Wood, Robert (1717?–1771), traveller, author, and politician, was born at Riverstown Castle near Trim, Co. Meath, eldest son of the Rev. James Wood of Summerhill, Co. Meath. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1732 and entered the Middle Temple on 15 November 1736. In 1742–3 he travelled to Corfu, Tinos, Lemnos, Lesbos, Troy, Constantinople, Cyprus, Aleppo, Urfa, Latakia, and Egypt before spending several years in Italy as private secretary to Joseph Leeson (qv), afterwards 1st earl of Milltown. While in Rome 1749 he met James Dawkins and John Bouverie, who asked him to accompany them on an expedition along the Mediterranean coast, along with their Italian draughtsman Giovanni Borra. They spent some months studying subjects that would be of use to them before embarking in May 1750. Dawkins appears to have incurred most of the expense, including hiring a 160-ton vessel, the Matilda, which they joined at Naples. In the preface to his book detailing the journey, The ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor, in the desert (London, 1753), for which he earned the sobriquet ‘Palmyra’ Wood, he recounted they visited ‘most of the islands of the Archipelago, part of Greece in Europe, the Asiatic and Bosphorus, as far as the Black Sea, most of the inland parts of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, and Egypt’. Five days were spent in Palmyra. Unfortunately Bouverie died of exhaustion on 8 September 1750. Wood's notes relating to Palmyra, which concentrated on the topography of the sites and the inscriptions (March 1751), have been lost, but those relating to his second book, The ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Coelosyria (1757) (he spent eight days in Baalbek in April 1751) are intact. The notebooks, diaries, and plans which record the tour were deposited with the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in London in 1926.
Wood's two volumes set a new standard for archaeological accuracy, with exact records of the appearance and dimensions of the buildings seen (Richard Pococke (qv), bishop of Meath and author of A description of the east and some other countries (2 vols, London, 1743–5), had preceded Bouverie, Dawkins, and Wood to many of the sites they visited, but they were highly critical of many of his descriptions and identifications). More especially the volumes were accompanied by lavish plates: the fifty-seven in the Ruins of Palmyra and forty-six in Ruins of Balbec occupy the bulk of the works and range from carefully measured sketches of architectural details to panoramic views of the site as a whole. In 1758 Gavin Hamilton painted Wood and Dawkins discovering Palmyra (engraved by John Hall, 1783). In his preface to Anecdotes of painting (1762) Horace Walpole stated that ‘of all the works that most distinguished this age, none perhaps excel those beautiful editions of Balbec and Palmyra’. The book contributed greatly to the eighteenth-century taste for Greek architecture and decoration. The papers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collectors mention Wood's books in glowing terms, and he gave advice to James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and Nicholas Revett on their ground-breaking Antiquities of Athens (1762), to which he was an original subscriber, when they met in May 1751. However, although the purpose of their trip was primarily archaeological Wood did admit that they ‘carried off the marbles whenever it was possible’ (Wood, 1753).
In 1753 Wood returned to Rome, where he was employed by John Russell, 7th duke of Bedford, as tutor to Francis Egerton, 3rd duke of Bridgewater, until 1755. There he became a member of the artistic circles surrounding Robert Adam and Allan Ramsay. Back in England in December 1756 he was appointed under-secretary of state by William Pitt the elder (he held the post until 1763) and became MP for the duke of Bridgewater's borough of Brackley, Northamptonshire (1761–71), thereafter following Bedford's political lead. He helped prepare the preliminaries for the treaty of Paris, 1763. As secretary he was fined £1,000 for illegal entry (6 December 1763) after seizing the papers of John Wilkes (30 April 1763) under a general warrant issued by George Montague-Dunk, 2nd earl of Halifax, and received a reprimand from Pitt (13 February 1764). He was active in the Bedford attempts to bring Pitt into the administration after the death of Charles Wyndham, 2nd earl of Egremont (21 August 1763). When the Rockingham administration was formed instead, he went into opposition but was appointed groom porter in the royal household (1764–6).
On 1 May 1763 he joined the Society of Dilettanti and was a committee member until his death. On his advice the Society sent Richard Chandler on an expedition to Asia Minor accompanied by Revett and William Pars, with detailed instructions from Wood on how to approach the expedition (June 1764–September 1766), which resulted in Ionian antiquities (1769) for which Wood wrote an address to the reader.
In 1768 he acted as under-secretary of state for Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymouth and later marquess of Bath, in the northern department (20 January–20 October 1768) and southern department (21 October 1768–December 1770), but was to all intents in complete control, as Weymouth took little interest in the duties of office. However, in December 1769 Wood was suspected of starting a rumour of a possible war with France in order to sell his stocks, which (when they fell) he bought at a profit. When Weymouth resigned (December 1770), Wood followed him out of office. He died (9 September 1771) at his home in Putney, Surrey, and was buried in a burial ground at Putney on the upper Richmond Road. His wife Ann (1732–1803), daughter of Thomas Skottowe of Ayton, Yorkshire, erected a large monument and accompanying epitaph, designed by Horace Walpole, commemorating his death and that of their son Thomas, who died 25 August 1772, aged nine. Wood also had one other son and a daughter. His library was sold 22 April 1772. In 1775 Jacob Bryant edited his Essay on the original genius and writings of Homer with a comparative view of the ancient and present state of the Troade, which he had visited 25 July–3 August 1750. In it Wood drew parallels between certain Arab characteristics and particular characters in the Homeric epics, hypothesised (incorrectly) that Homer's Troy was located somewhere in the vicinity of the sources of the Scamander, and promoted the then radical view that Homer could neither read nor write. Wood had earlier published small preview editions in 1767 and 1769 and William Bowyer, printer of the 1769 edition, retained a copy in which he entered all of Wood's later additions and corrections, which were incorporated in the 1775 edition. The comparative view of the Troade was only included posthumously because Wood probably doubted the veracity of his statements. Wood's writings are listed in the BL catalogue, ccclv, 88–9.