The World of Disney

David Gill provides an introduction to the life of Dr John Disney (1779–1857), the subject of his latest biography.

Dr John Disney (1779–1857) is perhaps best known for his benefaction that allowed the creation of the Cambridge University chair of archaeology that continues to bear his name. What was his interest in archaeology, and what were his motivations?

How did the book come about?

My professional interest in Disney came through my time as a curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The ‘Disney Marbles’ (as they were known at the time of their donation in 1850) formed a key component of the sculpture collection and included imperial portraits as well as Roman sarcophagi. Part of this gift, as well as some subsequent acquisitions, were explored in a temporary exhibition ‘Antiquities of the Grand Tour’ (1990). I was invited to prepare a new memoir of Disney for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). This involved tracking down his papers in various record offices, as well as walking part of his estate in Dorset.

Sarcophagus with Dionysiac scene. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum. © David Gill.

On returning to the east of England I decided to choose Disney as the subject of my inaugural lecture as he had been involved with the creation of civic museums in Chelmsford and Colchester, and had stood unsuccessfully as Member of Parliament for both Harwich and Ipswich. After completing my biography of Dr Winifred Lamb (Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator [2018]), the Honorary Keeper of Greek Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, I decided that the time was right for exploring this key figure in the formation of academic archaeology in the UK.

What is inside?

The Disney family were based at Norton Disney, between Lincoln and Newark. They had settled there following the Norman conquest; their origins lay in Isigny in Normandy. By the 18th century the family were living in Lincoln.

The central question was how the Disney family had acquired the classical sculpture collection at The Hyde. John’s father, the Reverend John Disney (1746–1816), was a Church of England cleric in Lincolnshire. He was part of the Feathers Tavern Petitioners who sought to be released from the perceived constraints of the Thirty-Nine Articles. He became close friends (and brother-in-law) of the Reverend Theophilus Lindsey. Disney resigned his Church of England living to become assistant minister of the Unitarian Essex Street Chapel in London where Lindsey was minister. One of the key benefactors of the chapel was Thomas Brand (Brand-Hollis) (c. 1719–1804) of The Hyde, near Ingatestone in Essex.

The Hyde, near Ingatestone, Essex.

Brand-Hollis died in 1804 and bequeathed The Hyde, its collections, and estates in Dorset to the Reverend John Disney. The classical sculptures had been largely acquired by Brand and his friend Thomas Hollis (1720–1774) during their Grand Tour of Italy. Among the pieces was a fine portrait of Marcus Aurelius that had been displayed in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. At least five objects were purchased for The Hyde in 1761 from the collection of William Lloyd of The Gregories in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Hollis bequeathed his fortune and estate to Brand, and Archdeacon Francis Blackburne of Richmond Yorkshire prepared the Memoirs (1780); Blackburne was father-in-law to both Lindsey and the Reverend John Disney.

Disney’s elder brother Lewis married Elizabeth Ffytche, daughter of a former president of Bengal, in 1775 and settled at Danbury Place in Essex. After Elizabeth’s death Lewis purchased the pleasure gardens, Le Désert de Retz, outside Paris; however, the events of the French Revolution forced him to flee France and he moved to Italy. Part of the Disney collection can be traced to his time in Naples. It was in Italy that his daughter, Frances, met (Sir) William Hillary, the future founder of the RNLI; they married on their return to London. Lewis’ other daughter, Sophia, married her first cousin John Disney in 1802. John had studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge before being admitted to the Inner Temple. In 1807 he was appointed Recorder of Bridport in Dorset, and his family moved to the former estate owned by Thomas Hollis.

The Reverend John Disney died in December 1816, and John Disney moved back to Essex. He became involved with the Chelmsford Philosophical Society and helped to establish the Chelmsford and Essex Museum in 1843 to display the society’s collection. Investigations in Colchester led to an interest in Roman archaeology and a Latin funerary inscription entered the Disney collection. In 1818 Disney started a detailed catalogue of the collection in The Hyde that later appeared as the Museum Disneianum (1846; 2nd ed. 1849); it drew on the catalogue that had been prepared by his father. This new catalogue included additional pieces that Disney had added to the collection during his travels in Italy.

Inscription from Colchester. Museum Disneianum.

In 1849 Disney turned 70 and he decided to offer his collection of sculpture to the University of Cambridge as ‘a basis for the study of Archaeology’. In 1851 he offered to establish a ‘professorship of classical antiquities’. The first professor was the Reverend John H. Marsden, the Rector of Great Oakley near Harwich. Marsden was a member of the Colchester Archaeological Association and later the Essex Archaeological Society. Disney was awarded an honorary DCL from Oxford in 1854, and was incorporated with the degree of LL.D. at Cambridge during the Archaeological Institute’s visit to Cambridge later that same year. Disney died in May 1857 and is buried in the family tomb in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin at Fryerning in Essex.

About the author

David Gill is Honorary Professor in the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent, and Academic Associate in the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage in the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures at the University of East Anglia (UEA). He is a former Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome, and Sir James Knott Fellow at Newcastle University. He was responsible for curating the Greek and Roman collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, before moving to Swansea University where he was reader in Mediterranean Archaeology. He returned to East Anglia as Professor of Archaeological Heritage at the University of Suffolk. He is a Fellow of the RSA and the Society of Antiquaries. In 2012 he received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for his research on cultural property. His other books include Sifting the Soil of Greece: The Early Years of the British School at Athens (1886-1919) (2011), and Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator (2018).


How to Order:

The World of Disney: From Antiquarianism to Archaeology is available now in paperback (£25) or as a PDF eBook (£16)

Also available: Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator: Paperback (£30) / PDF eBook (£16).

Sincerest thanks to David Gill for providing this blog post. To submit an article for the Archaeopress Blog, please contact Patrick Harris.

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