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

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