Although we hear a lot about Lord Elgin, far less is known about his wife, Mary Elgin. But she played a key role in the removal of the Parthenon Marbles, as it was her money that made it possible for Lord Elgin to carry out these acts.
A new biography examines her life & includes so interesting unpublished letters about Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the Marbles.
Sunday Herald (Scotland) 
Mary’s Elgin marble effect
By Stephen Lloyd
In 1921 the National Gallery of Scotland accepted the bequest of an important group of 29 oil paintings by Mrs Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy of Biel, a wealthy landowner in East Lothian.
Among them was a portrait by Baron François Gérard showing a determined and vivacious young woman staring directly at the viewer. Painted in Paris in 1803, the woman is fashionably dressed with a pleated white ruff and a black gown embroidered with gold. She wears a Greek or Turkish style of necklace from which a thumper of a rock adorns her décolletage. Such ostentatious jewellery and luxuriant dress reveal a woman of considerable wealth and taste. The sitter was the 25-year-old Mary Nisbet of Dirleton, one of the wealthiest heiresses in Scotland, and wife of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, ambassador to the Ottoman empire and grand acquisitor of ancient marbles. The remarkable and little-known story of her life and key role in the extraction of the Athenian antiquities is told with zest by American writer Susan Nagel.
With unparalleled access to letters and journals – unfortunately not properly referenced by the author – belonging to present day descendants of her subject, Nagel has written a lively account of the heiress and her social milieu. (The biography has been edited poorly, however: the reader is introduced to the architect Robert Adams of the Adams family, among other errors).
Born in 1778, Mary Nisbet was the only child of William Hamilton Nisbet of Dirleton, who owned much of East Lothian. Her mother, Mary Manners, was granddaughter of the second Duke of Rutland.
As a young girl, Mary showed traits that marked her adult life: she was intelligent, high-spirited and passionate. Her mother and other relatives engineered her strategic marriage to Lord Elgin, a representative peer and successful career diplomat, but a spendthrift who had encumbered his Fife estates with considerable borrowing and debt.
In 1799, after Elgin was appointed British ambassador to the Sublime Porte – the government of the Ottoman empire – the couple married and set out by ship for Constantinople. The Elgins’ influence at the Ottoman court was enhanced by the deployment of Mary’s fearless social skills . She bore Elgin three children while in Constantinople and encouraged pioneering smallpox vaccination. It was indeed her own family fortune that underwrote the costs of her husband’s embassy, which was to have such profound consequences in Athens, then a minor town in an outpost of the Ottoman empire.
With British victories against the French at the Battle of Aboukir Bay and Alexandria, the Ottomans’ gratitude towards the Elgins knew no bound. They were showered with gifts and Lord Elgin secured permission from the Ottoman authorities to extend his artistic surveying of the ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens into a full-scale excavation and removal of sculptures from the Parthenon. This expensive operation was again funded – and partially directed – by Mary Elgin.
In an appendix to her book, Nagel includes a fascinating letter – previously unpublished – written in 1805 by Lord Elgin’s secretary, the Rev Philip Hunt, to Lady Elgin’s mother, describing the new collection of antiquities. It also justifies the removal of the Parthenon frieze as a rescue mission in which the marbles were “snatched from impending ruin by Lord Elgin, and secured to the arts”.
In 1803 the Elgins ended their embassy and set out to return home through France during the short-lived Peace of Amiens. But with resumption of hostilities between Britain and France, stranded Britons were interned and the Elgins became hostages. Napoleon took a personal interest in their case, hoping to secure Elgin’s release in exchange for the marbles. Mary Elgin commissioned Gérard to paint her portrait in Paris to send to her husband who was under confinement in the fortress at Lourdes.
Meanwhile, in trying to persuade the French authorities to free Lord Elgin, she was assisted in Paris by fellow hostage Robert Ferguson of Raith, a wealthy landowner in Fife and close friend of her husband.
During the three years of the Elgins’ separation their marriage was placed under severe strain and Ferguson and Mary fell in love. After they were all finally released and had returned to Scotland, Elgin discovered the affair. In an unforgiving rage, he launched two highly unusual trials of Robert Ferguson for adultery with the Countess of Elgin in 1807 (in London) and a year later in Edinburgh. He obtained an act of parliament to dissolve his marriage and received £10,000 in compensation from Ferguson.
However the public scandal was huge and it destroyed Elgin’s future public career. Mary’s powerful family connections ensured that she protected her vast family fortune. However, Elgin retained sole custody of their four surviving young children and forbade any connect with their mother. After their quiet marriage, Mary and Ferguson lived happily, improving their great estates on either side of the Firth of Forth, but had no children at Mary’s insistence.
Without Mary’s money, Elgin, who had fallen even further in debt, was eventually forced to sell the marbles to the British Museum in 1816 for £35,000 – recouping only half of his expenses in bringing them to London. In her biography, which rightly gives back due credit to Mary Nisbet for her crucial role in the acquisition of the Greek marbles, Nagel makes no judgements about the controversy that has raged ever since. However, she concludes cryptically that the marbles have “taught us a lesson about preserving the past and the very sad consequences of neglecting our historical treasures”.
Stephen Lloyd is senior curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh
09 January 2005