Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker Ltd

  • Pen, ink and watercolour on paper
  • 25 × 19 ⅞ inches · 635 × 505 mm
  • Inscribed on the original wash-lined mount: ‘The Ear of Dionysius at Syracuse’
    Drawn in 1783


  • John Campbell, 1st Lord Cawdor (1753-1821);
  • John Frederick Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor (1790-1860), son of the above;
  • Hugh Campbell, Viscount Emlyn and later 6th Earl of Cawdor, by inheritance;
  • Emlyn sale, Sotheby’s, 23 May 1962, lot.72;
  • W A Brandt (1902-1978) acquired from the above;
  • By descent to 2024.

This exceptional drawing, executed on a remarkable scale was commissioned by the pioneering collector Colonel John Campbell to commemorate his visit to Scilly with the painter Henry Tresham. The monumental watercolour shows Cawdor and Tresham seated on a rock in front of the so-called Ear of Dionysius, a limestone cave carved out of the Temenites hill in the city of Syracuse. Sicily was difficult to access as a British Grand Tourist, the Bourbon authorities in Naples, careful to preserve the island’s patrimony, rarely granting passports to British travellers. Campbell seems to have secured his visit through the agency of his friend, Sir William Hamilton, British minister at the court of King Ferdinand IV in Naples. This grand, coloured drawing remained with Campbell and his descendants until sold in 1962 and has been in the same private collection ever since.

According to the Roman dealer Thomas Jenkins, Colonel John Campbell did ‘not want for taste or spirit’, a fact underscored by the number and quality of his Italian purchases. Campbell was unusual in collecting early Italian paintings including two panels by ‘Masaccio’ now attributed to Perugino and Giovanni Bellin’s Doge Leonardo Loredan (National Gallery, London).[1] Campbell was an early patron of Canova, purchasing the Amorini shortly after meeting him in 1787 and commissioning the Cupid and Psyche the following year, a sculpture commemorated in a portrait of the artist in his studio by Hugh Douglas Hamilton of 1788 and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.[2] Campbell was an equally spirited purchaser of antiquities, acquiring the seated Demosthenes from the Villa Negroni, now in the Louvre, the magnificent Villa Lante Vase from Giovanni Volpato, now at Woburn Abbey and the relief depicting the Apotheosis of Homer from the Colonna collection, now in the British Museum. In Naples Campbell assembled a large and impressive collection of Etruscan vases including examples excavated at Nola and from the Collegio dei Santi Apostoli. John Flaxman wrote to George Romney enthusiastically about Campbell’s collection noting:  ‘I must mention excellent news for the arts in England. Colonel Campbell is returning, and brings with him to London three hundred Etruscan vases many adorned with the finest historical paintings; and a collection of all the plaster casts from the finest antiques he could purchase in Italy.’[3]

Most of these purchases were made through the agency of the Irish painter Henry Tresham who had been resident in Rome since 1775. It is Tresham, not Campbell, who is shown in Hamilton’s pastel of Canova at work on the Cupid and Psyche and Tresham who organised the payment and shipping of Campbell’s Italian purchases. Tresham accompanied Campbell on his trip to Sicily in 1783. The pair visited the island shortly after the earthquake which devastated Messina on 5th February. In Sicily Tresham produced a series of remarkable topographical views, capturing the unfamiliar landscapes and its landmarks. The drawings, worked in ink and watercolour wash, were presumably designed to form a record of his trip with Campbell and remained with Campbell’s descendants until the twentieth century. The drawings themselves show how receptive Tresham was to the work of his contemporaries. The use of controlled, planar wash and precise outline recall the best of Francis Towne’s Italian watercolours, whilst the interest in showing buildings from oblique angles recalls the work of Thomas Jones. Tresham was also clearly alive to the work of his European contemporaries; the Sicilian watercolours show the influence of Giovanni-Battista Lusieri in the clarity of the light and sharp delineation of forms. Campbell we know purchased a quantity of works from both Lusieri and Xavier della Gatta.

This beautifully preserved watercolour is the largest and most impressive of Tresham’s Sicilian landscapes. The view shows the so-called Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse. Described in a contemporary guidebook as: ‘cut out of solid rock, 18 feet wide, and 53 in height’ which ‘penetrates into the heart of the hill in the form of a capital S; the sides are chisseled very smooth, and the whole cavern so contrived, that every sound made in it, was collected and united in one point, which was called the tympanum.’[4] Tresham shows two travellers, presumably Campbell and himself, standing and seated on a rock in the foreground. The diminutive figures give a sense of scale, evoking a sense of the sublime.

Tresham’s 1783 views of Sicily are the most complete visual record of the island produced by a British artist in the eighteenth century. A group of seven watercolours form the series, including two of sites in the city of Syracuse, were acquired by the British Museum from the collection of Paul Oppé in 1956. This large-scale, beautifully preserved and meticulously worked watercolours stand as one of the most ambitious records of a Grand Tour journey and should be considered on a par with both JR Cozens series of watercolours made for William Beckford and Richard Wilson’s drawings for the 2nd Lord Dartmouth. Preserved in spectacular condition and retaining its original wash-lined mount, this bold sheet is one of the most impressive and impactful of the series. The drawing remained at Campbell’s Welsh home, Stackpole Court until its sale in the 1960s.


  1. Francis Russell, ‘Early Italian Pictures and Some English Collectors’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.136, no.1091, February 1994, p.87.
  2. Hugh Honour, ‘Antonio Canova and the Anglo-Romans, Part II, The First Years in Rome,’ The Connoisseur, December, 1959, pp.227-228. 
  3. Flaxman to Romney, Rome, May 25th 1788. 
  4. Patrick Brydone and Henry Swunburne, The Present State of Sicily and Malta, London, 1788, p.75.