by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rampant Opportunism

By Roderick Conway Morris



Lord Elgin acquired the Parthenon marbles now in the British Museum in the same way as Britain gained much of the Empire - not through any premeditated plan, but as the result of rampant opportunism.

Before leaving in 1799 on his embassy to the Sublime Porte, the Scottish earl had formed the intention of bringing back with him moulds and drawings of the finest works of Greek sculpture then in Ottoman lands in the hope of raising through example the standards of fine arts and public taste in Britain (Elgin failing to recruit the 24-year-old Turner to join the expedition on account of the unrealistically parsimonious terms he was offering). However, after Nelson's destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, which forced the eventual withdrawal of Napoleon's army from Egypt, the Sultan's government became so well disposed towards Britain and her representatives that Elgin found himself in a position actually to carry off large quantities of the antiquities themselves.

William St Clair's excellent and elegantly written 'Lord Elgin and the Marbles' was first published in 1967, but now appears substantially expanded and replete with new information on many areas of the story and the controversies surrounding it. Most shocking are the revelations about the barbarously rough cleaning techniques used on the marbles during the 1930s to make them appear whiter. This programme was against the Museum's own rules at the time, and done principally to flatter the vanity of Lord Duveen, former shady art dealer and bullying, self-promoting patron of the new gallery built to show the sculptures. St Clair's evidence, obtained in the face of dogged opposition by the Museum, which continued into the mid 1990s, leaves us in no doubt that the marbles suffered profound and irreparable damage as a consequence.

This calamity, compounded by the destruction of Elgin's original moulds, demolishes the oft-repeated claim that whatever the ins and outs of the arguments, the marbles have been well cared for in London.

The battle lines over whether the marbles should be returned or not have tended to be drawn on purely nationalistic lines, with the Greeks on one side and the British on the other. It is interesting to discover, therefore, that in the Parliamentary debate of 1816, when the mables were finally purchased for the nation, at least one voice proposed that Britain hold 'these marbles only in trust till they are demanded by the present , or any future, possessors of the city of Athens, and upon such demand, engages, without question and negotiation, to restore them, as far as can be effected, to the places from whence they were taken.'

In view of the dramatic level of air pollution in Athens today, which is day by day corroding what is left of the ancient buildings on the Acropolis, the dream of restoring the Parthenon friezes to their original place among the ruins is unthinkable. But there are cogent arguments for eventually bringing together again in Athens all the known surviving components of this architectural and sculptural masterpiece, an act which would not necessarily open the floodgates and lead to the emptying of every major western museum of art and artifacts gathered around the globe in the past. St Clair ultimately comes down on the side of return, but whatever the reader's view of his conclusions, this is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.


by William St Clair

419pp. Oxford University Press. 1998

First published: Traveller 1998

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024