Hey! Randy

He Got the Rocks, But They Got Him

Posted by heyrandy on January 23, 2012

Lord Elgin and the Marbles, William St.Clair, 1983 2nd edition

This is the record of what happens when someone tries to do too much with too little for too many who did not care. Tomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin and Eleventh of Kincardine, was appointed the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. This fulfilled his ambition for status, but would because of his ambition to improve the artistic taste of Britain, lead to his fall.

Elgin’s life in Turkey was not an easy one. Dealing  with the Turks was tedious. Everything done at court took forever. Lavish gifts were involve (Elgin received many), elaborate protocols were followed, and the overall culture was alien. There was also the Levant Company. It was a crown chartered company with enormous business interests in the Empire. Two principals resented Elgin’s presence and tried to get him recalled. While they waited the did all they could  do to thwart his mission.

The Turks were difficult, but Elgin did have some success. But it is the marbles, the marbles of Greece, that  would be the cause of Elgin’s troubles.

The Ottomans controlled Greece. Elgin sought and obtained permission (through official channels and with the help of bribes) of the court to remove the carved marbles and send them to England. The Turks, Muslims, thought the Greeks, Christians, were little better than infidels and the ancient marbles pagan images. The Greeks did not seem to care. The Greeks got paid to do the removal work.

Elgin financed the entire operation out of his own funds. This would sink him. Once the marbles got to England, professional jealousy took over. The Greek carvings were condemned sight unseen as being mere Roman. The artists who saw them were stunned at their beauty, but the critics of Elgin dismissed the statues as second-rate.

Elgin eventually sold the statues to the British government for about half of the nearly 80,000 pounds it cost him to obtain the works.

The book records all the intrigues, machinations, and venality that went into getting the statues. The vicissitudes of the court would be enough to defeat a less determined man.

The marbles were a major success, for a while. The magnificence  of the marbles was constant, eternal even; but their effect was ephemeral. Elgin lived to learn that the two new houses of parliament would be built in the Gothic style, not Greek. All that work of cutting up the Parthenon, what did it accomplish?

The book ends with the demands of the Greek government to return the marbles. The author concludes that the British have a strong title to the works. The real question is What is the right thing to do? The Greeks contend, in addition to their claim that Elgin stole the marbles, that the works can only be fully appreciated in the context of the bright sunlight of Greece. The author leaves us to find our own answer.


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