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

Ian Jenkins

The Press Scandal of 1939

Board of enquiry had decided in its second Interim Report not to proceed with a public statement. It seems there were second thoughts, however, and many Trustees were undecided as to whether a press statement should be issued or not, and if so what form it should take.(77) On 3 December 1938 Sir Charles Peers wrote to Forsdyke as follows:

'The form of announcement as proposed to be appended to the Report of the Board of Enquiry is as well worded as is possible in the circumstances, and I can't object to its being used.

But there is no doubt that the publication of this, or any like statement, will result in what I should like by every means to avoid, namely, a serious blow to the reputation of the B.M. It seems to me that what is principally entailed on the Trustees is to order the preparation of a careful report on each piece of sculpture which has suffered, so that any student studying these marbles in the future may be safeguarded against mistakes arising from the condition of the damaged carvings. This is our real duty to knowledge, but I do not think that a publication of the fact that damage has been done is of any importance in comparison.'

Lord Harlech was in turn anxious not to provoke an 'unduly alarmist reaction by the lay press, and questions in parliament which will drag out the horrid truth bit by bit and produce the kind of comment we may expect in Germany and Greece anxious to twist England's tail.'

Stanley Gardiner, a Trustee, recommended publishing at once, so as to avoid the Press making 'a big show.'

The Archbishop of Canterbury had been talking to Macmillan and they agreed that 'no such express publication of what has happened to the Elgin Marbles should be published. He thinks . . . that it would be sufficient that you should be ready at any time when any expert calls attention to what has happened to give careful and considered reply. Certainly the last people to whom I think any statement should be voluntarily sent would be the Greek Government!'

On 15 December Forsdyke replied in agreement to this letter:

'In the first place we are not yet able to say what the effect of these improper processes has been, and an incomplete statement would serve no purpose. There is no question of repairs: these could not even be attempted. It will take a long time to make an accurate record of the pieces that were improperly cleaned, and we regard the making of this record as our real duty. When it is made, the Trustees may be asked to consider its publication in an archaeological journal; but I do not agree with Sir William Bragg that we should find any kind of condonation among the experts, least of all from the Greeks. We can offer no excuse for what happened. The stress of war alarms on this occasion, as I explained to the Standing Committee, was invented by Hinks for his defence; and Pryce's health will doubtless justify his retirement, but not his neglect of duty during the last two years.'

Rumours began to circulate and on 9 February 1939, the Archbishop wrote again:

'I have heard a rumour that a section of the Press -- probably the Beaverbrook Press -- has got wind of our recent trouble at the Museum and that if so it may be necessary to have some reasoned statement on behalf of the Trustees ready explaining shortly but adequately the grounds of their action. You may already have prepared a statement. I am sure you will agree with me that it would be a mistake to dwell too fully in any public statement upon the extent of the mischief which was done even though you and I may feel it was very serious. If you have prepared, or are ready to prepare, any such statement I suggest that it might be well for you to consult Lord Macmillan as to the form of it, whose judgement in these matters is always sound.'

Press interest increased and short notices began to appear in The Telegraph, which newspaper Forsdyke claimed was hostile to him.(78) There was speculation that the resignations of Pryce and Hinks were connected with an internal dispute over the cleaning of the Elgin Marbles.(79) On 21 March there was a further report of rumours that 'as the result of their recent cleaning the metopes and frieze have lost the warmth of their patina.' The Director was called upon to give 'the facts of the case.'

On that same day the Daily Mail wrote asking for clarification of the situation. Forsdyke replied that, 'When the Trustees of the British Museum have such statements to make, they issue them through the Press Agencies, and you may be sure that no information on this subject will be available for any newspaper which is not also given to the Daily Mail.

But it seems to me that there is no more that can be said about these matters. As regards the sculpture itself, this is on public view, as it has always been, and any intelligent observer has been able to form his own opinion about its cleaning for the last six months or more.'

The statement that the sculpture was on 'public view' was only partially true for on 21 March, The Star remarked upon 'sinister blanks' where some of the pediment sculpture was missing from the display in the Museum and repeated the speculation that the 'exquisite patina' of the Marbles had been tampered with. The 'blanks' can be explained, however, by the process of removing the sculptures into the new Duveen Gallery.

On 25 March the Daily Mail went ahead and published its 'story': 'Elgin Marbles (Worth £1,000,000) Damaged in Cleaning' in a piece which was well informed and broadly right: 'Traces of patina have been removed leaving an unnatural whiteness.'

Also on 25 March, the Daily Express demanded a statement from the Trustees. Forsdyke had one in readiness. In a letter to him dated 29 March 1939, the Archbishop approved of the 'very quiet and temperate statement'. Still the Museum held back from issuing it and Forsdyke sought to play the incident down. On 1 May an article appeared in The Telegraph claiming that the Museum was resorting to 'ingenious methods' to conceal from visitors the true state of the Marbles. Casts had replaced the original pediment sculptures of 'Iris', Helios and the head of the horse of Selene. The metopes were nowhere to be seen. The report goes on, 'A rather ungrateful whispering campaign has been started to suggest that the treatment the Elgin Marbles have undergone is the responsibility of Lord Duveen'. And then, after some observations about the Director, comes a very curious touch: 'I understand that whatever artistic damage may have been done to the sculptures mineralogists from the Natural History Museum consider that the Marbles, viewed purely as stone, are unimpaired.'

Forsdyke took the articles that were appearing in The Telegraph to be the result of a personal animus against him for his having fallen out with a journalist, 'whom I found established here when I succeeded Hill, and whose expulsion Hill approved.' There had, however, also been a letter addressed to the Editor of The Telegraph by D.W.S. Hunt, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford (11 May 1939). This was the don, later turned diplomat and champion of champions in BBC TV's Mastermind, Sir David Wathen Stather Hunt. Forsdyke dismissed his intervention as 'ignorant and foolish' remarking that if its demands were met the nation would be discredited abroad at a politically critical moment.(80).

On 14 May 1939 a long letter addressed to the Editor by Robert Byron appeared in The Sunday Times demanding either a statement from the Museum or the asking of a question in Parliament. Meanwhile, the correspondent had already made up his mind on the matter:

'anyone who knows the patina of Pentelic marble, who has run his hands over the knife-like edges of the Parthenon or the objects in the Acropolis Museum and felt those innumerable tiny asperities and translucencies which make that stone the most vivid material that ever rewarded a carver's skill, can see at once that the marbles in Lord Duveen's new gallery have lost this patina. The lustre and the gentleness have vanished. The lumps of stone remain, robbed of life, dead as casts.'

This was a different appreciation of the sculptures from that of Byron's illustrious ancestor , who had dismissed them as Elgin's 'Phidian freaks'.(81) The author backtracks somewhat in his next paragraph when he says: 'The Museum authorities may argue, possibly with absolute truth, that the armour of grime with which the marble was coated had already devoured the patina beyond hope of recovery.' Not unreasonably, however, he points out that the Trustees 'do not argue this. They argue nothing at all.'

At last the statement was published in The Times newspaper on 18 May 1939:(82)

'The Trustees of the British Museum have had under consideration the recent cleaning of the Elgin Marbles in connexion with their rearrangement in the new galleries which have been built by Lord Duveen. They found that unauthorised methods were being introduced in some instances, with the intention evidently of improving the appearance of the marble by removing spots of discolouration from its surface. Since this was done without the knowledge of the officers of the Museum who were responsible for the cleaning, it has not yet been possible to determine precisely the extent to which these methods were applied. To anyone but an expert their effect is imperceptible. The Trustees do not allow any departure from their approved methods, and at once took the necessary steps to ensure that no such innovations should be adopted in the Museum.'

It immediately prompted an indignant response from The Press Association asking why the statement had not been put out on general release and why The Times had been 'exclusively favoured.'(83)

The statement deliberately understated the seriousness with which the Museum viewed the incident. The affair was similarly played down by The Times leader that accompanied it. Forsdyke justified this understatement with the theory, which in the event was borne out, that, 'However full the announcement may be which the Trustees send officially to the Press, it will be amplified by the representatives of newspapers in London from their own enquiries and observations. I would therefore advise that the official announcement be as brief and bare as possible, and that I be authorised to add details within certain limits in answer to personal enquiries by accredited representatives of the Press.' There then follows a list of sample questions as follows: 'What were the improper methods? What damage has been done? (This question to be referred to the enquirers' own powers of observation); Who wanted to improve the colour? Who made the unauthorised efforts? Why were the efforts made? Why were they not stopped? Who are the responsible officers? What has been done about them?(84)

Forsdyke's note against the question, What damage has been done? suggests his continuing unwillingness publicly to confront the issue. In spite of this reticence, however, an accurate report of what had occurred was slowly building in the Press.

The full picture began to emerge when the Daily Express tracked Arthur Holcombe down to his home in North London and on 19 May published an interview with him on its front page.(85)

' I was told to begin cleaning them two years ago. As head man I was put in charge of six Museum labourers. . . .To get off some of the dirtier spots I rubbed the Marbles with a blunt copper tool . Some of them were as black with dirt as that grate," said Mr Holcombe pointing to his hearth.

The other men borrowed my copper tools and rubbed the Marbles with them as I did. I knew it would not do them any harm, because the copper is softer than the stone. I have used the same tools for cleaning marble at the Museum under four directors.

One or two of the slabs of the frieze came up rather white, and I am afraid they caused the trouble.'

Jacob Epstein, the sculptor and a veteran of previous run-ins with the Museum saw the piece in the Express and wrote angrily to the Editor of The Times.

'When will the British Museum authorities understand that they are only the custodians and never the creators of these masterpieces?'

He was promptly interviewed for The Evening News and the report was published the next day with the headline: 'Epstein is very angry about the way British Museum treated the Elgin Marbles' and a photograph of a suitably irate looking sculptor.

'Eighteen years ago I protested against the cleaning and 'restoring' of Greek marbles there . . . The only result was that I was ridiculed and abused by everybody and especially by the people who had never in their lives worked on a piece of marble, though artists all over the world were shocked by the news that the Museum authorities had added a false nose to the Demeter of Cnidus.

Now comes the revelation that for 15 months some workman has been scraping the Elgin Marbles with a copper tool. It is admitted that this method is unauthorised; what needs explaining is how it came to be used for all that time without action being taken.

I hear that two officials have resigned, but in the meantime the damage has been done.

I have had some dealings with these museum authorities, and have found them ignorant and opinionated almost beyond belief . . .

The obvious and only sensible thing for the Trustees to do is to have an advisory panel of working sculptors whom they can consult on these matters, instead of leaving them to a group of archaeologists and chemists.'

One of those implicated in Epstein's attack on the Museum was Sir George Hill, numismatist and Director of the Museum 1931-36. In a letter to The Times, 22 May 1939, he expressed irritation at the fact that in his letter to The Times, Epstein revived an attack made 18 years previous,(86) in which the sculptor had accused the Museum of maltreating the Demeter of Cnidus. Hill denied it. Epstein was stung into a reply in the letter page of The Times for 25 May 1939 which included the remark 'Putting me in my place seems to be of greater importance to the museum officials than the proper care and protection of the Greek marbles .' He went on to speak of public unease over the present state of the Marbles.

Hill replied in the next day's issue of the same newspaper. The correspondence was, as he remarked, taking a personal turn: 'I should be the last to wish to "put him in his place" as to which we have all of us made up our minds by this time . . . The public may well feel uneasy, owing to the agitation which, as Mr Epstein's own experience will remind him, can be only too easily worked up artificially; but how far they can trust those who seek to instruct them in the public Press may be inferred from the fact that they have been asked . . . to believe that the group of "Cecrops and his Daughter" has been a victim of such drastic "cleaning" that it now seems "little better than withered stone". Since the original is still in its place on the Parthenon and is represented in the British Museum only by a plaster cast, it is hardly reasonable to hold the Trustees responsible for its present condition.'

This was a reference to a piece that had appeared in The Daily Telegraph for Monday 22 May by the art critic T.W. Earp. The writer said he had gone to the Museum to see the Marbles cleaned, arranged and newly opened again with the intention of finding out whether reports of damage were true. He claimed he found them to be so:

'This is especially the case in the procession of Athenian cavalry on the north side of the frieze. Removal of patina has left the incongruity of stone as bright as though it had been freshly quarried, yet indented with the usage of time.'

As we shall see, the cavalcade of the north frieze in fact largely escaped the treatment. There then follows the mistake about Cecrops and his daughter being original marble. He goes on,

'Thus the sculptures' previous unity of tone and of surface-effect has been destroyed, the cleaning either having been checked at some stage or unevenly carried out.'

The writer's folly is mitigated by his own complaint at the Museum's reticence about what actually had happened. It highlights, however, the extent to which even so-called art experts found it difficult to tell by looking at the sculptures. Curiously, the next day Earp published another piece in the same newspaper saying that he had asked to see the damaged pieces, but that they were in the new Gallery and that he was refused admittance. He goes on to lament the loss of what he regards as the former unifying patina:

'In their new-found brightness the precious relics of Greek art have lost much of their former aspect of mellow antiquity.

It is the surface mellowness, the patine (sic) which is time's gradual imprint, which for many was so important an element in the beauty of the sculptures as a whole. It knit them in a single unity, and made less obvious the hurt sustained in rough usage at some past period.'

Seeing Earp's piece in The Telegraph for 22 May, Forsdyke wrote to F.N. Tribe at the Treasury, which was then the Museum's Government Department (87):

'It is quite evident that this art critic (presumably an "expert") has no idea of what is going on in regard to the Parthenon sculpture. His "now open to the public again" and "not yet replaced" means that he does not understand that the old Room has never been closed and that the Metopes and other pieces, which are not on view in it, have been removed to their permanent places in the new Room. The examples that he specifies of pieces that have been touched, the Cavalry of the North Frieze, are actually among those that we know were not touched and that the figure of Cecrops and his daughter are not the originals at all, but plaster casts, to which nothing could be done.

This effort entirely bears out what the Trustees said in their statement except that they might have gone farther and said that the effects of cleaning are imperceptible even to an expert of the newspaper kind. It is a pity that there is no means of dealing with this kind of false statement as libel.'

Suddenly, in the midst of this controversy, on 25 May Lord Duveen died at the age of 69. The obituaries that appeared in The Telegraph and The Times the following day did not dwell on the current debate, but focused on his role as a patron of the arts. The Times, however, spoke of his delight at providing a new setting for the Elgin Marbles. It was, he was quoted as saying, the best thing he had ever done. He had spent months in finding the perfect background for them. 'He believed that cleansed they would come as a revelation to the world.

"Wait until you see them with the London grime removed and in their first purity. They will be luminous. To me there has never been any loveliness in dirt."

By contrast, a news item in The Telegraph for 26 May reported that he had been worried by the scandal and hurt by suggestions that he was somehow behind the cleaning.

The death of Duveen seemed to take the heat out of Press interest in the affair of the cleaning. The last major piece on the subject was a letter addressed to the Editor of The Manchester Guardian (9 June 1939) and signed N. of London.

This intelligent and well-written statement forms a suitable last word on the affair:

'The ultimate question at the bottom of the Elgin marbles controversy is what is meant by the magic word "patina." No one denies that some of the marbles have been pretty drastically cleaned, in certain cases by methods of which no expert could possibly approve. Nor is it denied that this method of cleaning had been going on unsuspected at intervals during the last fifteen months. The authorities discovered what had been happening, were very properly scandalised, and ordered a return to the harmless soap-and-water method. Folk who like to think that they have scented out a first-rate scandal have not been slow to move and a good deal has been said about it, including the suggestion that the Marbles have been "ruined." The same kind of thing invariably happens when any dear Old Master (Velasquez's "Silver Philip" was a case in point) has its face washed.

But what, in fact, has happened? The sculptures are about to be housed in the new Duveen Gallery in the British Museum, and, doubtless, the cleaners were anxious that they should look spick and span before moving in. For over twenty centuries before Lord Elgin brought them to London, they have stood up to the weather on the Acropolis. On their way to England they spent some weeks at the bottom of the sea. None of them were unscathed. Few if any portions of them have rertained their original surface. Some of them are wrecks of their former selves. What has now been done to them is negligible by comparison with what is happening to the portions still on the Parthenon. Casts of these latter taken in 1802 and again in 1872 reveal the lamentable results of open-air weathering.

The removal of a layer of London soot from the British Museum sculptures - especially from the metopes - has certainly altered their colour; uniformity of colour they never had. Indeed, slight variation of colour is a characteristic of weathered Pentelic marble. But the fact that the Museum authorities themselves are not quite certain which of them have been subjected to the unconventional methods of cleaning and which have not (some of them certainly have not) is proof that the aesthetic damage is unimportant. Subtleties of modelling, like the veins on the horses' bellies and the sharp chiselling of their manes are still unimpaired. Only a microscopic comparison between the Marbles in their present state and a set of full-sized photographic enlargemets of their old surfaces could reveal the damage. That is a question for the expert. I doubt if the average vistor or even the average art-lover would notice any change beyond that of colour. But then, how many average visitors ever gave them more than a passing glance? If the controversy does nothing else it will teach us to look at them a little more closely in future.'