Historian William St Clair's account of Parthenon marbles malpractice at British Museum revives lobby calling for their return

Greeks renew demands for return of sculptures following new allegations that they were irreparably damaged in the Thirties


The accusation

The Greek government has been given fresh ammunition in its battle to have the Elgin marbles returned from the British Museum in London, “a steady and permanent goal of Greece’s cultural policy” according to Vassilis Zafiropoulos, Greek ambassador to Britain.

William St Clair, a historian at Cambridge University, claims that British Museum staff caused irreparable damage to the Parthenon marbles in the late Thirties. According to Mr St Clair, in 1937, 80% of the historic surfaces of the marbles was lost forever when they were scrubbed with metal scrapers to make them look white. The work was done at the instigation of Lord Duveen, the art dealer funding the creation of new galleries for the marbles, because he disliked the honey-coloured patina that covered their surface—the residue of their original bright paint.

When senior staff found out, the work was immediately halted. The Keeper of Antiquities was retired and many of the marbles were restained with a coloured coating. Mr St Clair believes the museum deliberately tried to cover up the episode and he claims that the post-war layout of the Duveen gallery was designed to prevent people from seeing the marbles up close.

An official inquiry into the incident, carried out by the British Museum in 1939, was kept secret until 1996 when Mr St Clair was given access to the report. Mr St Clair’s claims appear in the third edition of his Lord Elgin and the Marbles published last month by Oxford University Press.

The Parthenon frieze and pedimental sculptures were sold to Lord Elgin by the Ottomans around 1800. He sold them to the British Museum for £35,000 in 1816. The Greeks believe the Ottomans had no right to sell the marbles and consequently refer to them as “stolen”. Following William St Clair’s allegations, the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, handed a formal request for an independent inquiry to assess the damage to the British ambassador to Athens. On his way back to Greece after the G8 summit in Cardiff, the Greek deputy prime minister, George Papandreou, stopped in London to inspect the marbles and claimed the damage was clear even to a non-expert. Chris Smith, British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has repeatedly rejected Greek demands. He says a response to Mr St Clair’s allegations will be given to the Greek government in “due course”.

The defence

In the midst of so much disinformation about the Elgin Marbles, William St Clair’s book on their modern history used to be an island of calm, where we could find a straightforward version of the facts. Sadly, with the latest edition of the book that is no longer the case. Mr St Clair has shifted ground from his previous neutral position to become an advocate for their return. In a new chapter, he tries to cast doubt on the museum’s competence to curate the marbles by reviving controversy over an incident that happened sixty years ago.

Having been given access to the original papers in 1996, Mr St Clair makes much of the fact that he was previously denied it and devotes one whole chapter of his book to an episode in which some parts of the Parthenon sculptures were over-cleaned in 1937-38. This, claims the author, was covered up both metaphorically and physically.

The facts of the matter are that there is no secret and, therefore, no discovery. While welcoming publication of the documents, the museum regrets in Mr St Clair’s account a substantial misrepresentation of what was done to the sculpture itself. This, together with numerous errors of fact, needs comment. The normal forum for discussing such technical matters as the surface condition of ancient marble is the academic seminar. The museum will now organise such an event and Mr St Clair has been invited to attend with a panel of experts. Meanwhile, the broad facts are these.

The charge is that when the sculptures came to the museum they were coated in a brown patina, which survived largely intact up to the date of cleaning. Then from the frieze alone, it is said, 80-90% was removed. The true figure for the removal of the patina from the total area of all the sculptures is less than 10%. The frieze of the Parthenon makes up the greater part of the sculpture, and even a cursory comparison of this with photographs taken before the cleaning shows that extensive natural weathering had occurred long before it entered the museum. Most of the patina was, therefore, already lost. In spite of this weathering and cleaning, some areas of the frieze and much of the pediment sculptures preserve their patina to this day.

It is also suggested that around 1901, with disregard for any damage that might be caused, the museum moulded the sculpture to take casts. It did not. All the many casts supplied by the museum derive from the moulding of the sculptures undertaken around 1836. It is precisely because of the British Museum’s historical regard for the sculpture that this exercise has not been repeated.

Attitudes to what is, and what is not, permissible intervention on the surface of ancient marble have not remained static, and the stripping of patina from the marble in the 1930s must be taken together with other similar practices outside the museum, both before and, surprisingly, since. Previously, normal museum cleaning was done with soap and water, but at the instigation of Lord Duveen—during the course of preparations for his new gallery for the sculptures—a more stringent cleaning occurred. Duveen’s expertise was in pictures, and his approach to the patinas of the Parthenon sculptures was to remove them in the same way that he would remove old varnish from paintings. The removal of such surfaces was not then normal museum practice and, when discovered, it was immediately subject of a Trustees Board of Enquiry. As a result statements were made to the Press, and answers given to questions in Parliament. More recently, the museum’s own research argues strongly that the coatings that still remain on the Parthenon sculptures are residual paint treatments applied in antiquity. This research has had an important influence in urging against the removal of similar patinas by conservators working on monuments abroad.

The episode has always been in the public domain and has never been out of the news. Apart from extensive coverage in the press of the day, the controversy was immediately revived by Cesare Brandi after the re-emergence of the sculpture from wartime storage in 1949. It has since been featured in the published diaries of the Earl of Crawford, a prominent trustee at the time, and Roger Hinks, who lost his curatorial post as a result of his part in the episode. In addition, there has been frequent mention of it in other books and newspaper articles. St Clair’s latest exposé is being presented as his new discovery. The news is old.

In addition to the charge of conspiracy of silence, St Clair claims a physical cover up with cosmetic, artificial colouring and barriers. As far as artificial colouring is concerned, it is not unusual conservation practice to apply a dressing, clear or tinted, to the surface of marble after cleaning. This acts as a harmonising medium for the colour of the marble and a protection against dirt. Whatever may have been applied in the Thirties will have been removed in the supervised cleaning of the Sixties. As for barriers, the low rails currently in the Parthenon Gallery were installed in the mid-Eighties in response to the growing crowds of visitors in the room. They cause no impediment to close inspection of the sculptures, nor were they ever intended to. Visiting scholars, including William St Clair, have always been given complete access to the sculptures.

It is a privilege to display the most important and best-loved ancient sculpture to survive from classical antiquity. The museum is thereby responsible for promoting the greatest possible understanding of all archaeological and historical aspects of the sculpture and of the Parthenon. Mr St Clair has called the museum’s custody a “cynical sham”. Readers of this article may judge for themselves.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Are the British Museum losing their Parthenon marbles?'