Regency Bicentennial:   Britain Acquires the Elgin Marbles

Two hundred years ago today, an order was issued, by the authority of the British Parliament, to procure a warrant from the Prince Regent for the payment of £35,000. This sum was to be paid to Lord Elgin, for the ancient marble sculptures he had acquired in Greece decades before. After numerous debates and hours of testimony by experts before a select committee appointed by the House of Commons, Parliament voted to purchase Elgin’s collection of classical marble sculptures for the nation.

How Lord Elgin’s marbles became the property of Britain . . .

Between 1801 and 1812, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, engaged agents initially to draw the ancient Greek sculptures which survived on the ruins of the buildings of the Acropolis in Athens. But as his crews were working, Elgin noted that many of these sculptures were being taken as souvenirs or crushed and burned to extract the lime to make mortar for the construction of new buildings. Elgin was appalled at the destruction and wanted to do what he could to save as many of the sculptures as possible. He had served as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803 and it was the Ottoman Empire which then controlled Greece. Using his connections, he was able to get permission to " . . . to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon."

Eventually, Lord Elgin and his crew removed 247 feet of the original 524 feet of the frieze of the Parthenon, as well as fifteen of the original ninety-two metopes; seventeen figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture from the temple. They also removed sculpture and other architectural features from other structures on the Acropolis, including the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike. This massive collection of sculptures became known collectively as the Elgin Marbles.

Lord Elgin had the bad luck of being in France in May of 1803, when the Peace of Amiens came to an end. He was arrested as a prisoner of war and imprisoned there until 1806. But even during his incarceration, his agents were gradually working to get all the sculptures crated and shipped to England. There were nearly ninety cases in all, and it took nearly twelve years, since they were sent by a series of different ships bound for different ports, in an effort to get them out of Greece before the French could seize them. A number of cases were stranded in various ports until another ship could be found to carry them on to Britain. Most of the crates were in England before the Regency began. But one shipment, aboard the HMS Mentor, was delayed the longest, when the ship went down off the Greek island of Cythera. It took more than two years, but salvage crews were eventually able to recover all the crates of marbles and they finally arrived in England in 1812.

Upon his release from prison in France, Lord Elgin eagerly returned to England, where he had expected to be congratulated and richly compensated for his efforts in securing the invaluable sculptures of Ancient Greece for his homeland. Instead, he found his wealthy wife had deserted him for another man and he became involved in a lurid and scandalous divorce trial. In addition, he was very nearly destitute, yet despite his pleading, the British government felt no obligation to reimburse him for his expenses in collecting and shipping the Greek sculptures back home. Elgin made it known that if he had offered these treasured marble sculptures to Napoleon, he would have been immediately released from prison in France. But as a patriotic Englishman, he had never made such an offer to the French General. Perhaps even worse, Elgin had developed a serious skin disease, possibly the result of his long incarceration in a damp French prison and/or the mercury treatments he took for his syphilis, and much of his nose had deteriorated.

Initially, between 1807 and 1811, the marbles were stored in what had been a coal shed on the grounds of Lord Elgin’s London town house, at the corner of Piccadilly and Park Lane. Many artists, as well as a host of people interested in Classical art were eager to see these important sculptures. Though it had not been his original intent, Elgin was prevailed upon to open many of the crates and to give permission to view his sculptures to a number of people who personally applied to him to see them. Some time in 1811, probably when he had word that the crates of sculpture which had been brought up from the sea in Greece were on their way to Britain, Lord Elgin sought a larger space in which to store and display his marbles. Further north along Piccadilly was Burlington House, which had just been inherited by the new, Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Burlington House had come into the possession of the Cavendish family through marriage in the eighteenth century and was not the principal London residence of the Dukes of Devonshire. The young Duke had a interest in ancient classical art and he made arrangements for all of Lord Elgin’s marble sculptures to be put on display in a much larger shed which was constructed for the purpose on the grounds of Burlington House. They would remain there for the next five years, until 1816.

The sculptures in Lord Elgin’s collection became increasingly popular after they were moved to Burlington House, where they could be viewed by an even wider audience. Soon, they began to exert a significant influence, not only on the art and architecture of the time, but also on fashion. A number of public and private buildings were constructed during this period which included decorations in the Classical style, some taken directly from the marbles on view at Burlington House, while others were based on them. And, on 8 January 1814, an advertisement appeared in The Times, advising ladies that a London hairdresser had created a new hair style directly inspired by the hairstyles of the female figures from the Parthenon sculptures. Dressmakers and modistes were also basing their clothing designs on the garments worn by the female figures in the collection.

When he had first acquired the marbles, Lord Elgin had intended to donate them to the British nation. At that time, he defrayed his expenses with the money which had come to him by his first marriage, to the wealthy heiress, Mary Nisbet. However, those funds were lost to him when his first marriage was dissolved by Act of Parliament in 1807. Then seriously strapped for cash, Elgin tried to convince the British government to purchase the marbles for the amount he had spent in recovering and shipping them to England, which he estimated at about £74,000. Unfortunately for him, controversy had been swirling around the marbles even as the first crates were unloaded onto British docks. Despite the fact that he had never set eyes on even one of the sculptures, Richard Payne Knight, a noted collector of classical antiquities, claimed that the marbles were not the product of Ancient Greece, but were in fact second-rate Roman sculpture of the second century. Payne Knight had such influence that most members of the Society of Dilettanti, of which Payne Knight was a member of long standing, also held the same opinion. Languishing in a French prison, Lord Elgin could not refute Payne Knight’s claims immediately and they began to take hold. At the same time, Lord Byron and a few others accused Lord Elgin of looting Greek treasures, despite the fact that most Greeks were quite indifferent to them at that time. It is particularly ironic that Byron accused Elgin of looting Greek treasures, since when he traveled to Greece after fleeing England, the poet is known to have carved his name into a number of ancient monuments, sculptures, columns and other architectural features to which he gained access, with no apparent regard to their preservation.

Fortunately, Lord Elgin had actually done his own case a good turn by allowing so many people to view his collection of marbles, both at his own home, and later at Burlington House. Several prominent artists had come to the conclusion that Payne Knight was wrong. They all believed that these magnificent marbles were indeed the work of Phidias, the famous Greek artist and sculptor of the Classical period and all of them made their opinions public. This would become crucially important in 1815. Lord George Cavendish, who would later become the First Earl of Burlington, and who would build the Burlington Arcade next door a few years later, wanted to buy Burlington House to use as his London residence. By the spring of 1815, the deal was completed and Elgin would have to remove his marbles from the property. Once again, he appealed to the British government to purchase his collection.

On 16 March 1815, Elgin wrote a letter to the British government, once again offering his collection of sculptures for the price of their recovery and shipping, about £74,000. This time, he was not refused outright, and the House of Commons set up a select committee to determine whether Elgin had the right to sell the marbles, and to come to an agreement on a fair price, if it was determined that he had the right to sell them. But within the week, news had reached London of Bonaparte’s escape from exile on the island of Elba and the government’s full attention was consumed by how to resolve the situation. It was not until that autumn, when Napoleon had once again been defeated, deposed and sent into exile on St. Helena, that the Parliamentary committee was able to turn its attention to the question of the purchase of the Elgin marbles.

Despite the fact that Richard Payne Knight, by then a trustee of the British Museum, had been appointed a member of Parliament’s select committee to look into the issues around the Elgin marbles, his opinion of the marbles was being challenged by a wide array of notable younger artists, many of whom were interviewed by members of the select committee. The investigations of the House of Commons Select Commit te on the Elgin Marbles were not completed until February of 1816. Their final report, Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles; &, was made available to the full House in June, and was debated on the floor of the House of Commons on Friday, 7 June 1816. The artists who had provided testimony to the committee had overwhelmingly affirmed that the marbles were magnificent and strongly urged the government not to miss the opportunity to acquire them. In addition, the committee had determined that Lord Elgin had removed the sculptures with the permission of the government in control of Greece at the time and he did have the right to sell them. Perhaps most opportunely for Lord Elgin, his most notable and vociferous opponent, Lord Byron, had fled England several weeks before under a cloud of scandal, and would have no voice or vote on the decision to purchase the marbles.

However, all did not go Lord Elgin’s way. Though Parliament did vote to purchase his collection of marble sculptures, they were only willing to offer him the sum of £35,000, about half of the amount he had originally requested. But by then, he was in dire need of funds, and he had always wanted the collection to go to the nation, so he accepted the reduced amount. On Monday, 1 July 1816, the Local and Personal Acts 56 George III c.99, was enacted by Parliament, "An Act to Vest the Elgin Collection of ancient Marbles and Sculpture in the Trustees of the British Museum for the Use of the Public." The measure passed with a vote of eighty-three in favor to thirty against. A week later, on 8 July 1816, an order was issues to procure a warrant from the Prince Regent for the payment of £35,000 to the Earl of Elgin.

The Elgin marbles were removed from Burlington House and transferred to the ownership of the British Museum almost immediately after the vote in Parliament. A temporary gallery was built on the grounds of the Museum in Bloomsbury. It was a long, wooden-floored room which had a series of iron girders supporting the roof. The panels from the friezes and the metopes were displayed along the walls at about eye level, while the statues, which were all or part in the round, were placed on pedestals down the center of the gallery. Most of the pedestals were quite short, enabling visitors to examine them at nearly eye level as well. The marbles went on display to the public in their new gallery in January of 1817, to great excitement and anticipation. Thousands of people thronged to the Museum to see the famous collection of ancient sculptures and the works were praised by all of the period’s leading artists, writers and intellectuals.

The Elgin marbles remained in that temporary gallery for the duration of the Regency and the reign of King George IV. It was not until a year after the death of the erstwhile Regent, in 1831, that a permanent gallery, known as the Elgin Room, was added to the British Museum to display the collection. They were removed from that gallery in 1919, for safe-keeping during the First World War. In 1928, Sir Joseph Duveen paid the cost of a much larger gallery to better display the sculptures. That was completed in 1938, and became known as the Duveen Gallery. The gallery was badly damaged during the Second World War, (though the marbles had once again been removed for safe-keeping) and was rebuilt and extended in 1949. The Greek sculptures brought to England by Lord Elgin during the Regency are now on display in the expanded Duveen Gallery in the British Museum in London.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Britain Acquires the Elgin Marbles

  1. And I am not in favour of returning them to the people who intended turning them into lime mortar or at the very best leaving them to weather and decay. They didn’t want them; so they shouldn’t have them.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There is that, but there is also the even bigger issue of the precedent which such a return might set. Would all museums around the world then be expected to return all objects in their collections to the countries of their origin? That would essentially restrict every museum to holding only those items which were made within their borders. Not only would that result in segregated museum collections, but imagine the nightmare should political borders shift? What a huge can of worms that opens!


      • Lud, that too. And what about returning things to places likely to be overrun by destroying evil creatures in the name of their narrow vision of religion?

        • It’s a complex problem. I can understand that a country wants it’s treasures back even if it gave them away unthinkingly in the past. It is a question of both identity and money (from tourism etc) But, as you have observed, it’s a huge can of worms that opens and nothing to be solved easily. Even if one considers returning the items or even displaying the items in a kind of ‘traveling exhibition’ in the country of its origin as well of its current owner, the transport might damage the items. So one answer to the problem might be about what is best to keep the items for future generations.
          Thanks for sharing the article and bringing the discussion up.

          • Materials technology is such nowadays that I would have thought that the most civil thing to do is for the country which owns them to pay for replicas to be made for the country of origin. Most people won’t know the difference and scanning to 3d print isn’t going to harm things like taking a plaster cast might.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Years ago, I studied with some archaeologists who spent time on digs near Palmyra and they are heartbroken by what has happened there and at other important ancient sites around the world. I simply cannot understand how anyone in their right mind can consider destruction a positive action. All they have done is diminish everyone’s heritage!



          • there is a narrow-minded mentality in some people who suffer from their religion instead of enjoying it, like the levellers who ripped out all the bright colours, the painted rood screens, the statuary, the figures in niches in churches, starting with the Reformation and culminating with Cromwell’s vandals [and I am NOT a royalist by inclination]. It seems to me that if people feel threatened by idols of either other religions or other flavours of their own, their faith must be pretty poor to feel that way. They must be sat little gits like any other vandals, and so soul-dead in their own lack of creativity that the nearest they can come to creativity is destruction.

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