Produced in partnership with the British Museum, this exhibition showcases a series of powerful and poetic watercolours made on an expedition to discover ancient Greek ruins in Ionia (in modern Turkey) and Athens in 1764.

The evocative images by the brilliant young artist William Pars which document the expedition are displayed together for the first time.  Soane deeply admired Greek architecture, and purchased books relating to the expedition for his own library, which are here shown alongside Pars’s watercolours.

You can see this exhibition in person at the Museum. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, timed tickets are required to visit.

Book timed tickets online >


In the last few weeks, join our Curator Louise Stewart for an in-person tour of the exhibition. Book now >


Alternatively, scroll down to view the exhibition online. If you'd like to learn more about the relevance of the expedition to the Soane, you can also visit our accompanying online exhibition ‘These superb monuments’: Sir John Soane and Ancient Greece.

This exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generosity of David and Molly Lowell Borthwick. The accompanying catalogue has been kindly supported by the Society of Dilettanti Charitable Trust.


The Romance of Ruins has been produced in partnership with the British Museum. All the drawings by William Pars included here have been kindly lent by the British Museum.

This exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generosity of David and Molly Lowell Borthwick. The accompanying catalogue has kindly been supported by the Society of Dilettanti Charitable Trust.

Curated by Ian Jenkins, Celeste Farge, Kim Sloan, Louise Stewart.

In memory of Dr Ian Dennis Jenkins OBE FSA 1953–2020

‘No words can convey the ideas excited by scenes of so much novelty, grandeur and beauty’

Richard Chandler, Travels in Asia Minor, 1775

In 1764, the antiquary Richard Chandler, architect Nicholas Revett and artist William Pars set off on an expedition to Turkey. Funded by the Society of Dilettanti, they were to discover and document the ruins of ancient Ionia. Part of the Greek world from the 8th century BC and ruined in antiquity, the beauty and fame of the Ionian cities lived on in the writings of ancient commentators such as Herodotus and Strabo.

Pars’s drawings, begun on the expedition and later worked up in the studio, record the classical ruins encountered in Turkey and Greece between 1764 and 1766 and also the living landscape – its flora and fauna, and the customs, manners and dress of the people, bringing to life extracts from Chandler’s diary account.

William Pars
The theatre at Miletus with the travellers crossing the river in a ferry
Pen and black ink with watercolour and gum arabic
October 1764
© Trustees of the British Museum

This drawing shows the party crossing the river Meander at Miletus. Referred to by Herodotus as the ‘jewel of Ionia’, this wealthy port city led the field in natural philosophy in the 6th century BC. The theatre of Miletus, one of the largest in Asia Minor, is seen in the middle of the image. 

Richard Chandler, antiquary, epigrapher and expedition leader, stands self-assured on the ferry, with architect Nicholas Revett about to board. Behind him, chaos seems to threaten as Pars’s horse rears nervously. The travellers are accompanied by a retinue of hired local attendants including guides, translators, cooks and janizaries (bodyguards) who were crucial to the success of the expedition. They helped to navigate the Ottoman Empire, with its powerful Agas (local rulers) and terrifying bands of brigands.

Who were the travellers?

Richard Chandler (bap. 1737, d.1810): The leader of the expedition, Richard Chandler was only 27 when it departed. He was a promising scholar at Oxford, having already published a volume of fragments of Greek poets and an account of the marble collection of Oxford University, Marmora Oxoniensia (1763). This meant he was well placed to understand the ancient objects and inscriptions encountered on the expedition. Chandler went on to publish a diary account of the expedition and Inscriptiones Antiquae which detailed the ancient inscriptions the travellers encountered. He also wrote the text for Ionian Antiquities, the illustrated account of places visited. Chandler went on to have a successful academic career at Oxford.

Nicholas Revett (1721-1804): Nicholas Revett was 43 when the expedition departed. In the early 1750s he had accompanied James Stuart on an expedition to Athens and, on their return, the pair were invited to join the Society of Dilettanti and published The Antiquities of Athens. This illustrated account of the sites visited was highly influential. On the 1764 expedition, Revett made detailed measured drawings of the ruins encountered which were published in Ionian Antiquities. He remained a prominent member of the Society of Dilettanti and was the architect of a number of buildings in the Greek style.

William Pars (1742-1782): William Pars was only 22 when he was appointed to the Ionian expedition. He had just begun to exhibit paintings in oils at the Society of Arts in the Strand, London, and was teaching drawing at his brother’s academy nearby. His training had included life drawing and drawing from casts at the Royal Academy of Arts and he had also learnt to draw landscapes from nature on the spot – all useful skills for the expedition artist. It was his job to record not only the landscape and ruins, but also the sculptures they found and the local people they travelled with and encountered. The sketches he made on the spot were worked up into the finished watercolours after the travellers’ returned to England. After the expedition, he worked for patrons in England as well as in Switzerland, Ireland and Italy, where he died aged 40.

The Sponsors: The Society of Dilettanti

Left: Joshua Reynolds. The Dilettanti Vase Group: Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt. (in President’s robes); John Taylor; Stephen Payne-Gallway; Sir William Hamilton; Richard Thompson (in Arch Master robes); Walter Spencer-Stanhope; John Smyth. 1777–9. Oil on canvas. 196.8 × 142.2 cm. London, Society of Dilettanti.

Right: Joshua Reynolds. The Dilettanti Gem Group: Constantine Phipps, 2nd Baron Mulgrave; Thomas Dundas, later 2nd Baron Dundas; Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth; Charles Greville; Charles John Crowle; Francis Godolphin Osborne, Marquess of Carmarthen, later 4th Duke of Leeds; Joseph Banks. 1777–9. Oil on canvas. 196.8 × 142.2 cm. London, Society of Dilettanti.

The Society of Dilettanti funded the 1764 expedition to Ionia. It had been founded around 1733 as a convivial club for aristocratic and other well-to-do young men who had been on the Grand Tour to Italy. Within a few years of its foundation, the Society gained a reputation for commissioning archaeological expeditions to Greece and Turkey.

Painter and architect James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, as he became known, and architect Nicholas Revett went to Greece independently in the 1750s to measure and record antiquities. Upon their return, so impressed were the Dilettanti Society by what they had achieved that they elected both men to their own Society and undertook to publish their work in four sumptuous folio volumes, The Antiquities of Athens. The Society had been given a new purpose and they found themselves in the vanguard of a burgeoning Hellenism in art and architecture. It was not long before they were planning a second expedition, to that part of Western Anatolia known as Ionia.

A map of the Aegean Sea or Archipelago from Richard Chandler, Travels in Asia Minor, 1775. Highlighting added to show the main sites visited by the 1764 expedition.

To the Ancients, Ionia, on the west coast of modern Turkey, was a fabled land, famous for its natural beauty. It was an alliance of independent city-states, each with its own political and cultural identity, but united by the Ionian dialect.

Part of the Greek world from the 8th century BC, by the 6th century BC, an enlightenment culture flourished in Ionia. You could sail from one gleaming white marble city to another, the natural beauty of the landscape crowned by the splendour of human artifice. Strong walls for defence inhibited urban sprawl. The first essays in colossal temple building were made, and the Ionic order became standard.

The architects themselves became celebrities, including Theodoros and Rhoikos, architects of the temple of Hera on Samos. The treatises that they wrote about their works were the first prose texts in the ancient Greek language. The expedition was a tantalizing prospect, promising to discover and document the remains of these famous ancient cities.

William Pars
Ruins of the east gymnasium at Ephesus
Pen and grey ink and watercolour, some gum arabic
October 1764 and April 1765
© Trustees of the British Museum

The expedition set sail in June 1764. The intention was to go straight to Smyrna, home of the Levant Trading Company, and join the international community there. An outbreak of plague, however, diverted the travellers to the Troad (the area around Troy), and there they sought out the places of Homer’s Iliad. Their eventual arrival in Smyrna gave them a base camp from where they visited sites near and far.

Ephesus is renowned for the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and was one of the twelve major city-states that formed the Ionian league. This drawing shows its gymnasium, originally an impressive structure including baths and vaulted halls for exercise and social gatherings. The travellers are shown in their tent, smoking and writing or drawing, while their attendants cook and guard the camp. Of the temple of Artemis, the travellers found nothing, and Chandler wondered that it could have 'vanished like a phantom, without leaving a trace behind.

William Pars
The stadium at Laodicea on the Lycus
Pen and grey ink and watercolour, with gum arabic and some body colour
April 1765
© Trustees of the British Museum

Here Pars silhouettes a group of contemporary figures to highlight the vast scale of the ancient stadium of Laodicea behind them. One of the largest in Asia Minor, it could accommodate 2500 spectators. Laodicea was once a bustling commercial centre at the junction of two key trading routes. The city suffered severe damage in an earthquake in the 5th century and never fully recovered. It was finally abandoned in the thirteenth century. ‘All was silence, and solitude’ wrote Chandler of Laodicea, and a corresponding sense of desolation is palpable in this drawing.

William Pars
Sepulchral monument (Gümüşkesen) at Milâs, ancient Mylasa
Pen and grey ink with watercolour and body colour and some gum arabic
October 1764
© Trustees of the British Museum

This monumental Roman tomb was modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Chandler describes ‘A hole made through the floor’ of the tomb’s upper room, which was ‘designed for pouring libations of honey, milk, or wine to gratify the manes or spirits’. Pars used Revett’s detailed drawings to depict the tomb’s exquisite ornamental ceiling and capitals. The view by Pars is taken from the west, overlooking the town and the foothills of the Latmus range beyond.

Sir John Soane owned a model representing this building. Click here to find out more, in our online exhibition, 'These Superb Monuments': Soane and Ancient Greece.

‘It is impossible to conceive of greater beauty and majesty of ruin.’

Richard Chandler, Travels in Asia Minor, 1776

William Pars
Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Didyma, from the north-east
Pen and grey and black ink and watercolour, with gum arabic and some body colour
October 1764
© Trustees of the British Museum

In antiquity, the temple of Apollo at Didyma competed with the Parthenon and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in both size and fame. Renowned for its oracle, it was rebuilt twice. The 1764 expedition encountered the awe-inspiring ruins of the immense Hellenistic temple, which was never finished. Chandler was captivated, writing that ‘it is impossible to conceive of greater beauty and majesty of ruin’. 

Revett is shown absorbed in the task of measuring the architectural remains. In the foreground, one of the travellers’ attendants is quietly praying, and we can hear in our imagination the tranquil sound of the bells from the grazing flock of goats in an otherwise silent landscape.

Transcript: "The memory of the pleasure which this spot afforded me will not be soon or easily erased... the columns are so exquisitely fine, the marble mass so vast and noble that it is impossible to conceive greater beauty and majesty of ruin. At evening the whole mass was illuminated by the declining sun, with a variety of rich tints. The sea at a distance was smooth and shining. The picture was as delicious as it was striking."

William Pars
Capital of one of the antae from the temple of Apollo at Didyma
Watercolour and body colour, with some pen and grey ink. Made up of several
small pieces of paper stuck together
October 1765
© Trustees of the British Museum (purchased 1857)

This image shows two figures reclining on one of the immense capitals from the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. They may be the travellers’ Armenian interpreter (left) and Mustapha, one of their dragomans. The images from Didyma are typical of Western depictions of Turks in this period. Unlike the travellers who busily measure, scale and record the remains of antiquity, the Turks appear idle, reclining on ancient monuments seemingly unaware of their significance. 

As Chandler noted, numerous capitals were scattered on the ground around the site and were ‘as remarkable for the delicacy of their workmanship as for the amazing elegance of their design…’ they ‘must impress even the tasteless spectator with reverential regret’.

In May 1765, returning from a trip to visit sites outside Smyrna, the travellers found plague raging in the city. They retreated to a village outside the city, spending three months in isolation before deciding to abandon Asia Minor. In August, they set sail for Greece, with their sights set on Athens.

William Pars
Ruins of the temple of Apollo at Aegina
Pen and grey ink with watercolour and some gum arabic
August 1765 and April 1766*
© Trustees of the British Museum

This view shows the ruins of a temple to Apollo at the port of Aegina, which the travellers visited on their way to Athens. The two lonely columns in an almost deserted landscape embody melancholy reflections on the passing of the great age of antiquity and the reduction of its monuments.

‘It is not easy to conceive a more striking object than the Parthenon, though now a mere ruin…’

Richard Chandler, Travels in Greece, 1776

William Pars
View of the Parthenon from the East
Pen and grey ink and watercolour, with body colour, over graphite
© Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon, monumental temple to Athens’ patron Athena Parthenos, crowns the Athenian acropolis. Because of its huge scale, ideal proportions and masterly sculpture, it is often considered to be the ultimate achievement of ancient Greek architecture. Its sculptures had never before been drawn at close quarters. Pars suspended himself in a cradle lashed to the upper reaches of the building, 40 feet off the ground, to make watercolour drawings of them. 

In this unfinished watercolour, the Parthenon It is surrounded by contemporary Turkish houses, with a mosque visible between the monumental columns. High up on the temple’s architrave we glimpse Pars himself.

William Pars
Study of Parthenon South Metope II
Graphite, pen and ink, and red-brown wash
September 1765-June 1766
© Trustees of the British Museum

Pars’s watercolour drawings are so finely executed as to seem effortless. They are works of art in their own right, clearly inspired by the beauty of their subject.

Metopes are carvings in high relief that ran around the outside of the Parthenon forty feet above the ground. The central metopes of the south side were destroyed by an explosion in 1687 but the remaining ones are among the best preserved of them all. They illustrate the mythological battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, part-man, part-horse. The vitality and essence of the sculptures is brilliantly captured in this drawing by Pars, one of over a hundred he made of the sculptures of the Parthenon and other temples around Athens.

William Pars
View of the Erechtheum from the north-east
Brush drawing in grey and brown wash, watercolour and body colour, gum
arabic, graphite
September 1765 - June 1766
© Trustees of the British Museum

The building depicted here is the Erectheum, dedicated to Athena Polias. It is one of the most famous on the Acropolis, partly because of its elegant caryatid porch in which female figures replace the columns that would usually support the entablature.

Pars’s view is unusual in that it doesn’t show the caryatid porch, instead focusing on the north porch. The Parthenon is to the left, rather closer than it is in reality. The modern wall in the foreground incorporates fragments of ancient buildings, including part of a fluted column. Below the acropolis, the city of Athens is depicted in detail.

Sir John Soane used versions of the caryatids from the Erectheum on the façade of his Museum. Find out more in our online exhibition, 'These Superb Monuments': Soane and Ancient Greece.

William Pars
View of the Propylaea from the south-west corner of the second bastion
Pen and grey ink and watercolour and gum arabic
September 1765-June 1766
© Trustees of the British Museum

The Propylaea, built by the architect Mnesicles between 437 and 432 BC, was intended as the monumental gateway to the Athenian Acropolis. When the travellers visited in 1765-6, it had long since ceased to serve this function, having been used as a residence and as storage for munitions. In this view, the spaces between the columns have been walled up and the city of Athens stretches away behind the figures in the foreground. A programme of restoration on the Propylaea was completed in 2009. In a high corner of the central building, the initials of Chandler, Pars and Revett were discovered along with the date 1765.

Society of Dilettanti, Ionian Antiquities, (1769) and Antiquities of Ionia (1797) (bound in one volume)
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Photograph by Gareth Gardner

The findings of the 1764 Ionian expedition were published by the Society of Dilettanti in two lavish volumes, Ionian Antiquites (1769) and Antiquities of Ionia (1797) which included descriptive text, Revett’s architectural drawings and Pars’s topographical views. This page opening includes descriptions of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma as well as an engraving after the watercolour of a capital by Pars included in the exhibition. These copies, bound together, were owned by Sir John Soane and may have provided inspiration for his own adoption and adaption of ancient Greek architectural forms. 

Chandler also published a diary account of the expedition in two volumes, Travels in Asia Minor (1775) and Travels in Greece (1776). Although not illustrated, his writing is evocative and his descriptions of the sites align closely with Pars’s images. Chandler’s words have been used in the object labels throughout this exhibition.

Want to know more? You can read all of Ionian Antiquities online at

James Stuart, Antiquities of Athens, Volume II, 1787
Photograph by Gareth Gardner

The Antiquities of Athens was one of the most outstanding antiquarian projects of the eighteenth century. It was published in four sumptuous volumes between 1762 and 1830. The first volume contained details of buildings surveyed by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett during their expedition to Greece in the 1750s. Such books as these were monuments in themselves and, like some great cathedral, they took years to complete, relying on successive generations of champions.

Pars’s drawings from the 1764 expedition were engraved for the second and third volumes, published in 1787 and 1794. This opening shows an image of the Parthenon based on the original watercolour shown above. The Antiquities of Athens was highly influential, sparking a new interest in ancient Greek architecture and design. It became a key sourcebook for architects and designers, including Sir John Soane, during the Greek Revival of the early nineteenth century.

Paul Sandby after William Pars
Temple of Apollo Didymeus near Miletus
Aquatint with etching
British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum

The Dilettanti publications on the Ionian expedition and Antiquities of Athens reproduced Pars’s watercolours in line engravings which failed to capture their atmosphere and light. In 1777, the Dilettanti gave Paul Sandby permission to execute a new series of twelve prints, which were completed in 1780. Sandby used the new medium of aquatint, much better suited to reproducing watercolours. The prints were intended to be read alongside Chandler’s diary accounts. They would have an important afterlife, collected by antiquarians and connoisseurs and contributing to a new interest in ancient Greek architecture and design.

William Pars
Temple of Poseidon at Sunium
Pen and brown and black ink and watercolour, some gum arabic
August 1765
© Trustees of the British Museum

By 1821, the findings of the 1764 Ionian expedition had been published in several lavish volumes. The first volume of a new series, Antiquities of Ionia, was published that year. The book appeared at the height of the Greek Revival. In architecture, furniture, dress and all the decorative arts, Greek style was at its most fashionable. The year 1821 also marked the beginning of the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule. This was encouraged by the new and radical form of Hellenism, which not only admired ancient Greece, but also had a feeling for contemporary Greece and its inhabitants. The greatest advocate of this Philhellenism was Lord Byron, whose verse gave voice to the Philhellene movement.

In this image, Pars depicts the ruins of the Doric Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sunium, one of the sites which most inspired Byron. Perched dramatically on a headland overlooking the Aegean Sea, the heap of fragments at its foot underscores the fragility of the temple, evoking the fall of the great civilizations of antiquity. 

On Sunium, Byron wrote:
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing save the waves and I
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die.

Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto III, 182

March 1764: Society of Dilettanti agree to send an expedition to document remains of ancient Ionia in modern Turkey

10 April 1764: Richard Chandler (c.1737-1810), antiquary and epigrapher, appointed to lead the expedition with Nicholas Revett (1721-1804), architect, to accompany him

20 April 1764: William Pars (1742-1782), artist, appointed to the expedition

9 June 1764: Expedition departs from Gravesend in Kent, bound for Smyrna (modern Izmir)

August 1764: Expedition arrives at Constantinople, having been diverted from Smyrna due to plague

September 1764: Expedition arrives at Smyrna

May - August 1765: Expedition forced to quarantine outside Smyrna due to plague

31 August 1765: Expedition arrives in Athens

June 1766: Expedition departs Athens

2 November 1766: Expedition arrives back in England

1769: Seven of Pars’s watercolours of the expedition exhibited at the Royal Academy

1769 and 1797: Publication of Ionian Antiquities and Antiquities of Ionia – illustrated accounts of the expedition

1775 and 1776: Publication of Travels in Asia Minor and Travels in Greece, Chandler’s diary accounts of the expedition

1800: Pars’s and Revett’s drawings and watercolours of the expedition presented by the Society of Dilettanti to the British Museum

1811-13: Society of Dilettanti funds a second Ionian expedition

1821: Publication of first volume of Antiquities of Ionia, a new folio set incorporating findings from first and second Ionian expeditions

NB. The dates given on the labels are the dates the expedition visited the site. The watercolours were mostly painted by Pars from late 1766 to early 1769, after their return to London.

Buy the catalogue

Curator's Tour of The Romance of Ruins

Join Dr Louise Stewart, one of the curators of The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764, for a special in-person tour of this exhibition of evocative watercolours of ancient Greek sites in Turkey and Greece including the Parthenon.