March 10, 2006

Spectator review of Dorothy King’s book

Posted at 12:31 pm in Elgin Marbles

Bearing in mind the comments of some other reviewers, The Spectator has chosen to take a remarkable uncritical view of Dorothy King’s book; The Elgin Marbles.
This review in its description of the book does however introduce a number of inaccuracies – some of which I will summarise briefly.
There is the insistence that Elgin acted as a preservationist – saving the marbles after here were not centuries of careless destruction. Whereas in fact, rather than the continuous destruction that is implied, most damage to the building was limited to a number of isolated incidents. Furthermore, At the time that the first sculptures were moved from the building, Lord Elgin had not yet even visited Athens – making any mention of the impact that the decay of the building had on him hard to justify.
There is a suggestion that the Parthenon was perceived by the Ottomans at that time as a romantic ruin. I think this view of the building is entirely a function of the Picturesque movement in Britain during the eighteenth century – and as such a view that Turks at that time were likely to have entertained.
Some insist that the British Museum is a universal museum showcasing the worlds cultures – however I don’t think that anyone has ever suggested that the ideal location for all cultural treasures is within such institutions – except of course for those institutions themselves.
The article mentions that Elgin received the marbles as a diplomatic gift – a huge distortion of the truth. Through his position as a diplomat, along with bribes to numerous officials he achieved things that others at that time might have been unable – but the sculptures were never offered to him as a gift – moreover, there are no records of his actual permissions allowing him to take anything other than casts, sketches & stones that had already fallen to the ground.
Ruth Guilding suggests that it is indisputable that the pieces Elgin took are better preserved. One only has to look at the recently displayed restored west frieze in Athens to see that this is far from true. Furthermore, many would contend that the original surface of the sculptures in Britain was irreparably removed by the cleaning in the 1930s under the instruction of Lord Duveen.
Lastly, the British Museum does not necessarily see the Elgin Marbles as the greatest treasure in their collections – when they published a list recently of the most important artefacts in their collections the marbles did not even feature.

The Spectator

Stones of contention
Reviewed by
Ruth Guilding

The Elgin Marbles: The Story of Archaeology’s Greatest Controversy
by Dorothy King
Hutchinson, 340pp, £18.99, ISBN 0091800137

The acrimonious debate over the Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum since 1816, provides the catalyst for this new book. Ever since Lord Byron libelled Lord Elgin in verse as, ‘the last, the worst, dull spoiler,’ plundering the temple where ‘Pallas lingered,’ homegrown restitutionists have quoted Childe Harold to support the arguments for their return to Greece. John Keats never saw the Parthenon, but his feelings on first encountering its sculptures in London were just as intense. He sat before them in a reverie, staring for hours as they opened the classical world to him. His sonnets written afterwards remind us that these Grecian marbles belong to our national culture too now, as embedded as Cranmer’s Prayer Book or the King James’ Bible.

Angry restitutionists tend to overlook the centuries of careless destruction which preceded Elgin’s arrival at the Acropolis, making his removal of the marbles such a reasonable, natural act. This is the story which Dorothy King, who strongly believes that they should stay where they are, sets out to tell. The Parthenon was built by Pericles in the 5th century BC to commemorate victories over the Persians, and especially the battle of Marathon, with a gold and ivory votive statue of Athena Parthenos, and a treasury chamber housing the wealth of the city state of Athens. Although Athena survived the Roman occupation, by 694 her temple had become a Byzantine church, reconsecrated to the Virgin Mary. The Christian graffitti cut into its stones in this period and peg-holes for icons in its columns are still visible. Frankish crusaders added an apse with golden mosaics, and punched new doors and windows through the walls, knocking out some of the sculptural metopes, and defacing others. In the 16th century the Virgin’s cathedral became a Turkish mosque with a minaret capping its bell-tower and whitewash on its mosaics, standing in the middle of a military garrison. Military occupation was its undoing. In 1687 an ammunition store in the Parthenon was shelled by besieging Venetians, blowing out its long walls and columns, shattering frieze and metope blocks and ripping through the roof.

Fire and gunpowder ended this period of the Parthenon’s useful, mongrel existence and recast it for a couple of centuries as a romantic ruin. The Ottomans built small houses from fragments of broken masonry between its fallen walls, and when Elgin arrived in 1801 local jannissaries were hacking off and smashing the bas-reliefs and sculptures in search of the lead ties which held them in place, which they melted down for bullets. Since Britain had helped defend Ottoman Egypt from the French, Elgin obtained the right to take some of the Parthenon’s remaining sculptures, a diplomatic gift from the ruling Sultan. Today it is indisputable that Elgin’s marbles have survived much better than the hacked and eroded pieces which stayed in Athens.

For the nation state of Greece the Acropolis will always be a politically sensitive archaeological site. In the 19th century its Christian and Ottoman remains were demolished, and in the 20th, some of the Parthenon was rebuilt. About half of its remaining architectural sculpture is in London, in a universal museum show- casing the culture of the Enlightenment, whose architecture signals their place as the most significant treasure in its collections. Dorothy King’s book will not make peace between the factions warring over Elgin’s marbles, but it should finally lay the libel of his rapacious plundering of a great Hellenistic monument.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away