top of page

Iris Cornelia Love (1933-19 April 2020)

Iris Cornelia Love who passed away this weekend was a living legend. Despite being a member of the Guggenheim family, and very much part of New York’s salon life, it is as an archaeologist that she is best remembered. Some have even described her as a female Indiana Jones before Indiana Jones ever existed.

Iris Cornelia Love

I first heard about Iris Love not in a scientific journal but in a glossy woman’s magazine, SHE. She was presented as a star seeking the lost sculpture of the goddess of love at Knidos, Turkey. This project at Knidos and her pursuit of Praxiteles’ naked statue of Aphrodite, given to the Knidians in the 4th century BC, came to define her. She was an adventurer who thrived on the drama of the past and bringing it into the present.

Her career in archaeology was preordained, she claimed, by her background. She recalled her colourful pedigree as follows:

‘My great-uncle, Daniel Guggenheim, and his brothers—including Uncle Solomon, who founded the museum—had made their money digging in the earth for minerals, mining copper in Colorado and developing Alaska during the Gold Rush. Uncle Daniel was also very interested in aeronautics. He met a young physicist named Robert Goddard and financed all of his experiments. It was the rocket Goddard developed that put man on the Moon. The wonderful connection is that my ancestors dug for the riches of the earth and used some of that money to finance research for the future. And I've dug in the earth for the riches of the past.’

Iris Cornelia Love was born in 1933 at 713 Park Avenue, a townhouse just a few blocks from where she spent most of her life. Her parents—the stockbroker Cornelius Ruxton Love Jr. and Audrey Barbara Josephthal, an heiress to the New York private securities firm Josephthal & Co., and to the Guggenheim fortune—met on a boat to China and married after a long courtship. The household was soon to become a shrine to art, as she recalled:

‘I grew up eating at a table Daddy had made from a Coromandel screen from the Summer Palace, which he had turned on its side and covered with glass…..I had a wonderful English governess, Katie Wray, who had also brought up my mother, and she had had a classical education. Although she read me the usual children's stories, I hated them, so she turned to tales from classical Greek and Roman mythology, which I loved. Sometimes she would read them to me in Latin, so when I began to study it in school I was already several steps ahead.’

It was this governess who took the young Iris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her first infatuation was a trio of monumental Etruscan terracottas.

After a Manhattan education, she matriculated to Smith College, where her professors included the redoubtable Phyllis Williams Lehmann. Here was planted the seductive lure of Greek art. She enrolled for graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts, but after completing her exams she dropped out, falling back on her trust fund to support her. A decade later in August 1966, after nine seasons of digging with the Lehmanns, she struck out on her own. She first visited Knidos with a Turkish archaeologist, a scion of the late Sultan, three days after her 33rd birthday. She recalled the epiphany many times afterwards:

‘I was sitting on the prow of the cäique and suddenly a school of dolphins – which are sacred to Aphrodite – appeared and escorted us into the Bay of Knidos…somehow I knew that this was part of my destiny’.

Once running her own excavations, Iris lived as a neon celebrity: bold, flamboyant and dressed to be photographed. The New Yorker found her irresistible: ‘Miss Love … a handsome woman, who looks her best – and most at home – in the field. At five feet seven, she stands eight inches shorter than the “Aphrodite” did. Her skin is tanned a deep bronze by more than twenty summers in the Aegean sun, and her hair is bleached almost white. Her eyes are dark brown and very large, and make her look ingenuous, which is probably an asset to a woman who must persuade governments to give her permits and rich people to give her money. At Cnidus, she usually dresses in very short shorts and a T-shirt, white sneakers, and tennis socks with pom-poms at the back, and she is almost always trailed by two dachshunds – Phryne (after Praxiteles’ mistress, who was the model for his “Aphrodite”) and Carl Phillipp Emanuel Endoxus von Cnidus, or Carlino.’

Her Knidos excavations came to be defined by the discovery of the round temple (in which Praxiteles' statue of Aphrodite had stood) on the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. These excavations, though, were only one part of a massive city-wide project with spectacular digs of the harbour area, the Roman theatre, the stepped street houses and numerous temples. But it was at the round temple that Iris courted controversy. Many scholars have derisively dismissed it as a Roman temple podium similar to a temple at Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome. In her defence, Iris was quick to offer other clues to support her theory that this is where the iconic statue had once stood.

Looking across Knidos to the lighthouse

Of these clues, she pointed to an inscription found in the round temple in 1970 which included the word “ΠΡΑΞ” (“PRX”). This and other shattered epigraphical fragments led her to conclude that an inscription here once referred to Praxiteles’s statue and served to guide ancient tourists to see it.

Iris, of course, was aiming to find Aphrodite herself, the original. She was convinced that shattered fragments were concealed amongst the debris of the windblown terrace close to the round temple. In a stroke the authentic would eclipse any clumsy imitation from the Roman period (the best known being in the Vatican Museums, Rome).

Her passion led her almost inevitably into a full-blown international controversy in November 1970 when she announced in The New York Times that she had discovered the battered head of Praxiteles’s Aphrodite in the basement of the British Museum. Iris afterwards claimed that she was forced into a premature revelation by the near-treachery of the British Museum. Hearing the story many times, listeners tended to divide along ethnic lines. The Americans mostly had sympathy for her and noted the implicit sub-texts: how is it those Brits didn’t have a handle on their own stuff, and, of all places, a less than salubrious basement store? The old colonialists needed taking down a peg or two. The Europeans including the Turks tended to take the British Museum’s part in the story, knowing fully well what it was like to confront this cyclonic heiress.

The story was as follows. Sir Charles Newton’s finds from his excavations at Knidos in the Victorian period were all given to the British Museum. Most of the many sculptures were in storage. In May 1970, Iris accompanied by her friend, Sheila Gibson, had asked to see the sculptures collected at Knidos that were not on display. The British Museum dutifully acceded. Proctors were dispatched to the museum’s cavernous basements then like dungeons, where they retrieved a galaxy of fingers and toes and battered bits and then lay these out within the hallowed halls of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities for their honoured guests.

The Roman copy of Aphrodite in the Vatican Museum

Alas, one piece was missing. Was it deliberate or an inadvertent error made by the Keeper or the proctors in the haste to deal with this heiress? Iris spotted this in a jiffy, as Sheila Gibson recalled with measured bemusement. Newton’s catalogue number 1314 was the object that Iris had set her heart on handling from the outset not body parts. Bust 1314, according to Newton, dated to the 4th century BC and was very likely the work of one of Praxiteles’s contemporaries.

The encounter in the British Museum entered legend.

‘As soon as I saw it,’ Iris recalled, ‘I thought, was it, could it be…the head? Her eyes had that limpid gaze that has been described so often. They were so Praxitelean! So, I screamed, ‘I think this might be “the Aphrodite”’.

In late September 1970, Iris returned home from Knidos via the British Museum. Here she met the bluff Keeper once again. She asked if she might publish her discovery appertaining to her Aphrodite in the basement. Permission was apparently granted. Then things went horribly awry as the two academic cultures endured a transatlantic incident, typical of the analogue age.

In November a film crew from CBS making a documentary about Iris and Knidos visited the British Museum. They were permitted to film everything except Iris’s Aphrodite. Bust 1314, they were told, was unavailable, being cleaned for imminent exhibition. Iris was immediately apprised of this by phone from Bloomsbury and attempted to reach the Keeper to remonstrate. The department and its staff melted away in the hope that this problem might pass. Undeterred the CBS crew returned, only to be rebuffed once more. On the Saturday in question Iris was doubtless suspecting all kinds of treachery and so she published her views, knowing she might be damned.

The celebrated interview in The New York Times appeared on 8th November. The headline offered no compromise: HEAD OF APHRODITE BY PRAXITELES FOUND. In a stroke Iris Cornelia Love found fame for herself, Praxiteles and Knidos. She also made mortal enemies in the British Museum who now grasped that she was far from a daffy heiress.

The interview had a touch of a film noir. ‘It was dark and dank with electric light bulbs breaking into the gloom’ Iris was supposed to have said. The British Museum acted with dizzying alacrity. Twenty-four hours later on Monday morning Bust 1314 was on display, having indeed been cleaned. The Keeper, presumably with orders from on high, resignedly told reporters: “We thought that since this whole business burst upon an astonished world, we had better get the object out.”

The opening salvoes of this colonial skirmish now led to a quintessential academic struggle.

Taking up the story the London Times responded meekly: ‘apparently a little shaken by Miss Love’s claim that they have been sitting on a masterpiece all these years’ the museum took the ‘unprecedented step… of issuing an abstract of previous scholarly views of the head’. Bloomsbury’s testy irritation was instantly recognizable when the Keeper himself was interviewed: ‘We know that this head was found in the temple of Demeter [more than half a mile from the sanctuary of Aphrodite]. If it is the head of the Aphrodite, it must have walked [from] the Temple of Aphrodite. How else did it get there? Ask Miss Love?‘ He continued, rattled: ‘To imply that we didn’t know we had this piece, and that it is unstudied is simply untrue. We’re overcrowded with material, but we know what we have… I’m very cross with her, if she wants to put her points down on paper we shall examine them, as we should arguments of any member of the public.’

Iris, of course, was not any member of the public and so she answered the Keeper not in any academic forum, as he had envisaged. She replied through The Times letter page, giving oxygen to the controversy. It surely enhanced her heroine status for her donors and certainly helped CBS cut their film to popular taste.

In staid academic language Iris explained how Sir Charles Newton found the statue along with others in the Temenos of Demeter. Her hypothesis was that after the Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing of pagan temples and incited their destruction, a loyal worshipper secreted Aphrodite in a deposit in the Demeter precinct.

Bust 1314 is a gruesome object. The nub of the dispute was about hairdos. Most classical female statues have their hair drawn back above the ears in a bun at the back of the head. Aphrodite, Iris insisted, was different. She wore her hair half covering her ears ending in a bun low on the nape of her neck. Numerous imitations attest to the celebrated idiosyncrasy of Praxiteles’s muse. Unfortunately, 1314 had been broken off at the back and cut back in preparation for reuse. The Bloomsbury team was adamant that the statue may have had a headdress. As such it could not have been Aphrodite. The Keeper, his nose well and truly out of joint, published a rebuttal in a German academic journal proposing it might be a Demeter. Soon the proctors took 1314 off exhibition and discretely returned the battered bust to its century-old sanctuary in storage.

History has remembered Iris for this spirited spat. Later she was to muse: ‘I hope I am wrong. I’d still like to find Aphrodite in her magnificent pristine condition, not with a battered face and dismembered body.’

Iris continued to excavate at Knidos until 1977. She published excellent reports for her first six seasons. The reports then ceased as soon did her career in archaeology. Friends rationalized this as follows: Iris never sought a career as a university professor; publishing for her peers, therefore, lost its lustre once she quit Knidos. Being financially independent, she pursued a second career breeding dogs.

Was she ever really an archaeologist? Here is the rub. Iris belonged to those ranks who privileged discovery over science – Schliemann as opposed to the diligent Newton, for example. Reduced to discovery, archaeology belongs to a world of celebrity juxtaposed with the watchful curation of the past and its treasures for posterity. Iris’s legacy at Knidos and in archaeology failed to do justice to her intelligence and resolution.

This said, she was, as I discovered during my two seasons as a member of her team at Knidos, as generous, warm and kindly as she was theatrical, and I have always treasured the enriching, life-changing months spent in her company.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page