- MARGINAL COMMENT
By HAROLD NICOLSON
UNDER the express condition that I return it to him within a very few days, a friend of mine has lent me a volume which he discovered recently in a second-hand book-shop. It is a neatly
bound copy of the official report of the Select Committee constituted in i8i6 to consider the problem of the Elgin Marbles. Strange it is that these sculptures (which in their perfection should suggest only the symmetry of well-balanced movement or the serenity of relaxed repose) have in the last twenty-four centuries aroused so many mean suspicions and such frequent controversy. Even at the time when the temples were first re-erected upon the castle hill, there were those who murmured that the buildings, and especially the Propylaea, were being designed and decorated on too lavish a scale. There were suggestions even that Phidias and his staff had made too personal a profit from the undertaking. Today, almost two and a half thousand years later, chill whispers creep along the galleries of the British Museum hinting that the Marbles could not possibly be shown to the public until the patine of Bloomsbury has come to veil the fact that they have been over-cleaned. I am assured by experts that this rumour is unfounded ; the most that could be said is that the shoulder of one of the many figures has perhaps been scrubbed a little hard. Yet the wind of rumour continues to shriek and howl around these sedate sculptures, and in the process the dusts of former controversies rise and dance in the whirlwind. It was Byron who first among the moderns started the Elgin Marble row. Byron knew and cared nothing about art in general or Greek sculpture in particular : but he did love the Greeks. He resented the fact that a fellow peer should erect huge scaffoldings against the Parthenon and transport these treasures to Park Lane. * * * So enraged was he by such conduct that, on March 17, 18x1, in the sitting-room of the Pension Makri at Athens, he wrote the " Ctfrse
of Minerva," in which Pallas Athene sharply reproves Lord Elgin for his depredations. Byron had been stirred to this diatribe by observing upon the plaster of the Erectheum the words scratched by some unknown hand, "Quod non fecerunt Goti, hoc fecerunt Scoti,"
a reproach which he rendered in the line : " He basely stole what less barbarians won." Byron, in this deplorable poem (which was not officially published during his life-time), seeks to remind Pallas Athene that Lord Elgin was a member of the Scottish, and not of the English, aristocracy :— " Frown not on England! . England owns him.not ! Athena no! Thy plunderer was a Scot."
The suppression of these pantomime verses was not due to any con- sideration for Lord Elgin's feelings ; in the second canto of "Childe Harold," Byron was able to say all that he wanted to say about the rape of the Parthenon : - " Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on Thee, Nor feels as Lovers o'er the dust they loved ; Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behooved To guard these relics ne'er to be restored : Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored And snatched thy shrieking Gods to Northern climes abhorred."
The intention of the fifth and sixth lines of this stanza is admittedly obscure. But there is no doubt at all that Byron was very angry with Lord Elgin : — "The last, the worst, dull spoiler, who was he ? Blush Caledonia! Such thy son could be! " * * * * The first two cantos of "Childe Harold" were widely read and created a prejudice against Lord Elgin in the town. That unfor- tunate nobleman, having held four high diplomatic appointments before the age of thirty-five,- retired thereafter into private life. One cannot but feel sorry for Lord Elgin, whose motives at the outset had been beyond reproach. It was not his original intention to take away the sculptures from the Acropolis ; he had merely intended to make careful drawings, measurements and casts. For this purpose, he employed five experts under the general direction of Lusieri. In
1799 he was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople, a post which he held for four years. The chaplain to the Embassy, a certain Dr. Philip Hunt, seems to have tempted him to go further. When the British had turned Bonaparte out of Egypt, the Ottoman Govern. ment were filled with deep, if transient, gratitude. Dr. Hunt indicated to the Porte that this gratitude could be expressed in no better manner than by granting to England's Ambassador a Firman authorising him to erect scaffolding against the buildings and to conduct excavations. The Firman, when obtained, did in fact authorise him to explore and measure " The Temple of the Idols " and even to take away "qualche pezzo di pietra." This latter phrase was mistranslated to mean, not " a few pieces of stone " but " any pieces of stone." The depreda- tions continued, and the phrase was extended to include, not merely the metopes and fragments, but even one whole caryatid and column from the Erectheum. Fate thereafter dealt hardly with Lord Elgin. He found he had to employ some zoo to 30o workmen a day ; the ship in which the Marbles were being transported to England foundered off Cythaera, and it took three years and much money to fish them up ; and in the end the whole transaction cost Lord Elgin some L74,00o of his private fortune and the immortal invective of Childe Harold.
* * * * The Marbles when they arrived in London were at first stored in a " damp, dirty pent-house " in the back-yard of Lord Elgin's house in Park Lane. It was there that Benjamin Haydon saw them and "went home in perfect excitement." It was there that they were examined by all the British artists of the day and that Canova gazed for hours in silent meditation. Lord Elgin, who had meanwhile been interned by Napoleon when visiting France during the truce of Amiens, decided that he must dispose of the collection to the British Government. Little enthusiasm was at first manifested, but in the end a Select Committee was appointed to enquire into the matter under the chairmanship of Mr. Henry Bankes. Were such a corn-. mittee to be empanelled today' the findings would probably be that Lord Elgin had abused his position as British Ambassador in order to obtain the Firman and that he had grossly strained the wording of that Firman to his own advantage. The Select Committee of 1816 were not unduly concerned with either of these two objections. What they wanted to discover was the actual sum which Parliament could justly be asked to vote for the purchase of the collection and whether the Marbles, as works• of sculpture, were sufficiently important to justify their being acquired by the State "for the purpose of promoting the study of the Fine Arts in Great Britain." Many expert witnesses were called. Flaxman pronounced that they were superior to any sculptures except the Laocoon and the Farnese Bull. Sir Thomas Lawrence rated them higher than the Apollo Belvidere. But Mr. Richard Payne Knight, of the Dilettanti Society, affirmed that they were second-rate work, not contemporary with Phidias, but dating probably from the time of Hadrian.
It was almost incidentally that the question was raised whether we were justified in removing these works of art from Athens and taking them to London. Most witnesses asserted that the sculptures were being ruined by the depredations of dealers and the vandalism of the Turkish soldiers ; and that in any case if we had not taken them the French would. The majority of witnesses (but not Lord Aberdeen) asserted that neither the Turks nor the Greeks cared in any way for the sculptures or minded their being removed. In tht end Lord Elgin was paid £35,000 for the lot. There may be some truth in the argument that if the sculptures had not been removed they would have been further damaged during the Greek War of Independence. It may be true that if they were not now in the British Museum they would be in the Louvre. Do these excuses justify our retaining these "qualche pezzo di pietra" today. I shall return the book to its owner with a conscience disturbed.