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

Ian Jenkins

Subsequent responses to the 1937-38 cleaning

Public interest in the scandal of the cleaning had begun to die down, even before the Second World War intervened and necessitated the dismantling of the hardly finished Duveen Gallery. Forsdyke brilliantly supervised the evacuation of the Museum collections, and the Marbles were in safe storage when the Duveen Gallery was badly damaged by enemy bombing. After the War their re-exhibition was a priority for Bernard Ashmole.(91) He had resumed his post at the British Museum, giving up his professorship at University College to devote his energy to the restoration of the emptied and bomb-damaged galleries of the Greek and Roman Department. The immediate priority was the recovery of the Elgin Marbles from their deep shelter in the Aldwych Tube. As Jacob Epstein pointed out, with his usual tendency to sound cross, a whole generation of artists was growing up never having seen these sculptures.(92)

The Duveen Gallery was a bombed ruin. Ashmole had never been reconciled to its design and had no compunction, therefore, about making his display of the Marbles in the old Elgin Room which, of all the sculpture galleries on the ground floor of the Museum, was the only one still serviceable.(93) The first of the sculptures to reemerge came out on 25 November 1948. Their sudden appearance, trundled on trucks through the public concourses of the Aldwych Tube, attracted Press attention.(94). Neither then, nor in reports of their eventual display did anybody think to revive the previous controversy. The Times trumpeted their return and celebrated the 'amazing brilliance and freshness' of the carving of the animal thought to have inspired Keats to write of 'that heifer lowing at the skies'.(95) A vindication of Elgin's actions in rescuing the Marbles was seen in a photograph exhibited with the casts he had made of the west frieze, which had remained behind in Athens. The photograph taken in 1938 showed a loss of up to twenty per cent of the surface that survived in Elgin's day.

The Daily Graphic saw how the sculptures 'glow with a Mediterranean warmth'.(96) The newspapers, it seems, were prepared to forgive the past and let the sculptures stand as a symbol of the resurrection of war-torn Britain. The New Statesman(97) captured the élan of the moment: 'To the post-war generation they are fresh, challenging and alive as once they were to Keats'. The comparison is again favourably made between the condition of these sculptures and those left behind in Athens. Not everybody, however, was prepared to forgive and forget.

Cesare Brandi

An active lobbyist against the removal of what he considered to be protective and aesthetically enhancing patinas on artworks was Professor Cesare Brandi, head of the Istituto Centrale del Ristauro in Rome. In 1950 he entered vigorously into the debate then still raging over the cleaning of pictures at the National Gallery(98). In the journal of his own Institute(99) he revived the pre-War controversy: 'We are not dealing with patina, nor with washing . . .We have here a ferocious skinning, which has removed the first layer of sculpture . . .'. Brandi believed that certain coatings on the sculptures, visible today on parts of the Elgin Marbles, were deliberate applications to the finished sculpture of a thin layer of plaster (intonaco). He lamented the abrasion of the surface all the more for its having removed these coatings. 'It is not a question', he says of taking off patina: those responsible cannot say that it is simply a matter of taste . . .'

He admitted that the scouring had not affected all the Marbles: the pediments had escaped, with the exception of the Hebe (G) of the east. Also he thought the east frieze figures 28- 61 (100) were unaffected as well as parts of the north frieze, which he lists nonsensically as figures 12 - 44. All the rest of the frieze and the metopes are, he says, abraded.

Brandi's account suffers from the hysteria of outrage that so often accompanies public discussion of art restoration. His detailed comments on individual pieces, moreover, especially his claim that the sculpture was reworked with sharp tools leaving scratches in the surface, is unacceptable and seriously calls into question his powers of observation. Brandi published two further notes defending his case for all the sculptures of the Parthenon having once been coated in a coloured layer of plaster which, again, is a claim that many may find difficult to accept.(101)

Besides Brandi, there has been very little academic interest in the cleaning. Subsequent reference to it has come from two other sources: one being published memoirs of persons caught up in the scandal, the other being the lobby for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

There are four principal biographical accounts of the 1930s cleaning.

Jacob Epstein

Let There Be Sculpture, An Autobiography of Jacob Epstein (London 1942 Other editions 1955 and 1963) Chapter XXII The British Museum and Greek Sculpture. This is principally a collection of Epstein's acrimonious correspondence carried on in The Times with Museum officials, here spiced with bitter asides.

Roger Hinks

The Gymnasium of the Mind, The Journals of Roger Hinks 1933-63, edited by John Goldsmith (Michael Russell Publishing, Salisbury 1984) 50-61.

Hinks' private Diary account with John Goldsmith's commentary offers valuable insights not found elsewhere. Goldsmith pretty much gets it right when he writes, 'the Trustees were anxious to hush the matter up and, above all, keep it out of the papers. As it turned out, they failed.'

Goldsmith presents Hinks as a somewhat naive victim of Museum politics and in particular of the determination of Forsdyke to save himself: 'he had been Director for only two years, and, before that, he had himself been Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The evidence is not clear, but it seems likely that the cleaning of the sculptures had been initiated by him as Keeper; even if this had not been the case, he was still ultimately responsible for them, as Director. Obviously, if he was to survive, he had to find scapegoats. Pryce and Hinks were the obvious targets.'

Goldsmith goes on to ask 'what actually happened?' and gives his own version of events. He concludes:

'The final irony of the "Elgin Marbles scandal" is that the whole thing was, in any case, a monumental fuss about nothing. Majority opinion is that cleaning the dirt of ages from the sculptures vastly improved them, and has indeed preserved them. Miss Melina Mercouri, the zealous Greek Minister of Culture, who has demanded the return of the sculptures to Greece, and who would have every motive for criticizing British stewardship, has publicly acknowledged ''the excellent care given to the Marbles by the British Museum.

David Lindsay, Earl of Crawford

The Crawford Papers: the Journals of David Lindsay twenty-seventh Earl of Crawford and tenth Earl of Balcarres 1871-1940 during the years 1892-1940, edited by John Vincent (Manchester1984) 591 and 593.

A serving Trustee at the time of the scandal, Crawford gives a disappointingly thin account of the affair in two diary entries dated 12 November and 10 December 1938:

'The Elgin marble affair is much more serious than I had anticipated, much damage having been done by overcleaning in a drastic manner. Forsdyke much disturbed. Cantuar was in the chair, and the keeper and assistant Hincks [sic.] were called in to give explanations. Lang began life as a lawyer and his cross-examination of the two men was masterly - I can only say that it was better than Cripps at his best! Why did he not stick to the law?'

'At B.M. Elgin marbles affair reached its climax. They have been dangerously overcleaned by using unauthorised methods and instruments. The matter has been carefully investigated by a committee under the guidance of Macmillan and Wilfrid Greene. The outcome is that the keeper of the department retires with a medical certificate. His second-in-command is severely reprimanded and loses ten years seniority, and one subordinate on a weekly notice is no longer required at Bloomsbury. We discussed the affair for the best part of two hours, and settled (much against my advice) that no public announcement should be made. Baldwin was very emphatic against dismissal of any civil servant - said the man's case would immediately be raised in the House of Commons . . .'

Bernard Ashmole

D. Kurtz (ed.), Bernard Ashmole 1894-1988 An Autobiography (Oxbow Books, Oxford 1994) 68-70.

'In 1937 I had been awarded the Florence Bursary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which enabled me to travel in Greece for some weeks the following year. On my first visit to the British Museum after returning some of the metopes of the Parthenon, a part of the Elgin Marbles, were on exhibition. They had been cleaned in preparation for their move to the new gallery presented by Lord Duveen, the picture-dealer. They were at eye-level, but railed off so that a close view was impossible, but they did look unnaturally white; I ought to have realised that something was wrong, but didn't.

Not long afterwards John Forsdyke, who had succeeded Sir George Hill as Director of the British Museum, made an alarming revelation. It was that Duveen had in effect bribed the chief mason, who happened to be a drinker and therefore not all that trustworthy, to clean a number of the marbles drastically so as to make them more showy for his new gallery; the mason had removed the patina, which is that change, mainly in colour, of the surface which tends to occur with age, especially in Pentelic marble. The crisis had arisen through a combination of unfortunate circumstances. It was a tradition that keepers of the Departments in the Museum were independent, and were normally advised rather than directed by the Director. This meant that apart from occasional visits by the Director or a Trustee and an annual meeting at which the Keeper presented his report to the Trustees, a Department was left to itself. The then Keeper of the Greek and Roman Department was seriously ill and had been away for some time; his senior Assistant Keeper, though a fine scholar, preferred to read books in the Departmental Library rather than to make a round of inspection that would include the mason's shop. The result was that the mason carried on his evil work undetected.

Forsdyke explained that the Keeper had retired and his senior assistant had resigned. Would I become Honorary Keeper and hold the fort with the only remaining member of staff, the junior Assistant Keeper? He pointed out that some stone-walling would be necessary against journalists, questions in Parliament and ordinary enquiries - in fact "holding the fort" about covered it . . .'

The other principal accounts of the cleaning are that of Christopher Hitchens, a self-declared restitutionist, and William St Clair.

Christopher Hitchens

The Elgin Marbles - should they be returned to Greece? (Chatto and Windus, London 1987 89-93; revised edition?).

Hitchens linked a detailed account of the cleaning to the question of restitution. It has, he says, been argued that the sculptures are safer in London than they would have been in Athens. The cleaning episode, it is argued, undermines this claim. 'If', says Hitchens, 'there are to be arguments about safety and conservation, then they must take account of time and chance in London as well as of time and chance in Athens.' The principal is a fair one, but is unfairly applied by Hitchens, who is largely reticent about the damage in Athens that has occurred to both the Parthenon and the sculpture that remained on it after Elgin's time.

William St Clair

Lord Elgin and the Marbles: the controversial history of the Parthenon sculptures (3rd edition Oxford University Press 1998) Chapter 24, 280-313.

'The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Stewardship and Accountability', International Journal of Cultural Property 8 (1999) 397-521.

In 1998 William St Clair devoted a chapter of the third edition of his book about the Elgin Marbles to the 1930s cleaning of them. Few post-War scholars had shown an interest in the episode and fewer still in its material consequences for the sculpture. St Clair, therefore, broke new ground by quoting verbatim and at length the Museum's own files. The Museum provided full access to its papers as well as curatorial advice on the sculptures and was unprepared for the violence of St Clair's reaction. His account, as one reviewer remarked, deviated from his previous dispassionate approach towards his subject and had 'the disconcerting effect of changing the whole direction of the original book.'(102) Instead of dealing with the cleaning in the same even tone that had controlled the rest of his account of the Elgin Marbles, St Clair attacked the Museum. He argued that, through a failure of discipline in the 1930s and what he claimed was a cover up then and since, the British Museum's 'stewardship' of the Marbles was, as he put it in the closing paragraph of his book, a 'cynical sham'. The reviewer for IJCP remarked upon the change:(103)

'Having devoted the bulk of his book to arguing that the Ottomans ultimately granted Elgin legal title to the marbles, which in turn permitted Elgin to transfer good title to the British government, St Clair concludes his book by stating that the ''British claim to a trusteeship has been forfeited''. St Clair never explains when, in his mind, the museum's possession of the marbles was converted from one of ownership to one of trusteeship, or in what way the improper cleaning and the cover-up constituted such a violation of the trustee's [sic.] responsibility as to warrant forfeiture.'

St Clair's 'stewardship' was then a straw man, set up so that he could knock it down. The Museum had never made such a claim of infallibility in its record of curatorship. Its position has always been that if Lord Elgin had not acted as he did, and if the sculptures had not come to the Museum when they did, they would not survive as they do. The TLS reviewer saw through St Clair's device:

'St Clair is right to publicize this incident (if nothing else, it is a warning about the irresponsible power of strong-minded millionaires.) But he is too ready to see conspiracy where there is probably only cock-up.'

That the 1930s cleaning was, as the vernacular has it, a 'cock-up', there is no doubt. The Museum paid the price for it at the time with a major press scandal and it has been talked of as an embarrassment ever since. Sixty years on, with all the principal players dead, what seemed most needed was a reasoned assessment of what actually had happened in the 1930s and what the implications were for the sculptures themselves. Instead, St Clair's attack, with its frequent misreading of documents and gross exaggeration of the consequences for the sculpture, generated another press scandal, further muddying the waters.(104) The Museum decided, therefore, to reclaim possession of the subject, which with hindsight it should have done sooner. It held a conference, inviting an internationally distinguished panel of advisers and speakers, amongst whom St Clair was one. On the eve of the conference, however, St Clair produced a second publication, too late for proper consideration at that event.(105) This maintains the polemical tone of his previous account, but the number of errors and the misrepresentations rise in proportion to its greater length and the expanded range of disciplines it attempts to cover. As this article now represents a substantial element in the bibliography of the Elgin Marbles as a cultural property issue, and will certainly mislead readers without expert knowledge, the present author has prepared for publication elsewhere a corrigenda of some of St Clair's salient errors.

Internal British Museum Memoranda

In addition to these published reports, mention should also be made of two internal Museum Memoranda.The first is marked Strictly Confidential and was drawn up anonymously as a briefing document for the Trustees at the time of the opening of the Duveen Galleries in June 1962, following repair of war-time damage. The paper is entitled The Elgin Marbles and sets out a brief history of their acquisition and of claims for their return, before going on to talk about the cleaning:

'The atmosphere of London is said to be harmful to the Marbles. But the sculptures in the British Museum are very much less decayed than those still in the Parthenon. Moreover, their new home, the Duveen Gallery, which has an electrostatic precipitator for cleaning the air, is designed to ensure their satisfactory preservation in the future. As to the method of display, it may be mentioned that, like the British Museum, both the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the Louvre exhibit their sections of the Parthenon frieze at eye level.

In early 1939, rumours were heard of serious damage caused to the Elgin Marbles during cleaning prior to their being moved into the Duveen Gallery newly built to house them. These rumours were dispelled by a statement by the Trustees, published in The Times on 18th May, 1939, which ran as follows.' (106)

The paper continues:

'As The Times stated at the time, no-one could tell by ordinary methods of inspection which of the Marbles had been cleaned by which method, and it was not known whether any spots of discolouration had in fact been removed. Variations in the colour of the Marbles were the result of weathering during their long life before they were brought to England, and had nothing to do with cleaning at this or any other time. The approved method of cleaning which had been introduced on the advice of the Museum Laboratory in 1932, consisted in the use of a neutral solution of medicinal soft-soap and ammonia with distilled water. Before this date, ordinary water had been used for cleaning.

Holcombe, foreman mason in charge of the controversial cleaning operations, stated in the press that he had used a blunt copper tool "to get off some of the dirtier spots", but that the tool was softer than marble and no harm had come to the sculptures so treated. (There is no truth in the accusation, repeated as recently as May 1961, that acid was used in cleaning the Marbles). Holcombe also said he had used the same tools for cleaning marble under four directors (i.e. for more than 30 years), and had used them on the Elgin marbles for 15 months.Considerable public concern was expressed at the time, notably by Jacob Epstein and it was alleged that the surface of the marble had been seriously affected. The exact extent of the damage cannot now be determined. Disciplinary action was taken by the Trustees against certain officials concerned in the cleaning incident and the then Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities resigned shortly afterwards on grounds of ill-health.'

The second internal memorandum was sent by Brian Cook, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities to Jean Rankine, Deputy Director and dated 30 August 1983. Earlier that summer several events had occurred in relation to the ongoing campaign for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, including the much publicised visit of Melina Mercouri to the Museum in May. In the wake of these events, Cook drew up a report headed, Notes for updating the brief on the Parthenon Sculptures in which he recorded the principal occurrences. He added a further note entitled Overcleaning of the Elgin Marbles:

'Since detailed reports appeared in many newspapers at the time and since the Museum's records of the incident are available under the 30-year rule, there can be no question of fudging the issue. The essential facts are that the Departmental Mason (Arthur Holcombe) and labourers working under his charge used a copper tool to remove some persistent marks from the surface of some of the Marbles, including traces of the gold and yellow 'patination' that Pentelic marble acquires when exposed to the air for long periods. This was done without the authority or even the knowledge of the Keeper or Assistant Keeper. The facts were brought to light by the sculptor Jacob Epstein who stated that the cleaning had been going on for some 15 months. The Museum stopped the unauthorised work at once. Holcombe, who was 72, was sent into retirement on pension at three weeks' notice. The Keeper (F.N. Pryce) went into early retirement, alledgedly on grounds of ill health, and R. Hinks (AK) resigned to join the Warburg Institute. At the same time the Director claimed that there was no connection between their departures and the overcleaning, but since the connection was admitted in the House of Commons there is no point in attempting to keep up the pretence.

The actual extent of the damage is open to exaggeration (as recently by Tzedakis) (107), and I recommend that the Trustees should first observe it for themselves and then decide whether to authorise publicity of the facts. Archaeologists who wish to consider the question in more detail will look first at the metopes and frieze: the metopes and cavalcade of the north frieze were cleaned, the east frieze was not, and the difference is obvious. On the other hand, a non-specialist may find it difficult to imagine what the metopes and north frieze were like before cleaning. It would therefore be worthwhile to look at the east pediment. Most of the figures were untouched but the lower part of E [sic for G] ('Hebe') was treated on the front. The line of demarcation is readily visible about half-way up the thighs. An earlier photograph in the departmental archives (glass negative broken) shows that 'patination' in the cleaned area was not in fact extensive.

The "plain copper tool" used for cleaning was formerly kept in the Director's office. I have never seen it myself, but Denys Haynes once told me that he had done so. Again it may be worthwhile to discover the implement and consider whether or not to make it public.

There has been a persistent rumour that Duveen was responsible for persuading Holcombe to undertake the work. This was denied at the time, e.g. in The Daily Telegraph, but I heard it myself in the USA during the 1960s, when an allegation of bribery was added. I know of no documentary evidence to support either the basic rumour or the extra allegation.'