1852: The Lost Arts, A lecture, by Wendell Phillips,Esq

NEW YORK TIMES, December 2, 1852

Mr. Phillips began by buttering up his audience a bit:

“perhaps the most popular feature in the character of our country is self conceit. Not many years ago we voted ourselves the most enlightened nation on the face of the earth, and we yet believe we are the “model republic”.

And so afraid were we that this idea would die out, that we set apart some days in the year to keep up the national feeling. And this is not confined to us. It is the characteristic idea of the age.”

The problem that Mr. Phillips begins with is a problem for every age and certainly for today. We have voluminous records and evidence from the past that are mostly disregarded because we don’t believe that peoples of the past were sophisticated enough to have made accurate reports. If the world stands, this will be believed about us by future generations.

Mr. Phillips went on to inform his audience that his purpose would be to convince them that they were not the giants that they thought they were; on the contrary, they stood on the shoulders of giants, inheriting nearly everything and inventing very little.

‘In the whole region of the fine arts the genius and superiority of the old masters was acknowledged. To be thought a Raphael in painting was the highest praise. In all arts perfection might be considered a lost art’ we were only imitators. Let him remind them that the army of novels was said to be built on three hundred roots of fiction, of which, two thirds were borrowed from the East.

Shakespeare never stopped to frame the story of his plot; he always found them ready to his hand. This was not only true of novels, but even the most common newspaper anecdotes had a respectable antiquity about them.’

The latest French fashions he suggests were not invented by the French, but instead simply combined patterns from the “Mosaic” with that of the ‘Oriental’ There was he insisted, a great deal of truth to the assertion by ‘Rosalina’ that modern art does not surpass the ancient and that there was nothing in current art to surpass or even to equal the art in the Pharaoh’s palaces of Egypt.


In reading the works of old authors, frequent mention was made of wonders, which modern readers were apt to dispose of by rejecting them as fables; and Herodotus, in whose writings mention of such wonders often occurred (including the historicity of Jesus Christ) had got his name reversed, and from being known as the Father of History, got to be regarded as the Father of Lies.

But, modern research and antiquarian discoveries had tended to prove the correctness of what Herodotus and others put forth, and in American parlance, his name had come up to par again, and he once more assumed his place as the Father of History.

Scientific Advancement

He provides a list of the advances of the ancients;

Egyptian Glass: Not long ago, a book had been published proving that the ancients did not and could not have known how to make glass, but right after the publication of the book, a room at Pompeii was found to contain glass of every color and description. Not only did the ancients know how to make glass, but the best and most innovative and artistic examples that we have are the ancient ones.

It is now believed because of the discovery of every color and type of glass in the monuments of Egypt, that the knowledge for glassmaking originated there.

Sir George Wilkinson discovered in Egypt, a white bird beautifully formed, made of glass, the pieces of which had been joined, and subjected to the annealing process. The Lecturer spoke of malleable glass, as an art known to the ancients, and which he believed had recently been revived”.

Tiny Machines, Microscopes and Telescopes

The ancients he lectured, knew and understood the motions of the heavenly bodies and had built machines that could mimic their motions in the correct order on a flat surface.

Polycrates, a Greek said he saw arts made of ivory, the natural size of the insect; yet, in this small space, the artist had contrived machinery sufficiently complex to cause it to move on a level surface. Such minute work could not be made without the aid of the microscope.

He was sure that the ancients also possessed the telescope along with the microscope. In a history by Pliny the Elder, he relates how Nero was able to recognize a ring across the vast expanse of the gladiatorial amphitheater by means of what can only be called an opera glass.

But a few days since, there was exhibited at the Historical Society, a Cheops signet ring, engraved three thousand years ago, the deliency of the work being such that a microscope was required to appreciate it. How then could it have been engraved without the aid of one?

Some believe that the eyesight of the ancients was better than ours, if you dont want to believe that they had the microscope. Lenses have surely been found in the artifacts of the ancients, science usually just labels them as religious objects.

Phillips notes that the Spaniards reported that they found both convex and concave lenses among the natives of Mexico which were made from obsidian.


While current painting and pigments almost immediately begin to fade, he lectured, many ancient paints and colors retained there original color and brightness. He related how a recent portrait of only five years of age had already begun to change color while a portrait of Cleopatra from thousands of years ago remained unchanged and unfaded.

A picture of Cleopatra, still extant showed an eye as bright and a lip as red, as when she captivated an Anthony and Cesar. Now, these were triumphs of ancient art; and yet we were sometimes bold enough to say, they knew nothing. The Egyptian colors were said by one to be absolutely changeless.


He mentioned that some of the greatest works of Egyptian art was executed on porphyry which is extremely hard and yet that they were covered with engravings. He suggested that this would have required extremely high temperatures. To support this thesis, he mentioned a block of the material found in France, in which six sets of tools were ruined in an attempt to engrave upon it the circumstances of its discovery.

In the east, he continued, the steel made there was equal to Damascus steel and would not rust, its resistance like crystal. This steel, like Damascus was certainly superior to the steel of 1852.

Mechanical Power

The lecturer next spoke of mechanical power, which he said must have been thoroughly understood by the Egyptians, to enable them to raise those immense blocks which composed their pyramids, and other monuments.

All the mechanical skill of the sixteenth century was required to raise the column of porphyry, in front of St. Peters at Rome, on its base, and it was regarded as a feat of mechanical power. But the Egyptians moved and raised such blocks, and never said anything about it.

Immense Canals and Ancient Railroads

His next topic was that of ancient canal systems found all over the world. These projects are evidence of ancient civilizations, evidence of ancient technologies; of civilizations with the technical know how, the labor force and the size to complete these huge projects.

He next instanced the historical records of immense canals, which enabled bots to pass from level to level, proving their knowledge of locks. That they were acquainted with the principle of railroads, and put it in operation, was also evident, by the report of Mr. Stephens in Central America, and other engineers who visited the site of Thebes, where there were vestiges of a raised groove, covered with metal.

A lock he mentioned which had caused a great deal of excitement at the London Exhibition was it was admitted by the curator, taken from the design of a three thousand year old Egyptian lock.

Even as modern an invention as the balloon he noted had been seen in paintings floating through the air at Nineveh.

His conclusion was that ancient civilizations were not primitive as supposed but had in fact been the inventor of much of what we enjoy. He believed that the democracy of Christianity would be the engine to preserve civilization around the world going forward.