The 1930s cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

Ian Jenkins

Cleaning the Sculptures 1811-1936

Already two and a quarter millennia old when they arrived in the Museum, the sculptures of the Parthenon have had a Museum life of nearly another two hundred years. In the course of that life, not only have their surroundings changed, but the sculptures themselves have changed. Like the objects in any old house they have been moved and rearranged. The sculptures have had their fractures filled with cement, and had these fillings taken away again. They have been drilled and cut to attach joining fragments and casts. They were sandbagged in the First World War, and in the Second they were removed to the underground tunnels of the Aldwych Tube Station. They have been allowed to get dirty and they have been over-cleaned.(19)

The notorious cleaning of the sculptures of the Parthenon in 1937-8 can only be understood in the context of what went before. By 1937 the sculptures had already been displayed in England for a century and more, first in Lord Elgin's two makeshift 'museums' (20) and after February 1817 in the British Museum. Here, the sculptures went first into a temporary building designed by Robert Smirke and erected in the grounds of old Montagu House. In 1832 they were removed to the gallery that formed a part of the new Greek Revival building designed by Robert Smirke.(21) Already within one generation, therefore, the sculptures had undergone no less than four separate changes of location. Even then their arrangement did not stand still.

The remainder of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century saw many attempts at reconciling the conflicting status of the sculpture as, on the one hand, the finest ancient artworks known to man, and, on the other, component parts of an original architectural complex.(22) Treated as star pieces of ancient art, the pediment sculpture and the metopes fitted into the frame of the neoclassical museum gallery with relative ease. The great length of the frieze, however, together with the fact that it was designed originally for four sides of the exterior of a building, made it less adaptable to the circumstances of museum display. There was to be almost constant experiment in the arrangement and rearrangement of the frieze, not least to accommodate the many additions of newly discovered fragments. Sometimes these were in the actual marble, but usually the addition was made in the form of a plaster cast of the original. Rearrangement was also occasioned by advances in the knowledge of the proper sequence of the frieze blocks as fixed on the Parthenon itself. The Elgin Room of the British Museum became the great laboratory of experiment in the search for an ever better understanding of the sculptures and for better ways of displaying them.

It was not only the frieze that received plaster additions. Attachments were also made to the metopes by drilling holes into the broken areas. As for the pediment sculptures, by the 1920s not only were casts added to them but also, under Arthur Hamilton Smith, an explicit indication was given of the triangular frame of the architecture that once surrounded them.(23) Perhaps more than any Museum curator before him, Smith was committed to the principal that the sculptures could only be made intelligible if explicit reference were made to their original architectural context, and if deficiencies in the sculptures themselves were made up by the use of plaster casts. He raised his voice in opposition, therefore, to a report submitted to the Royal Commission on Museums and Art Galleries of 1928 that proposed to sweep all this away.(24) In the radical new spirit of post Great War Britain, the Elgin Room seemed to some critics cluttered and in need of purging. Donald Robertson, John Beazley and Bernard Ashmole reported as follows:

'The Parthenon Marbles, being the greatest body of original Greek sculpture in existence, and unique monuments of its first maturity, are primarily works of art. Their former decorative function as architectural ornaments, and their present educational use as illustrations of mythical and historical events in ancient Greece, are by comparison accidental and trivial interests, which can indeed be better served by casts.'(25)

This bold manifesto left the reader in no doubt as to where its authors stood in the division of opinion between those who saw the sculptures as art and those who regarded them as archaeology. It had immediate effect in attracting a pledge of funds from Sir Joseph Duveen for a new gallery to house the sculptures. It was in the course of preparing them for exhibition in this new gallery that the infamous cleaning occurred. There had, however, been other controversial cleanings before this one.

Many of the arguments that are heard today for or against the conservation of ancient artworks were rehearsed in the nineteenth century around the case of the Elgin Marbles.(26) Even before they came to the Museum, Lord Elgin aroused dissent with his proposals for having his Marbles restored in the Italian manner.(27) He did not in the end execute them, but in 1811 John Henning, the sculptor, intervened when Joseph Nollekens' men were about to start scouring the sculptures with dilute sulphuric acid and water.(28) The practice had been advised by Nollekens himself, who had learned his trade from Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and other restorers of ancient sculpture in Rome, where preserving original surfaces mattered less than achieving a complete object for the Grand Tour market.(29) Henning had been prompted to recall the incident when, in 1845, he had seen the Lycian sculptures, then newly arrived in the British Museum, being washed with acid and water, and had tactfully expressed his disapproval.(30)

The sculptures were presumably washed by some means in Elgin's possession. They must have been washed again in 1816, when casts were made of them by the sculptor Richard Westmacott,(31) and washed again around 1836-7, when they were moulded for the second and last time.(32) Already in 1830 Michael Faraday and Richard Westmacott had been consulted about the application of a wash to prevent 'decomposition' of the surface of some sculptures that were perceived to be suffering from 'exposure to the air'. (33) However, it was in 1845 that the Museum seems to have become especially sensitive to the surface condition of its sculptures. The Trustees attention was drawn to the fact that the manner of heating the galleries by coal-fired stoves was responsible for a great quantity of dust.(34) There was, besides, another cause, and perhaps a far greater menace, namely the deterioration of the London air by the increase of smoke emissions from coal-fires serving the city's ever growing population. The antiquities, it was observed, including the Elgin Marbles, 'are daily becoming more deteriorated by exposure to the London atmosphere, its smoke and dirt and the alterations of heated and damp air. A single inspection of them and comparison of the present state with that in which they were brought to England, or that of late importations from Athens are quite sufficient to confirm the danger: and from the frequent ablutions which are necessary to clear them of the dirt, but which materially affect the surface of the marble, it is to be appreciated that at the end of a century or less they may be irreparably injured.'(35)

These warnings were given by W. R. Hamilton, Lord Elgin's former agent and afterwards an influential Trustee of the Museum. They formed part of an ongoing discussion about whether the Museum collections as then constituted were rationally composed and whether they should be separated out. One possibility was for detaching the Elgin Marbles and sending them out of London into the clean air of the country. Such was the concern over the threat to London's artworks that the Site Commission for the National Gallery's new building requested permission for Michael Faraday to examine the surface of sculptures in the British Museum to ascertain the effects of smoke and dust. The intention was to determine where, or where not, to found the new repository of the nation's collection of pictures.(36) The Museum was also much interested in Faraday's responses and its Trustees discussed the text of a letter addressed by him to the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. It was considered important enough to be printed up as a Memorandum. (37)

Faraday examined especially the Erechtheum column and Caryatid and some metopes, but his comments seem to have general application.

The marbles generally were very dirty; some of them appearing as if dirty from a deposit of dust and soot formed upon them, and some of them, as if stained, dingy, and brown. The surface of the marbles is in general rough, as if corroded; only a very few specimens present the polish of finished marble: many have a dead surface; many are honeycombed, in a fine degree, more or less; or have shivered broken surfaces, calculated to hold dirt mechanically.

I found the body of the marble beneath the surface white. I found very few places where the discoloration seemed to be produced by a stain penetrating the real body of the unchanged or unbroken marble. Almost everywhere it appeared to be due to dirt (arising from dust, smoke, soot, etc.) held, mechanically, by the rough and fissured surface of the stone.

The application of water, applied by a sponge or soft cloth, removed the coarsest dirt, but did not much enlighten the general dark tint. The addition of rubbing, either by the finger, or a cork, or soft brushes, improved the colour, but still left it far below that of the fresh fracture. The use of a fine gritty powder, with the water and rubbing, though it more quickly removed the upper dirt, left much imbedded in the cellular surface of the marble.

I then applied alkalies, both carbonated and caustic; these quickened the loosening of the surface dirt, and changed the tint of the brown stains a little; but they fell far short of restoring the marble surface to its proper hue and state of cleanliness. I finally used dilute nitric acid, and even this failed; for, though I could have gone on until I had dissolved away the upper marble, and left a pure surface, even these successive applications, made, of course, with care, but each time producing a sensible and even abundant effervescence, and each time dissolving enough marble to neutralise the applied acid, were not sufficient to reach the bottom of the cells and fissures in which dirt had been deposited, so as to dislodge the whole of that dirt from its place.

The examination has made me despair of the possibility of presenting the marbles in the British Museum in that state of whiteness which they originally possessed, or in which, as I am informed, like marbles can be seen in Greece and Italy at the present day. The multitude of people who frequent the galleries, the dust which they raise, the necessary presence of stoves, or other means of warming, which by producing currents in the air, carry the dust and dirt in it to places of rest, namely, the surfaces of the marbles; and the London atmosphere in which dust, smoke, fumes, are always present, and often water in such proportions as to deposit a dew upon the cold marble, or in the dirt upon the marble, are never ceasing sources of injury to the state and appearance of these beautiful remains. Still, I think that much improvement would result from a more frequent and very careful washing; and I think that the application of a little carbonated alkali (as soda) with the water, would be better than soap, inasmuch as the last portions of it are more easily removed. It requires much care in washing to secure this result; but whether soap or soda be employed, none should be allowed to remain behind.

Dry brushing or wiping is probably employed in some cases; if so, it should be applied with care, and never whilst the objects are damp, or from the conditions of the weather likely to be so. In several cases there is the appearance as if such a process had resulted in causing the adhesion of a darker coat of dirt than would have been produced without it; for convex, front, underlying portions of a figure are in a darker state than back parts of the same figure, though the latter are more favourably disposed for the reception of falling dirt.

Richard Westmacott Jnr had taken over from his more famous father and namesake (d.1856) as principal restorer of the Museum's sculpture. He was invited to attend the meeting at which Faraday's letter was read and concluded that cleaning the sculpture was a necessary operation as long as it was done 'under the superintendance of a competent and responsible person in accordance with the condition of the sculptures and the quality of the marble.'

To the next meeting of Trustees, Edward Hawkins, Keeper of the Antiquities since 1826 and now nearly eighty years old, presented his views on how the sculptures should be cleaned and how the work was to be supervised. (38) The Committee approved Hawkins' use of 'clay water' for washing marble statues about to be photographed, but recommended that Westmacott be consulted once more. (There was rivalry between Hawkins and Westmacott.) The Keeper of Antiquities had long battled to develop a more independent role for himself and his Department. The Trustees tended to regard the Keepers as servants and to disregard opinion from these, their direct employees, preferring that of outside consultants such as the architects Robert Smirke and his brother Sydney and the sculptors Richard Westmacott, elder and younger.(39)

Westmacott and Hawkins agreed that the sculptures needed cleaning, but did not agree over the method. Westmacott favoured Fuller's earth and was given permission to go ahead by the Trustees (40) The decision did not meet with everybody's approval. On 18 June 1858 there appeared a letter in The Times newspaper, signed anonymously by one 'Marmor'. It is the first of three such letters that remarkably foreshadow the acrimonious exchange surrounding the 1930s cleaning of the Marbles.

'Sir - I have seen with amazement and indignation the Colosseum - that mighty record of imperial Rome's magnificence - "restored" in part by the descendants of Goths in Italy, its crevices plastered up and the rich, varied, golden hue, the result of nearly 2,000 Italian summers, obliterated by a monotonous coating of filthy colour. I have seen with like feelings some of our masterpieces in the National Gallery destroyed in order to give a wretched "restorer" a job, and on walking through the Elgin room at the British Museum to-day I witnessed proceedings which in absurdity and atrocity may vie with both those I have named.

Sir, they are scrubbing the Elgin Marbles! Will their next act be to fill up their abrasions and have them neatly mended?

Now, Sir, I am no worshipper of dirt, but I do say that the tone given by time to antique sculpture . . . is absolutely essential to the harmony of its effect.'

The writer characteristically offers no view of what this 'tone' might be, other than the patina of age, but, as Faraday's memorandum shows, the surfaces were already in an altered state. Nevertheless, this letter prompted an airing of the grievance of another, who signed himself W.D.B.S:

'The vandalism complained of by your correspondent "Marmor" has been of some duration and first attracted my attention on the opening of the new Graeco-Roman Saloons. Last Christmas I saw a man scrubbing away with some vile compound. The celebrated bust of 'Clytie', one of the most beautiful antiques existing, has had its face mauled in this manner, and I am positive that anything beyond the simplest application of water, and that by persons acquainted with the exquisite finesse of sculptured flesh, must prove prejudicial to such a work. I am told this bust was cleaned about ten years ago, and if the scrubbing process is to be renewed every now and then we may bid adieu to the antique beauty of these marbles. Blurred edging and modelling technically called "gummy" will be the inevitable result with the loss of all those delicate touches which give life and individuality, and over which the sculptor lingered lovingly at the completion of his work. Time needs no human assistance to destroy.'

'Marmor' waited for an official reply from the Museum and, when none came, decided to keep the issue alive by offering a second letter to The Times:

'To all national establishments connected with art certain officials are attached whose duty it is to watch over the works committed to their charge, who receive a fixed salary and who doze at their posts.'

If 'Marmor' had Hawkins in mind, the charge of somnolence was certainly unjust, as a glance at documents detailing the professional life of this tireless individual would show.

Dipping his pen into the vitriol, the writer continues,

'Under these are, I believe , others who - their salary varying with the amount of work they perform - are always keenly on the look-out for a job. Good or bad, it is a matter of indifference to them, provided they are paid. They are equally ready and equally competent to scrub the paint off so many square feet of Titian or to deprive of tone, so many square yards of Phidias.'

'Marmor' goes on to speculate that one of the reasons for this action is to produce a colour in the sculptures that would harmonise more readily with the colour of the walls of the gallery, that had for some years now been a vibrant red. The walls had previously been a purplish-grey which had been very much more to his taste. The Elgin Room had been repainted red in 1839 in response to a rising fashion for strong colour in interior design that had much to do with the revival of ancient architectural polychromy.(41) Once established, the colour was to be increasingly used in the nineteenth-century Museum as a means of striking a contrast between the gallery walls and the sculptures, which were perceived to be dirty and dingy in appearance.(42) Had the sculpture been cleaner, then lighter colours might have prevailed. In fact, therefore, the opposite of Marmor's supposition was the case. It was the walls that were matched to the sculpture, rather than the other way round.

These letters are interesting from a number of viewpoints. Whether or not they express legitimate concerns is difficult to say. Negative factors are their authors' obvious hostility to the Museum itself, their anonymity and their failure to address their objections in writing first to the Museum. (By contrast John Henning appears a far more credible character) There is a blanket opposition to all restoration on principle: interfering with ancient sculpture must of necessity be bad and a violation of original finish.

The Trustees met on 26 June 1858 and considered the first two letters (the third appeared that same day) together with a counter-testimonial by Charles Cockerell, the architect. (43)

'As one of the Royal Commission for the site of the National Gallery last year I had occasion to hear the most mortifying evidence to prove the degradation to which these noble works were subjected in these hyperborean climates - but by Mr Westmacott's operations, I now rejoice with you at their future exemption from further dishonour, and their perfect preservation in our museum to future times. I heartily congratulate you . . . Mr Westmacott assures me that his preparation contains no chemical mischief whatever . . .'

The Trustees went into the galleries and satisfied themselves that Westmacott's actions were to be approved. On 6 January 1859, Hawkins reported that the cleaning of the greater part of the Graeco-Roman sculptures had been cleaned under the continuing supervision of Westmacott, but this was far from an end of the matter.(44) Within ten years the surface of the sculptures had so deteriorated as to cause Hawkins' successor, Charles Newton, to contemplate washing them again. He complained of the 'foulness of the atmosphere which deposits upon them a coat of black, greasy substance, not to be removed except by washing'. The bad air was attributed to both the London atmosphere and to 'the necessity of pouring streams of hot air into imperfectly ventilated rooms.' 'The effect on the sculpture Galleries of these currents of hot air may be clearly traced on the walls and ceilings which are blackened according to the set of the currents.'(45) The sculptures were duly washed, but now Newton recommended that, if the exercise were not to be repeated every five years, it would be better to protect at least the frieze under glass. (46) Newton subsequently reported that the glazing of the frieze was complete and proposed that the pediment sculpture should be similarly protected.(47) This was never fully carried out, although a trial was made with the Helios group of the east pediment. (48).

Apart from periodic dusting and a general rearrangement of the order of the frieze in 1902, the glass casing remained intact until the dismantling of the 1930s .(49) The pedimental sculpture continued to undergo periodic washing by the traditional methods. (50) Then in 1932 came the first signs of a change. Lord Duveen had expressed interest in 'the actual colours of the marble', so as to know what material to choose for the wall-lining of his new Gallery.(51) We learn from the diary of the Earl of Crawford, a Trustee, that this was already a pet concern of his.(52)

'Duveen lectured and harangued us, and talked the most hopeless nonsense about cleaning old works of art. I suppose he has destroyed more old masters by overcleaning than anybody else in the world, and now he told us that all old marbles should be thoroughly cleaned - so thoroughly that he would dip them into acid. Fancy - we listened patiently to these boastful follies . . .'

A metope and a block of frieze(53) were taken down to the basement and cleaned under the supervision of Dr H.J. Plenderleith.(54) The stated intention was to establish 'an effective means of removing the dirt without risk of damaging the marble or its patina.'(55) The Plenderleith method, we learn elsewhere, was to apply a neutral solution of medicinal soft-soap and ammonia.(56)

The cleaning of the frieze blocks and metopes according to Plenderleith's method proceeded through 1932-33. (57) When cleaned, the sculptures were returned to the gallery, the frieze being replaced in its glass casing. Some of the pediment sculptures were also cleaned at this time including the 'Iris' (Figure G) of the east pediment before she was replaced on an experimentally lower pedestal. At the beginning of 1934, the Keeper John Forsdyke reported that in the previous year, 'all the slabs of the Frieze on the west side of the room were taken down to the Basement for cleaning, and replaced.'(58) The cleaning then fell into abeyance as the masons were deployed on other duties. On 25 June 1936 Frederick Norman Pryce had become Keeper, and Forsdyke was elevated to Director of the Museum. Under Pryce the cleaning was resumed, and in the summer of 1937 fourteen blocks of north frieze together with west frieze block II mounted on the west side of the room, were taken down, stripped of all additions in plaster and Portland stone, cleaned and replaced on exhibition.(59) These had already been cleaned in 1932, and this was therefore the second attempt at cleaning them. This phase of cleaning continued through 1937 and the following year when it was stopped on Monday 26 September.