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

Ian Jenkins

Documentary evidence for the cleaning of the sculptures 1937-8

In this section and the three following, I shall present the raw data of the episode arranged, for the sake of the reader's interest, in the form of a narrative. It is a compelling story and deserves to tell itself. I have, therefore, largely resisted attempting to make value judgements, either of the evidence itself or of the actions and sayings of the people concerned. This will be done in section 7. Transcripts of the full documents referred to will be found in Appendices 1 to 11.

At a meeting of the Standing-Committee of Trustees on 8 October 1938, Forsdyke reported that 'through unauthorised and improper efforts to improve the colour of the Parthenon sculpture for Lord Duveen's new gallery, some important pieces had been greatly damaged.'(60) He asked for a Board of Enquiry to consider the nature of the 'damage' and the policy of the Trustees in regard to publication of the facts.The Board was appointed and comprised Lord Harlech, Sir William Bragg, Sir Charles Peers and Sir Wilfred Greene with Lord Macmillan in the chair.

The Director received brief preliminary statements in the form of letters from Pryce, his assistant Roger Hinks, H.J. Plenderleith, scientist in charge of the Museum's laboratory, and Arthur Holcombe foreman of the masons,(61) who were called as witnesses before the board along with Sydney Smith, Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, and V.A. Fisher, mason.The Board's first Interim Report is dated 7 November 1938.(62) Taking it together with the statements of Frederick Pryce and Roger Hinks (63), events may be summarised as follows.

'When the washing began', Pryce recalls, 'I asked Holcombe if he and the men understood the proper process, and he replied in the affirmative.' By this he must have meant the cleaning that began in the summer of 1937. He goes on, 'At the outset I spent much time with the men, and the washing whenever I was present was being done in accordance with the regulation. I have reexamined the slabs of the frieze which were first washed (in the S.W. angle of the Elgin Room), and can see no trace of the use of copper tools. On this point I consulted Dr Plenderleith who, I believe, concurs.' The sculpture referred to in the S.W. corner of the room are the blocks of north frieze showing the cavalcade.

Subsequently, Pryce spent less time in the workshop and there was a long period in the spring of 1938 when he was absent on sick-leave and did not supervise the cleaning at all. Hinks had returned from leave on 29 August 1938 and was together with Pryce in the Department, before the latter went on leave on 16 September. Before leaving, Pryce gave Hinks no special instructions as to cleaning the Parthenon sculptures. The political crisis in September over Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia involved Hinks in the drawing up of emergency measures for evacuating the collections, with the help of his junior C.M. Robertson.(64) In accordance with Pryce's instruction, Hinks also superintended the work of the masons, 'who were engaged in mounting various pieces of sculpture.' He goes on:

'I also visited the Annexe of the new Elgin Room, to inspect the Iris from the East Pediment, whose base was to be measured for the cutting of a template, but no work was yet in progress. I noticed that some washing of the lower part of the figure had recently taken place; but as I had just been away for several weeks, and as I assumed that the cleaning of this figure, like that of the rest of the Parthenon sculpture, was contemplated before removal to the new room, I was not surprised to find that the work had been started. I did not observe any signs that unauthorized methods of cleaning had been used, nor were there then any tools or other materials laid out on the trestle on which the figure stood. I did not then pass through Holcombe's shop or the other basements, because I had received no instructions from the Keeper that any work was to be in progress there. In short I did not spend as much time in the basement as I should have spent there in normal circumstances, because I judged that my first duty during these critical days was to superintend the safeguarding of the collections in the upper rooms, for which the Director had already issued general instructions.'

Hinks comes at last to the Director's revelation to him of his suspicions about malpractice. He had gone to see Forsdyke on the afternoon of Friday 23 September to discuss various matters, and at the end of this interview the Director brought up the matter of the sculptures. In the first Interim Report it was said that Forsdyke had first become aware that tools had been used on the sculptures on the evening of Thursday 22 September, but what is not clear from these papers is how Forsdyke suddenly became apprised of the fact or why he decided to mention it then, when the cleaning had been going on for fifteen months. The answer seems to lie in a paper addressed to Sir David Wilson, dated 9 February 1984, (Appendix 5) which records a memoir of the episode by Dr R.D. Barnett, then a retired Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the Museum.(65) Barnett remarks that he had long been puzzled as to why an elderly labourer had been allowed to sit -

'day after day using hammer and chisel (to remove lime stalagmites) and wire brushes (to remove the golden-brown patina) from the Parthenon metopes and frieze slabs, which were solemnly trundled in to him one by one. I wondered whether I should intervene here and pondered long; but I felt much difficulty in thus interfering in another department's affairs. After all, Forsdyke, though he had by now become Director, must know about it since he had continued to exercise close control over the whole Duveen Gallery scheme from the Director's office. The matter however was shortly afterwards (how shortly I don't remember) taken out of my hands.

One day Sydney Smith [Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities] and Mallowan [the Assyriologist] and I were down there (I think) at lunch-time when the 'cleaner' [Holcombe? In his workshop] was out. Sydney Smith, noticing what he had been doing, strode over, looked at his tools, and exclaimed 'Good Lord! Do you see what they're doing? They're cleaning the sculptures with wire brushes!'

'Yes', I said, `and I don't like it', (or words to that effect) .

'Don't ever tell anyone what you've seen here today!' said SS with great finality.

Of course we promised we wouldn't - indeed I kept my promise for nearly 50 years: however at the time I took SS to mean that he would accept responsibility and do or say whatever was necessary. In the upshot, he didn't do anything till that day in October (?) 1938 when it was reported that the Duveen Gallery had been finished and the metopes had been installed in the side galleries. What happened next I only have from heresay, not personal knowledge, but I understood that Sydney Smith and Mrs. Gulbenkian were ushered down to meet Forsdyke in the galleries and Forsdyke remarked of the metopes: 'They're looking very white, aren't they?', to which SS was able to come back with a smart answer: 'You know why, don't you? They've been cleaning them with wire brushes!!'

Barnett's account is artfully designed to discredit all but himself. In the Museum he has a reputation for brilliant scholarship and political cunning. Even in retirement he sought to influence Museum affairs. At the time of his writing, there was a plan for re-combining Barnett's old department of Western Asiatic Antiquities with Egyptian Antiquities, as in the days of Sydney Smith. Barnett opposed it. His inflammatory memoir is probably designed to embarrass its recipient, and should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Certainly, there is no evidence to confirm his mention of wire brushes 'to remove the golden-brown patina.' Perhaps all that can reliably be inferred from it is that, by saying what he knew, Sydney Smith brought out an anxiety that had been building in the Director's mind, for some time.

Hinks's account of his interview with Forsdyke the next day continues:(66)

'The Director then mentioned the cleaning of the Elgin marbles, and expressed concern at the appearance of some of the slabs of the frieze. He repeated the conviction of the Trustees that nothing but the method of cleaning invented by Dr Plenderleith should be employed on the marbles, even if this did not achieve the degree of whiteness desired by Lord Duveen. He then expressed his own fear that unauthorised methods might already have been employed on the frieze, especially the use of metal scrapers and abrasives. He then instructed me to look into this matter.'

On the following Saturday, Hinks went to look at the frieze and noticed the whiteness of which the Director had complained, but found no indication as to whether this had been achieved by unauthorised methods or by Plenderleith's method.

On Sunday 25 September Forsdyke passed through the basement and was surprised to find that the Helios group had recently been undergoing treatment. There were copper tools on the bench and a piece of coarse carborundum. It was obvious the tools had been used on the sculptures. On Monday the 26th September, Hinks found Holcombe in his shop with the head of Selene's horse. He was washing it in the approved way, but on the bench were the various tools and tins of white powder. Hinks challenged Holcombe, who denied using them on the head and denied knowledge of the powder, which he claimed was something left over from the days of his predecessor, William Pinker.(67) His suspicions aroused, Hinks went immediately to the Annexe of Duveen's new gallery, where he found two labourers washing the figure of Iris and using copper tools on the drapery. The work was stopped.

Pryce returned to the Museum on Tuesday 27 September. He declared that it had not been his intention to proceed with the cleaning of the pediment sculptures until February of the following year, and that explained why he had not consulted Plenderleith about 'how far we should wash'. For the same reason he had said nothing to Hinks, when the latter took over. The only instruction given to Holcombe had been to take down the 'Iris', fix a new pedestal and set it up in the new gallery.

The Board were persuaded, contrary to claims by Holcombe, that copper tools were used by him and the labourers under him in cleaning all three pieces. Nor had Holcombe received any instruction, but had taken it upon himself to clean the sculptures as he saw fit. He had acquired some strips of copper from the store and shaped them by flattening and sharpening the ends. Similar tools had been used on the frieze and metopes. He apparently saw no harm in this and had made no effort to conceal the tools. The Board, for reasons not given, 'did not think it within their duty to make a detailed examination of the metopes and frieze with a view to ascertaining the extent of the damage.' At any rate the effect was recognised as 'to remove the surface of the marble and to impart to it a smooth and white appearance.' Pryce had described the horse head of Selene as having been 'skinned'. 'The damage', the report goes on, 'which has been caused is obvious and cannot be exaggerated.'

It was recalled that washing the sculptures used to be done in the galleries using water and hard brushes, that is until in 1932 Plenderleith prescribed a 'neutral solution of medicinal soft-soap and ammonia', training one mason's labourer in how to apply this with distilled water. For the next four years only this person washed the sculptures and this to the Keeper's order. Holcombe could give no satisfactory reply as to why this practice was deviated from. Pryce remarked, however, that a foreman of Lord Duveen, who was employed on the site of the new gallery, 'had expressed Lord Duveen's desire that the sculptures should be made as clean and white as possible and this may very well have become known to the workmen.'

The Trustees were very critical of Pryce and Hinks for what was regarded as a dereliction of duty in failing to provide proper supervision over a long period of time, which failure could not be excused on the basis of periods of absence through vacation or ill-health. Nor, in Pryce's absence, was it even Hinks who had discovered the crime, but it had been left for the Director to reveal.

The first Interim Report was submitted to the Standing Committee of Trustees and accepted. The Board met for a fourth time on 15 November to complete the enquiry and to consider what disciplinary action should be taken and to deliberate on how the facts were to be published. The results of this meeting made up the second Interim Report.(68)

They re-examined Holcombe and also questioned J.F. Sinclair and A.E. Simenton, two of the labourers. Sinclair confirmed that he had been using copper tools to clean the Parthenon sculptures since June 1937. The report goes on:

'He also stated that Daniel, the foreman employed by Lord Duveen, had pointed out to him that one of the slabs, chosen for Lord Duveen to show in his new gallery, was not white enough and that Holcombe had previously told him to see if he could brighten it up. The slab was in consequence recleaned. Daniel commended him for getting it whiter. The incident is of importance only as showing that Holcombe and Sinclair and presumably the other workmen were aware of Daniel's desire that the sculptures should be made as clean and white as possible for Lord Duveen.

The Board learned from Holcombe, Sinclair and Simenton that a sum of two or three pounds had been given by Daniel to Holcombe to be divided among himself and the workmen after they had performed some heavy work in moving some of the sculptures, and that this sum was shared among them. The Board do not associate this payment with the cleaning operations, except in so far as it was calculated to promote the readiness of Holcombe and the workmen to comply with Daniel's wishes.'

On the question of the fate of the officers, it was decided to terminate the employment of Pryce and Hinks, the conditions as yet undetermined.

On the matter of a public statement the Board decided that none need be made. 'They have learned with satisfaction that [unspecified] remedial measures applied by the Director and Dr Plenderleith have mitigated to a considerable extent the evidence of the treatment which the three pediment-sculptures have received so far as the eye of the general public is concerned but to the expert the damage will remain discernible. In these circumstances the Board do not recommend any communication to the Press on the subject.'

The second Interim Report dated 8 December 1938 was presented to the Standing Committee and the Trustees on 10 December 1938 and was accepted. Afterwards the Board met again (69) and reconsidered the terms of Pryce's dismissal in the light of medical evidence, which had since become available to them. They now found that, 'so far as he is concerned, the unfortunate state of matters which the Board have had to investigate ought in large measure to be attributed to his breakdown in health.' After a month's sick-leave, therefore, Pryce was to be allowed to retire on medical grounds. Hinks by contrast was to be allowed to remain in post with a severe reprimand and the loss of ten years seniority. Holcombe was dismissed and ceased duty on 9 December 1939.(70)

Pryce's month of sick-leave expired and he never returned to his duties, as his retirement on medical grounds went through. Bernard Ashmole, Yates Professor of Classical Archaeology in the University of London, joined the Department in January 1939 and took over Pryce's duties on a part-time basis.(71) On 13 January, his position no longer tenable or tolerable, Hinks tendered his resignation to Ashmole. It was accepted by the Board of Enquiry on 14 January 1939(72) and at a General Meeting of Trustees on 25 February 1939.

The surviving correspondence between Forsdyke and the Board members is largely routine,(73) but two letters from Lord Harlech are telling. He was a hard-liner, who disapproved of Macmillan's initial instinct: 'Price (sic) and Holcombe ought to be got rid of and possibly Hinks too.(74) Price's evidence was deplorable and I don't see how he can be entrusted with responsibility any more. Holcombe obviously lied to us, and deliberately did what he did the moment the Keeper's back was turned wanting to please Duveen. The Trustees and you and the whole Museum have been let down badly, and effective disciplinary action must follow. Frankly, I don't like Macmillan's desire to hush it all up and minimize a very bad job'.(75)

In the event, Harlech was reassured: 'Knowing Macmillan's views I am agreeably surprised at his draft report. He has adopted a good many of my suggestions.'(76)