Sunday, 28 June 2009

Collectors Belie Estimate on Historical Brooch of Horatio Nelson Interest

A rare opportunity for collectors to purchase a lock of Lord Horatio Nelson's hair was offered at Brown & Co's sale on the 27th of June. Estimated at a conservative £300 to £500 the lock was mounted in an unusual gold and green enamelled brooch.

The brooch carries a fantastic provenance; the inscription on the reverse reads "Horatio Nelson obt 21st October 1805 aet 47", "The enclosed hair was cut off by Sir Thomas Hardy after the action of Trafalgar and presented by him to Richard Dusgate Esq". Richard Dusgate was a close friend and neighbour of Nelson in Norfolk and letters of their correspondence exist in the Norfolk museum today. The auctioneer informs me that the brooch was contemporary to Richard Dusgate and owned by the Dusgate family for many years, before being given as a present to the Grandfather of the consigner who worked on the families estate.

Nelson was mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory by a marksman aboard the French ship Redoutable which was locked in battle. Nelson was carried to the comparative safety of the tween deck, but there was nothing that could be done. The shot had penetrated his shoulder and continued, piercing a lung before becoming lodged in his spine. After three hours and soon after hearing that the British fleet under his command had won the historic battle; Nelson died, faintly repeating the words "Thank God I have done my duty".

Thomas Hardy cut Lord Nelson's hair to distribute to family and friends, before Nelson's body was embalmed in a barrel of brandy for the long journey back to England. Nelson was interred in a sarcophagus in St Paul's Cathedral following a glorious service fit for the hero that he was.

On the day of the sale competition between two telephone bidders meant that the brooch was knocked down four times the high estimate at £2400. What a fantastic piece of history the winning bidder has acquired.

Photographs used with the permission of Brown & Co.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Colonel Charles Nicolas Fabvier's Fort

Colonel Charles Fabvier (1782 to 1855) was a French veteran of the Napoleonic war. A staunch supporter of revolution and a philhellene he was invited to Greece during the War of Independence (1821 to 1827) in order to train Greek troops in the art of modern Napoleonic warfare.

Due to the inexperienced troops he was given command of, Fabvier's early campaigns were not successful, but nevertheless he was persuaded by the Greek government to continue his training. The location he chose for this was Methena in the Agrolikos region of the Peloponnese which he defended by fortifying its isthmus to the mainland.

I have visited what I believe to be Fabvier's fort on the isthmus several times. It is approached from the village of Taktikopoli which was named by Fabvier himself and means the city of regulars. This refers to the regular troops he was training as apposed to the traditional guerrilla fighters of the Greek war.

There's no signposts to the fort or information, but that wouldn't be any fun would it?! As you leave the village of Taktikopoli towards Methena past a newly built church on your left the road turns sharp left on to the isthmus, the fort will be partially visible atop the hill, but don't attempt to traverse it yet. Rather than follow the long curving road round to the right to Methena, take the first left up a gravel track visible on the map that leads to a disused industrial site. Park up close to the junction and on foot double back on yourself toward Taktikopoli away from the road to follow the track to a tiny church about 50 meters from the junction. From the church you can reach the fort by following the track denoted by blue painted markers on the rocks for approximately 600 meters.

Once you reach the fort you will notice that it is more medieval in style than 19th Century, but this is probably a reflection on the budget that Colonel Fabvier would have received. Or perhaps he garrisoned an existing fortification?

Photographs by Mark Notaras, subject to Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs creative commons licence

The fort affords great views and it is easy to to imagine Fabvier's soldiers in training on the mountainous terrain of Methena, preparing to battle the Ottoman army of Ibrahim Pasha which had regained control of so much of Greece. It would be a portion of these troops who would famously breach the Ottoman siege of the Acropolis to resupply the Greek garrison with gunpowder. During this operation Fabvier ordered his soldiers to remove the flints from their muskets to ensure a swift and covert sortie.

As with all exploring in Greece you should take some precautions. Take plenty of water with you and wear trousers and sturdy shoes for protection from snakes and scorpions. Avoid exploring during the hottest part of the day and keep in the shade. I know you will treat the site with care if you visit.

Picture of Colonel Fabvier is from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 15 June 2009

Elgin Swindler or Saviour?

The debate surrounding Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles began during Elgin's lifetime and has continued ever since. With the official opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens due this Saturday (20th of June 2009) this controversial issue is again brought into prominent focus.

Designed by Bernard Tschumi the new Acropolis Museum is an impressive structure. Panes of glass in the floor expose the fascinating dense archaeology uncovered beneath the museums plot. A more topical part of the design is the third floor gallery. Juxtaposed in order to mirror the Parthenon, itself visible a few hundred meters away on the Acropolis, it is purposely designed to display the pieces of the inner frieze of the Parthenon.

However the majority of these pieces still in existence were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841) during his ambassadorship to Constantinople which began in 1799. The Elgin Marbles as they are now popularly known, reside in the British Museum after the British Government purchased them from Lord Elgin in 1816.

The trustees of the British Museum have no intention of permanently returning the marbles to Greece though they have talked about a short term loan. So currently in the new Acropolis Museum modern copies reside in their place. These copies create a stark contrast to the genuine pieces in the collection, forming a clever but subtle protest.

One only needs to read the visitor book in the new Acropolis Museum or peruse the numerous articles to gauge the indignation that the issue of Lord Elgin and the marbles raises from people of all nationalities including the British. But are these views fair?

The appreciation of classical arts which began with the Renaissance in 13th century Italy, was thriving among the upper classes in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. This appreciation was shared passionately by Lord Elgin, who was inspired to use his position as ambassador as a means to further the knowledge of classical art and architecture in Britain. Elgin hoped to achieve this by recording, not removing, classical artifacts using the medium of drawings and casts. Elgin's sincere appreciation of the arts is highlighted by the fact that he funded the costs of this project out of his own pocket after being turned down for support from the British Government. Indeed Elgin would pursue his passion to the brink of ruination amassing massive personal debts.

At the time that Elgin was ambassador the Greek people were under Ottoman occupation and Elgin was well aware of the "imminent and unavoidable destruction" of ancient art in this arena. The Ottomans did not recognise the art of this foreign culture and this meant that they would use ancient masonry for building materials, and make adaptations as required, just as the Byzantines had done before them.

Indeed the Ottomans used the Acropolis itself as a fort. In 1687 while the Acropolis was under siege by the Venetians the Ottomans were using the Parthenon as a powder store. During the battle the Parthenon took a direct mortar shot from a Venetian cannon, the ensuing explosion destroying a large portion of the colonnades. Not satisfied with this destruction the victorious Venetian General Morosini proceeded to attempt to secure some of the statues from the west pediment as a spoil of war, their botched removal only leading to further destruction. With the phenomenon of the grand tour, this sort of piecemeal removal of artifacts was rife during Elgin's time, with pieces disappearing forever into private collections across Europe.

Elgin's artists were constantly hampered by the Ottoman garrison at the Acropolis, in 1801 Elgin's aide and chaplain Rev. Philip Hunt petitioned Elgin to request authority from the Sultan for uninterrupted access to the Acropolis and also crucially; "liberty to take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the citadel". Perhaps influenced by Britain's good standing with the Ottomans following the defeat of Napoleons army in Egypt1; Elgin received a loosely worded firman which ultimately provided him with the authority he required to remove the marbles. Though arguably it was only intended to enable him to remove artifacts from the ground and not from building structures1. The process of removal began and was to last several years. Due to the permanency of the sculptures much destruction was caused to the Parthenon notably the destruction of the cornice in order to remove the metopes of the outer freeze.

Elgin's life after his ambassadorship ended was a turbulent one. On his return journey through France in 1803 war again broke out between England and France and Elgin and his wife Lady Mary Nisbet were made prisoners of war. His wife, released early on the authority of Napoleon, returned to England where she had an affair with a mutual friend and confidant Robert Fergason. On Elgin's release in 1806 a combination of the ensuing divorce and the massive personal cost of removing the marbles left him in massive personal debt. Elgin desperately sought to sell the Parthenon sculptures to the nation, but the issue was controversial even then. The process was therefore very long and drawn out as the artistic significance of the marbles and indeed Elgin's right to have removed them and subsequently sell them was debated. Finally in 1816 the Government purchased the collection for the British Museum where it has remained ever since.

Elgin was motivated to remove the marbles as he was certain of their destruction. History was to prove him right. The Acropolis was besieged several times during the Greek War of Independence. Pieces continued to be acquired and dissolved into private collections. And in the 20th Century a fate that Elgin could not have foreseen came when the remaining sculptures were affected by pollution. The surface of the marbles suffering serious damage from acid rain and air pollution, which increased rapidly in the 1950s. It's effects corroding and discolouring the remaining sculptures until they were removed in 1992-1993 as part of an ongoing restoration project. Indeed, conservation is one of the fundamental arguments that the British Museum has used to refuse requests for the return of the collection.

But with the construction of the impressive new Acropolis Museum which can guarantee the conservation of the marbles and provides a fantastic structure to display them, now may be the time for Britain to return the marbles to Greece where they can be reunited with other pieces in their true home. Perhaps however this should be on the proviso that an exhibition is created telling the story of Lord Elgin and painting a balanced picture of the topic, describing how he may just have saved these these classical masterpieces that we study, admire and enjoy today.

Further Reading

  1. St. Clair, W. (1967) Lord Elgin and the Marbles, Oxford University Press
  2. Cook, B.F. (1984) The Elgin Marbles, British Museum Publications Ltd
  3. Papakonstantinou, E. et al. (2007) The Surface Conservation Project of the Acropolis Monuments:studies and Interventions, [Online], Available:


All photographs are subject to the creative commons license and were obtained from flickr.

  1. The New Acropolis Museum by Robert Wallace
  2. Parthenon frieze by Wally Gobetz
  3. The Parthenon by Dimitris Tsakanis

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

My Technical Blog

This is my new blog for non techie posts, my technical blog with posts which focus on .NET Development can be found here