast cavern, surrounded by ravenous barking mastiffs, together with wolves, to increase the horror (Vol. I pp.119-20).

In November he sailed to Catania, making from there an expedition to Mount Etna; on his way to the crater he observed the Torre del Filosofo:

Very little of this ancient fabrick remains above the foundation. There are various opinions respecting it; but, whether built by Empedocles for an observatory, or as a tomb, which many imagine, or on the occasion of the Emperor Adrian's visit, or as a temple to some deity, is uncertain. Its real use and origin is quite lost in its antiquity, and the obscurity of time (Vol. I p.139).

In Catania he visited the theatre, the baths and the amphitheatre as well as the Biscari Museum,

a collection of antiques of all sorts, and arranged with taste, in rooms built for the purpose: There are various Mosaic ancient pavements, a remarkable fine torso, statues, busts, alto-reliefs, and old inscriptions and columns; a fine collection of Etruscan vases (Vol. I p.154). Thence to Syracuse, where

the Brigade Major brought an Antiquarian to me, viz. M. Capodoci, a good sort of man; but too much learning had made him mad: As a proof of it, he has written fifty folio volumes on Syracuse (Vol. I p.177).

He visited the Fountain of Arethusa, the Cathedral ('formerly the Temple of Minerva; the old rude columns of which, partly built into the modern walls, are very visible' [Vol. I p.179]), the Museum, the theatre, the amphitheatre and the ancient quarries.

We rode out to see the two columns, all that remains of the temple of Jupiter Olympius, full four miles from Syracuse [in the valley of the Anapo], and by no means worth the time or trouble. These two columns, though very large, were fluted, but the flutes are nearly obliterated (Vol. I p.197).

From Syracuse he returned via Augusta to Catania, and revisited the Museum:

We did not, however, see the Museum, without undergoing penance; for one of them [i.e. the curators] stunk to that degree, and had such a cadaverous breath, that it excited my compassion for his misfortune; and at the same time, made me glad to escape, for he actually infected the air (Vol. I p.220).

Now he returned to Messina, travelling along the coast road (with an inland diversion to Linguaglossa to make a second ascent of Etna) via Acireale, Giarre, Giardini, Taormina (where he visited the theatre and other sites) and Scaletta. At the end of January 1811 he made a trip out to the Lipari Islands from Milazzo, visiting the islands of Lipari, Stromboli and Vulcano, and in February he went to the ruins of the ancient Tyndaris:

The old wall of Tindari is easily traced, and was of large square-cut crown stone. There are ruins of a Temple and an arch on the top of the Hill; also a bath; and some broken Mosaics are scattered about. A Mr. Fagan[6] got leave to dig here, and he found one or two marble statues, and several disfigured trunks of others; the latter, not worth moving, lie on the ground, as evidence of the mutability of human affairs, and to remind the traveller, that there is nothing permanent in this world: Some marble columns and pilasters were also found here, and several coins, one or two of which I bought from the peasants. . . . The fields about the Hill of Tindari, are covered, as at Syracuse, with building rubbish, broken marble, vases, jars, &c. which are turned up by the plough, affording ample proof that here a great city once existed. The ruins of a Theatre are also very distinct, and, as usual with the ancients, placed in a beautiful situation: I also saw a very large piece of a marble cornice, with the egg and anchor, &c. beautifully worked, lying in a field (Vol. I pp.318-20).

His final trip before leaving Messina for the last time was to Faro,

to see an ancient bath, lately discovered in digging the canal to the lakes. There was a large room, with hot and vapour baths, lined with marble: several coins have been found here. The room was paved in Mosaic black and white, and is almost perfect: the cement very strong and hard; but the Mosaic of the coarsest kind. Some of our Vandals have broke this pavement already, to take pieces, and I took one loose stone, which I certainly would not have done, had it been perfect (Vol. I p.340).

In March he left Messina by sea, landing at Termini, to the east of Palermo: 'There is an aqueduct near the town, and some old hot baths. . . there are several antique fragments and marbles at the Palazzo de Justicia, or Town House' (Vol. I p.357). At Palermo he visited the Museum, 'a fine building and they have collected in it a considerable number of antique Greek and Roman statues, marbles and inscriptions, found in the environs of the city' (Vol. II p.1). His route then took him by Monreale, Partinico, Alcamo and Segesta (where he visited the temple) to Trapani. Thence to Marsala (Lilybaeum), Selinus with its temple ruins, and finally to Girgenti (Agrigentum), where he inspected the temples and the Tomb of Hiero, before leaving Sicily for Malta.

Towards the end of his life, in 1845, he published an 84 page booklet whose title left the reader in little doubt as to the contents: On Hannibal's Route and Passage over the Alps to Italy; Caesar's to France and where on the Rhine he threw over his famous bridge; the Site of Gergovia and that of Alessio; the Modern Passes over the Alps; an Inquiry as to who was the Iron Mask, and who was the Author of Junius; with some Remarks and Memorandums on Political Events and Characters from 1752 to 1845. So far as it deals with classical topics this rambling and incoherent work appears to be based on the journals which Cockburn kept during his travels in France, Switzerland and Italy in 1824 and 1825. His conclusions on the various problems he discusses are much the same as those generally held today; it is to his credit that he saw the importance of autopsy in seeking to elucidate the ancient sources, though he relies on assertion a good deal more than argument. I shall quote two passages about his attempt to discover the site of Alessio (i.e. Alesia, the Gallic hill-fort in which Caesar besieged Vercingetorix in 51 BC) to give the flavour of the work:

. . . but as to Alessio, as it was merely mentioned on the old maps, without any roads or distances marked, I had some trouble to find out where it was supposed to be; I made every enquiry, but got no information, and then applied to the Postmaster-General, who was extremely polite; he told me it was an obscure place, and he positively did not give me any more information, except that there was a "Book on Ancient Gaul," in the King's Library, and in which I would find all the information I wanted. Off I went next day to the Library, and was most politely received by the librarian, and there saw the "Carthagenian Bouclier," or shield, in silver, found near where Hannibal passed the Rhone. The librarian examined the catalogue - and alas! informed me that the book was stolen in the tempestuous times of the Revolution, just as the Roman mob plundered the entire collection of fine medals in the Vatican; he gave me the title from the catalogue, but no hopes of obtaining it, as it was more than a century old, - the title is "Eclaircissements Geographiques sur L'Ancienne Gaul."

I now almost despaired, but one morning walking along the Quay de Voltaire, where there are (or then were) many booksellers, and more book stalls, I actually spied the book, a small volume, and beautifully bound; I saw at once it was what I wanted, and asked the bookseller its price, it was three, or at most four francs; I paid the money, and put the book into my pocket, and in it found all the information I wanted; also a good map of ancient Gaul, a minute description of the siege of St. Allice, by Caesar, and plans of it also; but merely its name, no roads or guide to where it was, farther than that it lay north west of Dijon, and that was good enough for me (pp.15-16).

A little later he picks up the story of his attempt to visit the site of Alessio:

St. Alessio was my difficulty, as it is only merely mentioned, in the old, and even modern maps, without roads or distances, and I had much trouble to find it out, even with the book I was so fortunate as to pick up; and on Monday, 10th October, 1825, I left Paris in the diligence for Mont de Bard, having found out that it was not far from St. Alessio, travelled all night, and through a very ugly country, as I perceived at day-light, the 11th, and nearly a second night. Arriving at Mont du Bard late, I found an excellent hotel, and got a good bed, and at nine next morning made my inquiries. My landlord, a most civil, obliging man, doubted if he could procure me a guide, as there was not any regular road, and therefore must go as a bird would fly; this, however, is of no importance in France, where there are neither enclosures or ditches, and over an open country.

The only conveyance I could procure was a small cart, with a young, ugly Frenchwoman, without cap or bonnet to drive it; and with some straw, and making a seat of my portmanteau-trunk, off we set. She was, however, intelligent, and knew the line, and we sometimes met a very bad cart-road to the different farms, and as we met occasionally some peasants, if she had any doubt she inquired. I left Du Bard at ten, and we got to the foot of Mount Auxoroi, on which the famed St. Allessio stood, soon after noon. The modern village of St. Reine is about half way up the hill, and I had a very fine day for this excursion.

I found a mere cabaret of an inn at St. Elisse, but the landlord, a most obliging and intelligent man had heard all about this famed place and came with me as a guide. Though indeed the entire local speaks for itself (p.18).

We have seen him buying coins from peasants at Tyndaris and taking a stone from a mosaic floor at Faro, and it is as a collector that he is perhaps of most interest. In Shanganagh Castle Cockburn assembled a substantial collection of inscribed stones (including a marble sarcophagus[7]), brick stamps and tiles, vases and earthenware lamps,

which on his return to Shanganagh he arranged in a special room called the 'Monumental Room.' This room stood between the ballroom and the dining room, deriving from its neighbours the smell, on the one hand of damp walls and ivy, and on the other hand of peaches and marsala.[8]

The objects in the collection were published by Louis C. Purser[9] of Trinity College Dublin and Olive Purser[10] while they were still in Shanganagh in 1925. Most of the inscriptions were acquired by University College in 1936 when Shanganagh Castle and its contents were sold.[11] As I have said, the sarcophagus stood outside the library in Earlsfort Terrace, while the inscriptions were kept in the Classical Museum. When the move to Belfield took place both the sarcophagus and the inscriptions found a home in the new Classical Museum, where some of them are on display and all are available for study.

So far as it is possible to ascertain all the Latin material was excavated in the vicinity of Rome[12]; the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum specifically records some of them as 'Romae empta a Georgio Cockburne Britanno', and Purser[13] quotes a passage from Cockburn's will,

and as to all actual fixtures in the walls especially the little passage to the Bath which I call the Piccolo Vaticano I do not intend that they should be even stirred or removed even if the place were disposed of or sold. They would not in this country bring anything like the price they were collected at by myself chiefly in Rome (dear Rome) and are highly valuable interesting and curious, and I would wish to have them preserved entire, if possible.

Cockburn says[14] the sarcophagus was discovered in Rome in 1821 and the latest find-date recorded for the inscriptions by CIL is 1822; it seems therefore probable that Cockburn acquired them not long after that date. The provenance of the small number of Greek inscriptions is not known for certain, but since five celebrate persons from Ascalon and one a woman of Laodicea it is likely that they came from Ascalon in Palestine and from one of the several towns called Laodicea, most probably that on the coast of Syria.

Cockburn's daughter Catherine[15] married Commodore William Gawen Rowan Hamilton, son of the Hamilton Rowan who was involved with the United Irishmen. The Commodore spent the years from 1820 on in the eastern Mediterranean, winning the title of 'Liberator of Greece' by protecting the Greeks against the Turks and spending much of his private fortune in this cause; and

while cruising during all those years among the islands of the Aegean, would from time to time recall the tastes of his father-in-law and send back to Shanganagh, now the fragment of an Ionic column, now some shattered inscriptions from Nauplia or Epidaurus. On one occasion he had found (it may well have been among the deserted stones of Delos) four Greek altars of marble on which were carved rich swags of grape, of pomegranate and myrtle suspended between the heads of bulls. Eventually these altars arrived at Shanganagh in the company of a Corinthian capital of later date. They were too large to house in the Monumental Room and Sir George Cockburn decided to erect them one on top of the other as a column commemorative of the Reform Bill. . When my grandmother died in 1919 my uncle Gawen, in a moment of impatience, suddenly sold Shanganagh with all its contents.[16] In 1936 it again came into the market, and being anxious to rescue some at least of the memories of my childhood, I crossed to Dublin and attended the sale. I bought the column as it stood and had the altars and the top tier of the base transported to my home at Sissinghurst. Three of the altars and the Corinthian capital were disposed, with some ungainliness, along a garden path. The fourth, with the base and the inscription, was erected in the orchard.[17]

It is perhaps not unduly speculative to suggest that the Greek inscriptions may have come from the same source.[18] There is little evidence on the provenance of the vases. Olive Purser found notes in Cockburn's hand in two of the vases, reading 'A very antient urn which I found myself in 1822 in Ischia' and 'Found in the tomb in Ischia'; there seems to be no way of establishing with certainty whether Ischia was the island off the coast of Campania or the village in Etruria, though Purser prefers the latter. Two of the vases had 'Dr. Tuke's Sale' written on their bases in a hand of the early nineteenth century, possibly that of Sir George.

So it would appear that some of the vases were acquired in Italy while others were purchased locally. The fate of the vases and lamps remains less clear. A handful of the vases described and in some cases photographed by Purser can be identified with vases in the Classical Museum of University College, Dublin[19], but the majority appear to be neither in University College nor in any of the other public collections in Ireland. The records of the auction were destroyed by flood waters, but in any case the catalogue entries were vague in the extreme and would not allow the assignation of any vase to a particular lot.

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