Amal Clooney should back off. Lord Elgin was a hero who saved the marbles for the world

The Parthenon in Athens, allowed for centuries to fall into disrepair

In February 2014, while promoting his World War Two film, The Monuments Men, Hollywood A-List actor George Clooney declared that Britain should send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. Despite claiming they came from the Pantheon in Rome rather than the Parthenon in Athens (and also that they had been taken by Lord “Eljin”), he felt that returning them was now appropriate.

This was fiercely controversial territory. However, once the furore had died down, most people wrote it off as a kooky PR stunt.

Until last week, when it emerged that George Clooney’s new wife, Amal Clooney, a lawyer specialising in human rights law (but not as far as we know the law of museums or antiquities), declared she was advising the Greek government on the return of the marbles to Greece.

Speaking publicly to the media about the matter, Amal Clooney said that Greece had “just cause” to demand the return of the marbles, which she said had been taken illegally by Lord Elgin early in the 19th century, a fact Britain should be embarrassed about.

However, her assertion that Elgin took the marbles illegally is plain wrong, and flatly contradicts all serious histories of the marbles, as well as the reasoned findings of legal experts, and a parliamentary select committee which examined the matter in minute detail.

Furthermore, any art lover who has read up the real story will know that the collection of marbles in the British Museum simply would not exist today without Elgin because they were being systematically destroyed in Athens. If Elgin had not intervened, they would be a mere memory, like the Afghani Buddhas at Bamiyan, dynamited into oblivion by the Taliban in 2001.

The British case for ownership of the Elgin marbles is actually very simple. The sculptures were being destroyed in Athens. Elgin sought proper permission from the government in Athens to remove them. He did so with the full blessing of the Athenian authorities over a period of four years from 1801–1805. He funded the entire project himself, going bankrupt in the process. His only motivation was to save these unique works of art for the world, and he made not one penny from the whole operation, but died with his estate crippled by the resulting debt. When the British government purchased the marbles from him, they did so having satisfied themselves that Lord Elgin had acted properly in all regards.

And yet Geoffrey Robertson QC, head of Amal Clooney’s chambers and the senior lawyer on the team advising the Greek government, told the media last week that Elgin “was a bankrupt. He used his diplomatic position to get a license to take the marbles and to profit personally by selling them to the British Museum. If he did that today, he would be in prison”. I hope Robertson has now fired his researchers, because that portrayal of Elgin will not last two minutes in a court, although it no doubt goes down very well in certain newspapers and with those who do not want to be troubled by the facts. It is no wonder that opinion polls demonstrate a general wish to return the marbles to Athens when the debate is so often framed with such arrant and emotive inaccuracy.

The truth is that this is a non-story. The legal position on the Parthenon marbles is unambiguously clear, and no international lawyer who has looked into the matter would say anything else — the marbles belong to Britain. So far, no advocate for the return of the sculptures has taken the argument beyond insulting Lord Elgin to actually coming up with some relevant law. And there is a reason for that, because there is no law giving Greece a right to the Parthenon marbles — not even the 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural objects or the 1995 UNIDROIT amendment to it. The legal position has been summed up succinctly by the world-leading cultural property expert, Prof John Henry Merryman of Stanford University, who concludes that the modern state of Greece has no legal, moral, or ethical case for the return of the marbles. This is why Greece has never brought a legal action for the sculptures. Instead, it wages an emotional political and media campaign, which amounts to no more than a suggestion that while the marbles may not legally belong to Greece, they belong in Greece.

It is worth starting the story at the beginning, before returning to the disingenuous historical distortions that plague the debate today.

Ancient Greek cities generally sited their municipal and religious buildings on the highest available ground, which was deemed the most fitting and mystical place for the gods to be honoured. It also made a lot of sense militarily. This area was the akropolis, meaning “the high city”.

The city-state of Athens was sacred to Athena, and the people there worshipped her as the sacred Virgin (Parthenos), hence her great temple was the Parthenon (Παρθενών).

It was one of the world’s most magnificent buildings, conceived in the mid-400s BC by the statesman and general Perikles, plum in the middle of the city’s “Golden Age”. We also know that it was designed by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates, who incorporated many traditional techniques such as subtly bending the immense columns to enhance the perspective of the temple from different viewpoints around the city, as well as taking their art to new heights in dozens of ways. Among the many wondrous buildings of the ancient world, it marks the undoubted high point of Doric architecture.

To complete the temple, Perikles called in Pheidias, one of history’s most gifted sculptors, commissioning him to fashion vast amounts of sculptural decoration out of local marble from nearby Mount Pentelikon to adorn the building’s exterior, as well as to create a massive gold and ivory chryselephantine statue of the Virgin Athena to go inside the temple.

The whole was completed in 438 BC — a fitting testament to the grandeur of Athens, with its nascent democracy (although not for women, foreigners, or slaves) and immortal philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripedes; and historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

A replica of the great statue in the Parthenon: Pheidias’s Athena Parthenos(holding the goddess Nike) in the Nashville Parthenon, USA

Moving forward over 2,000 years to 1799, what the British ambassador to Istanbul, Lord Elgin, saw in front of him on the craggy outcrop of theakropolis, which by then was an Ottoman military compound, was a sorry husk.

The fabric of all the buildings was decayed, and a ramshackle mosque huddled inside the Parthenon’s great pillars where once Athena’s vast statue had stood. Worse still, the Ottoman forces regularly amused themselves by hacking off arms or legs of Pheidias’s sculptures to sell to the tourists who had been coming in increasing numbers since around 1750. When not flogging the marble off, the Ottoman garrison fired rounds at the frieze for target practice, or simply ground the sculptures down to burn for lime they could sell.

Moving forward in time again, when Greece opened the New Acropolis Museum in June 2009, its director, Dimitris Pandermalis, called on the world’s dignitaries to campaign to bring the surviving sculptures back to Athens to redress what he described as Lord Elgin’s “act of barbarism”.

The truth could not be more violently different. And it is not a question of national or political perspective. The fact is that in the early 1800s the Parthenon sculptures were being actively obliterated, and it is only thanks to the extraordinary dedication of Lord Elgin that such an amazing collection of Pheidias’s unique, irreplaceable, world-class art has been preserved for people to see today.

Elgin was born Thomas Bruce in Fife in 1766. Aged five, he became the seventh earl of Elgin and eleventh earl of Kincardine. After education at Harrow and Westminster, and following university study at St Andrews and in Paris, he undertook a soldiering career in the 3rd Scots Guards, followed by a period as a representative Scottish peer. After a few diplomatic postings, in 1799, and aged only 33, he was sent as British ambassador to the “Sublime Porte” of Ottoman Istanbul.

Lord Elgin (c. 1795)

Before he left, he made it known in London governmental circles that he intended to use his posting to commission drawings, paintings, and casts of classical art in order to bring them home, publish the drawings, exhibit the casts, and promote the advancement of the “Fine Arts”. He was an ardent art lover, and he wanted to make the wonders of classical art available to British artists in order to inspire and inform them. He asked the prime minister, William Pitt, if the government would fund this important work, but he was given short shrift.

Undeterred, he resolved to fund the educational venture personally. He therefore hired Lusieri, a Roman painter, two architects, two modellers, and a figure painter — and sent them all off to Athens. But when they got there, they found that not only were the local authorities wrecking the building, but the destruction had been going on for centuries.

The building had been through many changes. In the middle of the fifth century AD, Pheidias’s great statue of Athena had been carted away when the temple was converted into a Christian church (dedicated, naturally enough, to the Virgin). Then, following the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1458, the building had been turned into a mosque, with a minaret added to the southwest corner. But the low point had come on the 26th of September 1687, when Venetian forces attacking the city struck the temple with a mortar shell, igniting a gunpowder magazine the Ottomans had idiotically been storing in the building, blowing out its centre and roof, and starting a blaze that took three days to extinguish.

Once in the East, Elgin soon made his way from Istanbul to Athens, where he saw for himself the distressing condition of the Parthenon sculptures. Alarmed, he immediately applied to the Ottoman authorities for a permit (known as a firman) to draw and cast the sculptures in order to save some vestige of them for posterity. His timing was good, as Britain was in strong favour with the Ottomans because British troops had just expelled the French from Ottoman Egypt.

Years later, in 1816, a select committee of Parliament drew up a report of exactly what happened when Elgin was in Athens. They heard evidence from eyewitnesses, and, after deliberation, concluded that Elgin had gone through all the proper channels and correctly obtained a firman allowing him access to the Parthenon to make casts and drawings. However, they also heard (and saw a translation) of a second firman granted to him, which went much further.

It was from the acting Grand Vizier (the Kaimakam), who was the omnipotent Sultan’s immediate deputy. It ordered the Civil Governor (theVoivode and the Chief Justice (the Cadi) to permit Elgin and his team to draw, mould, excavate, and remove any pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures.

Acutely aware of the ongoing threat to the remaining sculptures (over half had already been destroyed), Elgin did exactly what he had been granted such clear and explicit permission to do — he began rescuing the ancient artworks. There was no question of him and his men jemmying them off the building behind tarpaulins or under cover of dark. It was a fully public operation, and the witnesses before Parliament said that at no stage did any of the authorities in Athens or Istanbul take issue with Elgin’s actions, complain, or intervene. Dr Hunt, a British embassy chaplain in Athens at the time, stated specifically that:

… although the work of taking down and removing was going on for months, and even years, and was conducted in the most public manner, numbers of native labourers, to the amount of some hundreds, being frequently employed, not the least obstruction was ever interposed, nor the smallest uneasiness shown, after the granting of this second ferman.

Another eye-witness, Mr Hamilton, noted that, among the native Greek population:

… so far from exciting any unpleasant sensation, the people seemed to feel it as the means of bringing foreigners into their country, and of having money spent among them.

Some years later, when the French complained (perhaps because the efforts of Monsieur Choiseul Gouffier, French ambassador to the Porte, had been slightly less successful), the Ottoman authorities issued furtherfirmans confirming that they had given Elgin full authority to remove and export the sculptures, and that he had acted at all times in accordance with all applicable laws.

Entirely at his own expense, Elgin rescued 247 feet of the 524-foot frieze, 17 figures from the pediments, 15 of the 92 metopes, as well as figures from the cella, inscriptions, and various architectural features. In all, he saved about half of the carvings from the Parthenon, as well as artworks from a variety of other buildings on the akropolis, all of which he openly transported back to England. Dramatically, one of the ships carrying the ancient monuments went down off Cape Matapan, but Elgin paid for the two-year salvage operation personally, and oversaw the retrieval of every single piece of the sunken sculpture.

In all this, Elgin’s motives shine out clearly from the written evidence and personal testimony. Although he had originally intended the drawings and casts he commissioned to be kept at his home (copies would be published or made publically available), once he had the firman to remove actual sculptures, he always intended the original marbles for the British Museum.

However, on heading home for Britain in 1803, Elgin and his family were captured by the French, who kept him prisoner for three years while Napoleon unsubtly suggested they might release him if he gave the Parthenon sculptures to the Louvre museum.

When Elgin finally returned to Britain in 1806 and exhibited the sculptures, they caused an overnight sensation, drawing the largest crowds the British Museum had ever seen. Elgin was hailed as a hero for saving the ancient art and for opening a window into classical Greece that captivated the nation, especially artists and writers, who had no idea such perfection had once existed on so grand a scale. Keats famously wrote a number of poems in praise of ancient Greece after seeing the marbles, and a generation of Victorian sculptors was electrified by them. Next year, the Tate in London will host an exhibition entitled “Sculpture Victorious” on the sculptures produced in Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901), and it will visibly demonstrate the enormous influence the arrival of the marbles had on the development of British art in the period.

A horse’s head from the east pediment on the Parthenon

However, while Elgin’s actions were largely celebrated, there were others who took a less rapturous view. In 1812, Lord Byron openly attacked Elgin:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

However, this needs to be put into context. Byron was a Romantic. As such, he did not want the marbles saved, preferring the idea of them slowly decaying in a tumbledown Athens, where they could be the focus of mournful poetry on the crumbling majesty of yesteryear.

Four years later, in 1816, once the UK parliamentary select committee had confirmed that Elgin had acquired the marbles entirely lawfully, it turned to the question of whether or not the art was important enough for the nation to buy it and house it in the British Museum.

The members listened to a wide range of experts, who unanimously declared the marbles to be spectacular, of the first order, and comparable with the Apollo Belvidere, the Laocoon, and the Torso of the Belvedere, all of which were thought to be the apogee of classical sculpture. The experts categorically confirmed that the marbles were “among the finest models, and the most exquisite monuments of antiquity”. In terms of what to do with them, the experts opined that they were “highly fit, and admirably adapted to form a school for study, to improve our national taste for the Fine Arts, and to diffuse a more perfect knowledge of them throughout this kingdom”.

In short, the parliamentary select committee concluded that Britain was immensely fortunate to have them as objects of artistic study. They exonerated Elgin of all slanderous claims of impropriety in obtaining the marbles, and concluded that “Lord Elgin is entitled to the gratitude of his Country.” They confirmed that Britain wanted to buy the marbles.

Parliament asked Elgin for his costs. Elgin submitted that he had spent £74,000 on the project — a colossal sum of money, a large amount of which was interest on the loans he had been obliged to take out to finance the venture. Parliament’s two experts then gave wildly differing estimates of the actual market value of the marbles, ranging from £60,800 down to £25,000. By way of comparison, Parliament looked to the £20,000 paid by the British Museum for the Townley Collection in 1805, the Ægina marbles which the Prince Royal of Bavaria had snapped up for £6,000, and the Phigalia marbles which the British Museum had recently been given at a cost of £19,000. In all the circumstances, the select committee concluded that the appropriate offer to make Elgin for the marbles was £35,000, along with a position as one of the trustees of the British Museum.

Although the offer was half what Elgin had spent, and left him owing immense debts (which plagued him to his death and burdened his heirs), he nevertheless had always intended the marbles to go to the British Museum, so accepted the offer, despite higher bids from others, including Napoleon.

Sadly, the facts of Elgin’s personal sacrifice to save the sculptures are not widely known among activists advocating repatriation to Greece. Instead, they assume Elgin looted them from some conquered territory in an imperialist spree of asset stripping. But nothing could be further from the truth. Britain and Ottoman Turkey were allies, and Elgin was granted full and lawful authority to take and export the marbles.

All manner of emotive and often ill-informed arguments now fly around concerning the rights and wrongs of who should own the sculptures today.

Perhaps the most widespread of all arguments is that the marbles are a unique national symbol of Greece and therefore innately belong there. But this is make-believe cultural nationalism. Modern Greece is not the same cultural entity as classical Athens, just as modern Egypt is not Pharaonic Egypt, and nor is Iran ancient Persia. Additionally, the Parthenon was only ever a building for Athenians. It was built to mark the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon, and was part temple, part treasure house for the tribute Athens collected from the Greek subjects of its empire. It was never sacred for all of Greece, unlike places such as Mount Olympus or the Oracle at Delphi. The marbles are breathtakingly spectacular Athenian work, but that is not the same as saying they somehow represent the whole of 21st-century Greece, or that the modern political entity of Greece is diminished without them.

Also, as a broader question, why do all the activists focus on the Elgin marbles alone? Large and small collections of sculpture from the Parthenon (and the wider akropolis area) are to be found in museums in Paris, Vienna, the Vatican, Munich, Würzburg, and Copenhagen. So why is the collection in the British Museum singled out for special anger?

More broadly, museums worldwide hold countless hundreds of thousands of artefacts originating from other countries. That is what museums do ­— they allow the public to learn about other cultures through their objects. In the largest “universal” museums, the exhibition experience even allows visitors to see artefacts in their widest temporal and geographical context alongside those of neighbouring cultures.

So what do activists really want? Where is all this heading? Should all museums give back everything that does not come from a randomly circumscribed geographic radius around each museum? Should the Louvre return the Mona Lisa to Florence, even though it was purchased lawfully by the French royal family? Should the J Paul Getty Museum in New York hand back all its Greek, Roman, medieval, and European art and sculpture, including many of the world’s most famous pieces? What about France returning the Bayeux Tapestry to England? Or Japanese museums sending back American rock memorabilia? Maybe Venice should give back the Horses of St Mark if we are now only allowed to see things where they were made?

These are facile arguments. Looting and criminality should be deplored and punished. But antiquities, like everything else, can be legitimately purchased or gifted, and we should celebrate museums that have quite properly acquired collections that educate and inform the visiting public.

Overarching this whole debate, the romantic notion that the marbles could simply be tacked back onto the Parthenon is deeply misguided. Even though Greece declared independence in 1832, the government left the remaining sculptures on the Parthenon to be destroyed by pollution and acid rain — and many were not taken down until 1993. Tragically, some still remain crumbling in situ. The result is that all the Greek ones that Lord Elgin left behind are damaged beyond recognition — blurry, fuzzy outlines like figures under a blanket, dissolved by Athens’s chronic pollution (although fortunately Elgin took plaster casts of many of the ones he did not bring to England, so at least we have a record of what they used to look like). Were the Elgin marbles to be returned to Athens, they would not go back up onto the Parthenon, but would simply sit in another museum, side by side with the wrecked Greek ones. There, in Athens, far fewer visitors would see them than in London, not only because of tourist numbers, but also because — unlike the British Museum — the New Acropolis Museum charges for entry.

The saturation coverage of Amal Clooney and Geoffrey Robertson QC’s visit to Greece last week clearly signals that the debate over the marbles is entering a new, media-focused phase. Those involved need to do far more research. As well as Robertson’s extraordinary statement that Elgin would today go to prison for what he did, he also said that the trustees of the British Museum were “philistines”, who keep the marbles “under bright lights, lit up as if they were corpses in a mortuary. Only 40 per cent are under the blue skies of Athens, where they can best be appreciated”. His researchers should have informed him that the marbles will never again — in any country — bask in the open under any kind of sky. They are fragile ancient artefacts, and it is only the care and attention shown to them by the British museum that has kept them away from pollution and in such amazing condition into the twenty-first century.

In conclusion, despite the character assassination of Lord Elgin by those who innocently (or otherwise) view him as some sort of imperialist asset-stripping fiend, it is clear that Elgin was a hero. He carefully sought permission for all his actions from the lawful rulers of Athens (who were not some Johnny-come-lately opportunistic occupiers, but had ruled Athens for approximately 350 years), and then bankrupted himself to save the sculptures and give them to the nation and the world.

Times have changed, and we care less for culture now than we did in Elgin’s day. But we should remind ourselves of what the priorities were then. For example, the 1816 Parliamentary select committee could not resist the temptation to add a little epilogue to their report — and it could, in many ways, stand as testimony to the spirit that drove Elgin to such a great project and personal sacrifice:

Your Committee cannot dismiss this interesting subject, without submitting to the attentive reflection of the House, how highly the cultivation of the Fine Arts has contributed to the reputation, character, and dignity of every Government by which they have been encouraged, and how intimately they are connected with the advancement of every thing valuable in science, literature, and philosophy.

However poetic that sounds, we now live in a different world. Art and culture are no longer vote winners. But it does leave one wondering why the Clooneys, with their ability to focus the entire world on any issue of their choosing, should plump for a legally nonsensical assault on the Parthenon sculptures when the world has need of help in so many areas where the Clooneys could sprinkle their stardust: the Middle East, Ebola, crippling G20 debt — the list of tricky problems needing solutions is not short. If they specifically want to focus on museum artefacts, why not highlight the help needed by the National Museum of Iraq, whose vast and priceless holding of some of mankind’s oldest art, literature, and science was looted and scattered in April 2003 during the US-led invasion?

George Clooney has spoken out in favour of Britain returning the Parthenon sculptures to Athens

If the Greek government is about to launch a new media PR campaign for the return of the marbles, it is time to put aside the wilful misinformation and cheap innuendo that masks the genuine debt that everyone — most especially Greece — owes to Lord Elgin. The world needs to stop whipping him, and start thanking him for his Herculean efforts, contra mundum, in saving these wonderful sculptures for everyone.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2014)