Layard, Sir Austen Henry (1817–1894), archaeologist and politician
by Jonathan Parry

Layard, Sir Austen Henry (1817–1894), archaeologist and politician, was born in a Paris hotel on 5 March 1817, the eldest of four children of Henry Peter John Layard, formerly of the Ceylon civil service, and Marianne, daughter of Nathaniel Austen, banker, of Ramsgate. The Layards were of Huguenot descent. His father was asthmatic, and the family travelled much in Europe in search of a benign climate. They settled in Florence and enjoyed a cultured existence, entertaining visiting poets, painters, and writers. An altarpiece by Filippino Lippi hung over the young Layard's bed—it later formed part of his bequest to the National Gallery. He was briefly at school in Putney, Moulins (France), and Florence; then at the age of twelve he was sent to England to live with his uncle and aunt, Benjamin and Sara Austen, in search of a more formal education, which he received in Richmond, Surrey. In January 1834 he entered Austen's solicitors' office in London. His original forenames, Henry Austen, were reversed at the request of his uncle, whose partner and heir Layard hoped to become. However, he skimped and disliked the work of an articled clerk; the partnership, unsurprisingly, was not forthcoming; relations with his uncle deteriorated (he continued through life to use the name Henry). He was more interested in the literary men whom he met at his aunt's salon, not least her protégé Benjamin Disraeli. Like Disraeli, Layard grew up a Romantic, desperate for fame and exotic experiences, and contemptuous of English professional mores. A paternal uncle, living in Ceylon, suggested that he emigrate there to practise as a barrister, and introduced him to Edward Mitford, a young man bound for the same destination. Deciding to journey overland, the pair left England in July 1839. The Royal Geographical Society commissioned Layard to research the terrain.

Travel and excavations, 1839–1851

Layard and Mitford travelled through the Ottoman lands, visiting Constantinople (where Layard nearly died of malaria, which recurred in following years) and Jerusalem. He also made a reckless journey alone to see Petra and other ancient sites east of the Dead Sea; he was robbed and nearly killed by tribesmen. They stayed in Mosul and Baghdad; then in August 1840, in Persia, the two parted company, as Layard, who had become enamoured of the simplicity and independence of local life, preferred to stay in the region. He travelled, read widely in local history, learned Arabic and Persian, and spent time in the Bakhtiari Mountains with a tribe which was resisting the oppression of the shah. He returned to Baghdad and Mosul, where he had become fascinated by mounds opposite Mosul which the French consul, Emil Botta, was tentatively exploring. His funds depleted, Layard regained Constantinople in the summer of 1842, expecting to have to return to England. However, he made himself known to Stratford Canning, British ambassador to the Ottoman empire, who admired his spirit and his knowledge of the Turkish–Persian border, which was then in dispute. Layard agreed to stay in Turkey and work for Canning, believing that this was a place of promise for an enterprising and ambitious man. Canning paid him himself, since the Foreign Office under Lord Aberdeen refused to make him a paid attaché. He went on two information-gathering missions in European Turkey. In 1845, fearing that the French would otherwise get the honour, he persuaded Canning to support excavation work on the mounds near Mosul.

Layard left Constantinople in October and began to dig the mound of Nimrud. His earlier experience of living among local tribes paid off handsomely: he managed what became a workforce of 130 men with generosity and firmness, entertained visiting Arab sheikhs hospitably and patiently, dealt diplomatically with the local rulers, and so progressed with speed and economy. Guided by intuition founded on his discursive reading, his archaeological achievement was remarkable. He uncovered three palaces, most importantly that of Ashurnasirpal II, and many notable objects including the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III and several pairs of human-headed winged lions and bulls. In May 1846 Canning received authorization for the export of some of these to England, and then applied successfully to the trustees of the British Museum for further funding, which lasted until June 1847. In the last few weeks of this period Layard began excavations at Kuyunjik, nearer Mosul, and quickly discovered the largest Assyrian palace, that of Sennacherib. Forced to end excavations and return to Constantinople, Layard, encouraged by Henry Rawlinson (the scholar and British consul at Baghdad), claimed that Nimrud was Nineveh. Only after the publication of his first book did he realize that it was not, and that Kuyunjik was. In July 1847 Canning finally secured (from Palmerston) Layard's appointment to the embassy staff to work on the Turkish–Persian boundary question, though in fact illness prevented him from carrying out his duties.

Suffering from exhaustion and the recurrence of malaria, Layard returned to London in December 1847 for the first time in eight and a half years. In 1848 he worked hard to publicize his discoveries. He was made DCL at Oxford in July 1848, and in May 1849 received the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society. When his book Nineveh and its Remains was published early in 1849 it had an enthusiastic reception. So did the arrival of the Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum. Layard was admired as a type of the fearless, independently minded English explorer. Moreover, men who were anxious to rebut recent criticisms of the authenticity of holy scripture were excited by Assyrian references to biblical names and events and proclaimed that he had ‘made the Bible true’. When he was presented with the freedom of the City of London in 1853, it was for demonstrating ‘the accuracy of Sacred History’. His cynical Constantinople friend Charles Alison had told him: ‘if you can by any means humbug people into the belief that you have established any points in the Bible, you are a made man’ (Waterfield, 171). So it proved.

Layard was appointed a paid attaché at Constantinople in April 1849, but between October 1849 and April 1851 conducted major excavations at Kuyunjik, funded by the British Museum and described in a second book, Nineveh and Babylon (1853). These yielded further important trophies and discoveries, including the cuneiform library of Sennacherib's grandson Ashurbanipal, on which most modern knowledge of Assyrian culture is founded. At the new Crystal Palace, opened in 1854, there was an Assyrian court, on which Layard advised.

Political career, 1851–1869

From 1851 Layard abandoned archaeology and sought to use his fame to launch a political career. Lord Cowley, whom he had known in 1844 at Constantinople, offered him a post at the Paris embassy, but he preferred to take the under-secretaryship of foreign affairs which the new foreign secretary, Lord Granville, gave him (through Cowley's influence) in February 1852. Rocked by the sacking of Granville's predecessor, Palmerston, the Liberal government needed to demonstrate its openness to talent. Layard seemed a man of the people, though in fact it was as Lord Carrington's candidate that he became Liberal MP for Aylesbury in July 1852.

Layard held office for only three months, because Lord John Russell's government fell and (after blandishments and considerable hesitation) he declined to continue under the incoming Conservatives. His hopes for future employment depended on Russell, but the latter had few bargaining counters on the formation of the Aberdeen coalition of December 1852, and Layard was one of the many Liberals who were excluded from office in order to make way for Peelites. Russell offered him the consul-generalship in Egypt in 1853, but he wished to stay in British politics. Thereafter he was critical of whig haughtiness but much more angry at Peelite principles of government, particularly in Eastern policy. From his time in Constantinople he had been suspicious of Aberdeen's friendliness to Russia, which he regarded as a sinister influence in the East. Britain, he argued, must support the Ottoman empire in order to thwart Russia, and must ignore Russian-inspired complaints about Turkish misbehaviour towards the Balkan Christians. He believed that the Turkish people had as much right to live in the Balkans as the Christians and suffered as much from the internecine conflicts there, while the Greek hierarchy in particular was venal and oppressive. If the Turkish sultan's prestige were undermined, Ottoman control over the Asian peoples would be lost, creating anarchy which would damage British interests in the area. Pressure from energetic, trustworthy British ambassadors at the Porte was the best way to promote administrative reforms in the Ottoman empire, and these, together with Western capital investment, would help the Christians to acquire the talents which would eventually see the government of the Balkans pass relatively painlessly into their hands. With these views (afforced by a visit to Constantinople in 1853) he became a vigorous and expert parliamentary critic of government policy towards Russia. The descent into war early in 1854 seemed to validate his criticisms, and he journeyed to the Crimea in the autumn to witness the battles, forming a low opinion of British military strategy and administration.

In 1854–5 Layard mounted an outspoken crusade against the incompetence of Aberdeen's government and the war effort. Aberdeen fell early in 1855 and his successor, Palmerston, saw the merit of bringing Layard into government as under-secretary at the War Office. But Queen Victoria refused to consider him for this post on account of his open abuse of the Crimean military commanders Lord Raglan and Admiral Dundas. Palmerston then offered him the under-secretaryship of the Colonial Office, but he refused, regarding this as an unsuitable post and preferring to launch an extra-parliamentary campaign against ‘family and party influence’ in government, on the motto ‘Fitness not favour’. This was genuinely subversive, and at first it caught the public mood. Punch supported him, representing him digging out the British (John) Bull buried beneath a great weight of official incompetence. He was elected lord rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in his inaugural address explained how Britain, like Nineveh and Babylon, might lose her empire if she preferred vested interests and tired routine to virtue and individual responsibility. In May the campaign culminated in the establishment of a much-publicized pressure group, the Administrative Reform Association. However, Layard's star waned with the improvement in the war effort, the growth of confidence in Palmerston, and the capture of the Administrative Reform Association by moderates. By the end of the session he realized the need to turn his energies elsewhere. In 1856 he showed his personal commitment to the cause of reform and capitalism in Turkey by establishing the Ottoman Bank, which was intended to channel loans to the government and to commercial developers and so underpin the promises for Ottoman regeneration which the sultan made at the end of the Crimean War. He remained chairman until 1861.

Layard was unable to regain political standing after the war, disliking the spirit of chauvinism on which Palmerston had to rely to stay in office. His sympathy for, and confidence that he could manage, the peoples of the Near East made him hostile to the harsh treatment meted out by Sir John Bowring to the Chinese at Canton (Guangzhou) in 1856 and by the British troops suppressing the Indian mutiny in 1857. Having opposed Palmerston's government on the former issue, he lost his seat at the 1857 election, and went to India on a fact-finding tour. His disdain for British chauvinism was also evident in his revived interest in the land of his childhood. With few roots in England, and alienated from government, he found in Italy two causes which gave him emotional fulfilment and a political raison d'être. One was the Risorgimento, which had stimulated him when an ardent youth and which also worked on his ingrained hostility to the papacy. Sympathy for Italian self-government, together with memories of his wartime patriotism, explained his attraction to the working-class constituency of Southwark, which elected him in 1860 to succeed the radical war hero Sir Charles Napier. (Layard had been defeated at York at the 1859 election.) It also kept him close to Russell, whose under-secretary at the Foreign Office he became in 1861. Layard held this post until the government fell in 1866.

The second of his causes was art. Layard had an artist's eye, as can be seen from the many invaluable drawings that he made during the Assyrian excavations. He was among the pioneer enthusiasts for early Italian Renaissance painting, seeing it as expressing truthful religious ideas with simple piety. Contrasting this with the formulaic or sensuous art of more materialistic and decadent regimes, he warned that in modern Britain there was too much of the latter, and that there was an urgent need to elevate public taste by state and private encouragement. He was part of a circle which took several initiatives to this end. In 1856 his chromolithography edition of Perugino's fresco of St Sebastian revitalized the struggling Arundel Society, founded in 1848 to make reproductions of early Renaissance artworks widely available; he subsequently produced monographs on four other painters. He made annual visits to Italy to buy paintings for himself and the National Gallery. Russell (now prime minister) wanted him to succeed Sir Charles Eastlake as director of the gallery in 1865, while continuing at the Foreign Office. The obstacles to this were insuperable, and he became a trustee instead, in February 1866. He secured a parliamentary grant to help fund trips by artisans to the Universal Exhibition of 1867 at Paris and the publication of their reports on the displays in their trades; eighty were produced and Layard personally took two thousand of his Southwark constituents to the exhibition.

At first sight Layard's appointment as first commissioner of works (and a privy councillor) in Gladstone's government of 1868 marked a gesture of support for this policy of state-supported aesthetic education. At this time the office of works was responsible for an unprecedented number of major metropolitan public building schemes, and Layard and his supporters hoped that his influence could place London, which he called ‘the ugliest capital in the civilized world’ (The Times, 10 Nov 1869), on a footing with the rest of Europe. He appointed the eminent historian of Indian architecture James Fergusson as an architectural adviser. Unfortunately for them the office of works had since 1851 been clearly subordinate to Treasury control, and all the Treasury ministers involved—Gladstone, Robert Lowe, and A. S. Ayrton—were anxious to trim expenditure. So was a reformed House of Commons, in a tax-cutting, utilitarian, and somewhat anti-metropolitan mood. Layard encountered insuperable opposition from a number of quarters to his grand scheme of placing the new law courts and the Natural History Museum (to be followed by other public buildings) on a magnificent Thames Embankment. Bridling at Treasury demands, unpopular in the Commons, and accusing Gladstone of failing to support him, he hinted that he would prefer a diplomatic appointment. In October 1869, in an unusual move that ruffled career diplomats' feathers, he was appointed ambassador to Madrid.

Ambassadorship and retirement

Layard's parliamentary career marks him out as an old-school radical. In the early 1850s he complained that aristocratic exclusiveness prevented inadequately connected individuals of energy and talent from serving the state. But as time went on he found the constraints increasingly imposed by party and by ignorant constituents equally offensive. Though a parliamentary reformer in the 1850s, he blamed the effects of the 1867 Reform Act for lessening the independently minded politician's scope to act out a vision for the nation. Angry that men like him were not promoted to cabinet in the tawdry age of Gladstone, he hoped that the international stage would be more congenial than insular Britain. This hope was only partially borne out. Holding the Palmerston–Russell line that Britain must play a leading part in world diplomacy with a view to developing liberty and trade, and deriving his conception of an ambassador's role from the forceful behaviour of Stratford Canning, he was bound to be disappointed by life at Madrid at a time when the home government was anxious to keep a low profile in Europe. He complained that Britain did not do more to find and support a good king for Spain in the early 1870s. But he did good work in trying to defuse Franco-German tension over Spain in 1870 and—with more permanent results—in 1873–4. He laboured hard to keep tariffs between Britain and Spain low. His personal sympathies for the Spanish liberals were well known: in 1873 the Layards gave asylum to one of them, Serrano, and smuggled him to the coast, and he was critical of the restrictions on protestant liberties brought in by the Bourbons after 1875. He was a professional, hard-working, able, and hospitable ambassador. He was helped greatly by his young wife, Mary Enid Evelyn (1843–1912), eighth child of Sir John Guest and his wife, Lady Charlotte Guest [see ] (with whom Layard was said to have been romantically linked in the late 1840s), whom he married on 9 March 1869 at St George's, Hanover Square, London.

In March 1877, seeking an ambassador for Constantinople who would revive British influence in Turkey while persuading the sultan to reform, Disraeli chose Layard. He was happy there, but plunged into intense controversy. He regarded the agitation of 1876–7 in Britain against the Turkish massacre of Bulgarians as naïvely sentimental; by paralysing the British government's Eastern policy, it had directly inspired the Russians to invade Turkey. His dispatches constantly urged a more aggressive anti-Russian policy, and converted the queen to his side. In 1878 government policy was more congenial to him, and he played a valuable part in persuading the sultan to agree to the concession of Cyprus to Britain. Foreign Secretary Salisbury held that he had greatly increased British influence at Constantinople, and he was awarded the GCB in June 1878. Soon after the congress of Berlin, however, the sultan began to suspect the British of plotting against him, and this affected his relations with Layard, which had previously been exceptionally good. Layard attributed this suspicion to a developing neurosis, but the sultan may have felt, rationally, that the reforms which the British wished to impose on Asiatic Turkey would undermine his authority. In 1880 Layard wrote an overheated dispatch which was pessimistic about the prospects for reform and labelled the sultan a hypocrite. This coincided with the return to power of Gladstone, with whom Layard's relations were passionately hostile as a result of the former's role in the Bulgarian agitation. Gladstone had publicly accused Layard of exaggerating reports of Christian massacres of Turks, and of conniving with a journalist against him, abusing the status of an ambassador. Gladstone now published Layard's dispatch, exposing his change of mind about the sultan (to considerable ridicule) and his heated language (for which the queen never forgave the writer). In Layard's view the publication did immense damage to Anglo-Ottoman relations. Layard was recalled from Constantinople, at first on leave of absence, but then permanently. He hoped for another diplomatic post, especially at Rome, but was kept waiting until 1883 before being told that he would not get one.

Disappointed at not receiving a peerage Layard retired to Venice, where he had bought a Renaissance house, Ca' Capello, in 1874. Here the Layards, free at last of English snobberies and ingratitude, lived in seigneurial style, running an unofficial embassy-cum-gallery; nearly a hundred of his paintings elegantly displayed there were later bequeathed to the National Gallery. A stream of political and artist friends came from England and abroad, including the Empress Frederick of Germany. Layard led the campaign to establish an Anglican church in Venice, St George's, which was consecrated in 1892; he was the first elected churchwarden. From 1868 he was involved with a local glass and mosaic company, which undertook a number of important commissions in England at his instigation. He published his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia in 1887 and in the same year comprehensively revised Kügler's Handbook of Painting, basing the revision on his prolonged observation of Italian painting and his admiration for the views of the art critic Giovanni Morelli. He was membre de l'institut of the Académie Française, honorary foreign secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts, and president of the Huguenot Society. Suffering from cancer, he went back to London, where he died on 5 July 1894, at 1 Queen Anne Street. His funeral was held at St Margaret's, Westminster; he disliked the ‘odious practice of interment’, and was cremated on 9 July at Woking.

Layard was stocky, of medium height with a large head and, from about 1850, a luxuriant beard. In congenial company he was amiable, humorous, and engaging. In public, however, he could not govern his temper or emotions, and this, together with his propensity for blunt criticism, made him a large number of enemies, some of whom blackened his reputation. He had indomitable self-belief, but his hatred of subordinate place bordered on the pathological. He carried to extremes the Romantic myth of the self-made, self-reliant man of insight and talent. He hated humbug and casuistry, and had a genuine and intense sympathy with the oppressed, especially those suffering under clerical rule. In that sense he was a man of the people. He was too hasty, single-minded, and unworldly to be successful in politics. But his zest, imagination, creativity, and idealism made him an important figure in a dazzling variety of fields, an unusually cultivated and vigorous all-rounder even by the high standards of his age.



G. Waterfield, Layard of Nineveh (1963) · A. H. Layard, Autobiography and letters from his childhood until his appointment as H. M. ambassador in Madrid, ed. W. N. Bruce, 2 vols. (1903) · F. M. Fales and B. J. Hickey, eds., Austen Henry Layard: tra l'Oriente e Venezia (1987) · A. H. Layard, Early adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia (1887) · M. H. Port, ‘A contrast in styles at the office of works: Layard and Ayrton, aesthete and economist’, HJ, 27 (1984), 151–76 · Gladstone, Diaries · The political correspondence of Mr Gladstone and Lord Granville, 1868–1876, ed. A. Ramm, 2 vols., CS, 3rd ser., 81–2 (1952) · The Times (10 July 1894)




G. F. Watts, chalk, 1848, NPG [see illus.] · S. W. Reynolds, jun., mezzotint, pubd 1850 (after H. W. Phillips), BM, NPG · G. F. Watts, pencil, c.1851, NPG · P. Park, marble bust, 1855, BM · cartoon, 1855, repro. in Waterfield, Layard of Nineveh, 268 · portrait, c.1890, Gov. Art Coll. · J. E. Boehm, marble bust, c.1891, BM · L. Passini, watercolour, 1891, NPG; repro. in Waterfield, Layard of Nineveh · Ape [C. Pellegrini], chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (28 Aug 1869) · W. Brockedon, pencil and chalk, NPG; repro. in Waterfield, Layard of Nineveh · J. Brown, stipple (after H. W. Phillips), BM, NPG · E. Layard, bronze plaque, Gov. Art Coll. · lithograph, NPG; repro. in The Whitehall Review (27 July 1878) · photographs, NPG

Wealth at death  

£92,464 16s. 4d.: resworn probate, Dec 1894, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/16218