Sir Austen Henry Layard was born in Paris on 5 March 1817 and spent many of his formative years in Italy. The Layard family returned to England in 1829.
After the death of his father in 1834, Layard entered the law firm of his uncle but was unable to settle into a legal career. Instead, in 1839 Layard and a companion, Edward Mitford, set out for Ceylon. They travelled together overland as far as Persia, parting company on 20 August 1840.
Mitford carried on to Ceylon. Meanwhile Layard spent the next couple of years alternating between Baghdad and life among the Bakhtiari tribe, who live in the mountainous region which now forms the modern border between Iran and Iraq.
In 1842 Layard travelled to Constantinople and was engaged by Sir Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to Turkey. In 1845 Canning dispatched Layard to seek out the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Between 1845 and 1851 Layard excavated the cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, sending many of the artefacts back to England and into the collection of the British Museum.
On his return to England in 1851, Layard entered politics and served as MP for Aylesbury (1852–1857), Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1853 and 1861–1866), MP for Southwark (1860–1869), and Chief Commissioner of Works (1868–1869). Layard was the British Ambassador to Spain (1869–1877) and Turkey (1877–1880).
In 1884 he retired to his house in Venice, Ca' Capello, with his wife Enid whom he had married in 1869. A Trustee of the National Gallery from 1866, Layard was a keen art historian and a collector of early Italian art. He died in London on 5 July 1894.
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