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Ancient Greek vases, by Lady Lever Collection

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About the artwork

The display of ancient Greek Ceramics at the Lady Lever Art Gallery indicates Lord Leverhulme’s diverse taste and the range of his collections. Lord Leverhulme purchased the collection between 1913 and 1921, having made significant additions in 1917. The vases came from two distinct collections: the one from Thomas Hope (1769-1831) who bought the ceramics from Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), the British envoy in Naples, lover and husband of the Wirral beauty and muse of the painter George Romney, Emma Hart. The Hamilton collection of vases was of such a good quality than a great part of it was purchased by the British Museum in London. Another part of Lord Leverhulme’s collection of vases, for example the very early aryballoi as well as the big Apulian red figure loutrophoros with the chariot decoration, came from the private collection of the late Alexander Ionides (1810-1890). Ionides was from a well-known Greek family whose members served in the post of Greek Consul general in London.  Lord Leverhulme probably bought the vases, because he was aware of their good quality and the importance of the two private collections. In 1913 Lord Leverhulme had also bought Daphnaephoria (Room 10 or the main hall of the Lady Lever Art Gallery), an ancient Greek procession in honour of Apollo. It is possible that his interest in the Greek ceramics was stimulated by the theme of Frederick Leighton’s painting.

The ancient Greek vases of the Lady Lever Art Gallery belong to different chronological periods of antiquity. Visitors have the opportunity to observe the development of ancient Greek ceramic production, from the 8th century B.C (Cypriot amphora with geometrical decoration) to the 3rd and 2nd century B.C. or the Hellenistic period, when the production of Greek ceramics changed with the introduction of moulds, resulting in a form of massive production (Hellenistic relief bowls with leaf patterns and combats in the display). In early times or the Archaic Period (around 700-600 B.C.), decoration either imitated natural and organic forms, (some not so early examples but from the 4th century B.C. in the display, are the cockle shell and the almond shape aryballos), or geometric zones, alternated with iconic representations of warriors or simple scenes of combats.

As ancient Greek painters developed their techniques and became more confident, scenes became more complicated and daring, as for example in the Sphinx image on the attic red figure bell krater or the chariot scene on the red-figure loutrophoros. The study of stylistic development is ongoing and involves examination of how the representation of the body and facial features changed. In early examples an eye on a face, seen in profile was painted or incised in a frontal way rather than how it really was in profile. Movement in early examples was rather conventional and unconvincing, while in later ones the artists demonstrated confidence and innovation. Archaeologists can also identify the artists-painters of the vases by comparing stylistic features and matching them to other ancient Greek vases signed by the painters-decorators themselves. The painter of the vase could have been different to the maker or potter, who made the vase. Signatures of painters are scarce and would indicate a reputable artist.  Researchers have identified at least 500 red figure (red figures on dark background) active painters for the period between 530 and 330 B.C. It is interesting that what may look to many of us a simple and uniform decoration is the product of a number of artists, many of who remain anonymous. The study of ancient Greek vases’ painters is very important, because it has been proved that it followed or reflected the development of painting of monuments, very few examples of which have survived. These are some of the painters identified in the Lady Lever Art Gallery collection: Nikoxenus for the neck amphora with a warrior departure scene in the front and Athena, Apollo and Hermes at the back; Antimenes for the neck amphora with a combat scene; Myson for the scene of the God of Wine, Dionysus with Satyrs.

In terms of decoration there are two distinct styles in antiquity: black figures on a red background and the reverse, red figures on black ground. The first style was invented in the ancient city of Corinth in the Peloponnese around 700 B.C. and was then adapted and reversed by Athenian artists around 630 B.C. In red figure decoration the figures were painted in black silhouette and linear details were incised. Most of us would think that the decoration of the vases was carried out after the firing of the vase. In reality the red or black colours of the figures are not actual colours applied after the firing of the vase. The only material used is Attic clay, which has a high content of iron. Thus the colours (apart from additional colours applied only for details) are nothing but the result of two distinct firing processes in which the supply of oxygen was changed during the three different phases of firing.

The shapes of the ancient Greek vases are also distinct. Many of the shapes suggest a particular use although the ones from the Lady Lever Art Gallery probably came from South Italian tombs and were never used as everyday ceramics. One of the most popular shapes is the amphora, meaning carried from both sides, because of the handles which reach up to the lip of the vase. Other shapes are the kraters, big vessels, some even in the shape of a bell (like the one with the Satyrs and Maenads) used for mixing purposes, or the hydria used for carrying water, the lekythoi with a distinct white surface, were funeral vessels, often depicting scenes farewell scenes between the dead and their relatives