Elgin Marbles: a reply by Anthony Snodgrass

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, Cambridge

With Ellis Tinios’ piece (The Art Newspaper, No.131, December 2002, pp.8-11), the grounds for protest start even before we get beyond the headlines: “This is the history of what happened to the sculptures...and the damage to those remaining after Lord Elgin bought the majority of them”.

First, can so emotional a piece, punctuated by words like “shocking”, “awful” and “catastrophic”, be presented as history?

Second, I challenge Mr Tinios (or anyone else) to produce evidence that Elgin “bought” or “paid for” the sculptures, in any natural sense of these expressions.

Third, it is no longer even accurate to say that he acquired “the majority”; this takes no account of the steady recovery, by the Greek excavations since the 1830s, of numerous further (and often better preserved) pieces. In quantitative terms, of the Parthenon sculptures that survive today above ground or on the building, the ‘Elgin Marbles” comprise something between 48% and 49%, with many joins to pieces still in Athens. Perhaps the author was not responsible for the wording of the headlines, but each of these claims, in one way or another, serves to underpin part of the case he is about to make.

Mr Tinios moves first to the damage of the years around AD500. He dismisses as “astonishing” the late Professor Robert Browning’s claim that this, though evidently deliberate, was not systematic. Yet the facts and, indeed, much of the rest of his own article show this to have been a fundamentally accurate judgment. Even today, the metopes in London from the Parthenon’s south side, together with many slabs of the frieze both there and in Athens, are living proofs that a good part of the sculptures escaped damage at this time: the Early Christian defacement was very selective. Perhaps a hint of Mr Tinios’ motive here is given in the closing words of this section: “This militant, iconoclastic Christian strand in the patrimony of modern Greeks deserves wider acknowledgement”. He then argues that “The modern Greeks are not the sole heirs to the achievement of the ancient Greeks”. The message seems clear: anything bad on the Greeks’ part is a burden they must carry alone; anything good, they must share with others.

A similar principle of selectivity is then applied to the damage suffered by the Marbles in the centuries before and after Elgin. No one would deny that the sculptures suffered in these years. But who would guess, after reading this harrowing account, that the patina of the “exposed” West Frieze, which had remained in Athens as a victim of “an awful process of disintegration”, survives well enough to be used as a point of comparison when assessing the effects of the cleaning of the London Marbles in 1937-38? Mr Tinios belittles this latter episode and has not one word to say about the damage to the building that Elgin’s agents perpetrated. Instead, he rests half his case on a counter-factual, historical hypothesis: what if Elgin had not acted as he did? There is something unconvincing about such arguments.

Mr Tinios ends by attempting to link the issue of Elgin’s justification with that of the case for restitution today. He seems unaware that the debate has moved on: virtually all parties now agree that a resolution of the case for or against Elgin’s actions would no longer settle anything. That is why the Greek government, for example, has allowed the issues of title and ownership to drop; that is why the British Museum no longer draws attention to them.

Your piece appeared under the heading “For the record”. We can, at least, make a start in setting the record straight.

Anthony Snodgrass

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, Cambridge

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Elgin Marbles: a reply by Anthony Snodgrass'