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

Ian Jenkins

An evaluation of the Documentary Evidence

Between 1937 and 1938 unsupervised masons in the British Museum abraded the surface of some of the Parthenon sculptures with copper chisels and carborundum, a practice not officially sanctioned. The Museum held an internal Board of Enquiry, which found evidence of dereliction of duty on the part of two senior Museum officials and the foreman of masons. All three left the Museum as a result. Against the advice of some Trustees, the Director Sir John Forsdyke and the Board Chairman, Lord Macmillan attempted to play down in public what they privately described as serious damage. The attempt failed. The affair leaked into the newspapers and a scandal eventually ensued.

There have been suggestions of a continuing cover up. These must be rejected on the basis that the Press scandal of the day, and frequent and extensive coverage of the episode since, renders such concealment redundant. That scandal has remained alive, nevertheless, and the Museum has been accused of contributing to its persistence by never having published a full account of the episode, nor having made a proper assessment of how the 'cleaning' affected the sculptures. This omission is partly attributable to Forsdyke's understatement at the time, partly to the interruption of the Second World War and partly, it must be said, to the Museum's own reticence since the incident.

These papers represent the fullest record to date of the episode. So far as its own archival documents are concerned, however, the Museum can give no guarantee that what was said sixty years ago is reliable evidence for what was actually done to the sculptures. The Museum held an internal enquiry that was not independent. The results were not published. The Director of the Museum said one thing in private and another in public. Although there was talk of a report on the material consequences of the cleaning, none followed. Now, sixty years on, the sculptures remain the only reliable witness.

The documents are not a solid base from which to interpret the cleaning. Perhaps they were not intended to be such. The Museum was in the 1930s socially a very small place, with rivalries and petty jealousies rife among its exclusively male community. At the time of the cleaning, Forsdyke had only recently been promoted to his Directorship. Formerly he had been Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities. It is said that the decision was made not to go outside the Museum for a successor to the previous Director, Sir George Hill, because the major project of the day was Lord Duveen's new gallery for the Elgin Marbles.(108) It was thought that Forsdyke was peculiarly well qualified to see this through to completion. In the Museum, it does not seem to have been a popular appointment, least of all with Forsdyke's former peers, the Keepers. One of these was Sydney Smith, by all accounts a difficult Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities (1931-48). He and Mrs Gulbenkian had been ushered into the gallery, where Forsdyke made the fateful remark, 'They're coming up rather white, aren't they?' It must have been a shock to Forsdyke when, in front of a visitor, his old rival turned on him with the words, 'And I can tell you why . . .'(109)

One of those who lost his job as a result of the furore that ensued was the promising young scholar by the name of Roger Hinks. He died in 1963 after long service with the British Council. In the excellent edition of Roger Hink's diaries, John Goldsmith has suggested that Forsdyke's behaviour over the cleaning episode was less than honourable, and that much of what was said and done was designed to save his own neck.(110) The inference is that if Forsdyke were to survive, he had to construct a case against the scapegoats, the Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Frederick Pryce and his assistant Roger Hinks. So it was that what had been going on under Forsdyke's nose for fifteen months suddenly became a case of gross dereliction of duty by subordinates in his former Department. 'The damage which has been caused is obvious and cannot be exaggerated', was the conclusion of the report of the Trustees' Board of Enquiry. Why then was it not noticed before? The fact is that both then and since the 'damage' was far from obvious and has been much exaggerated.

Take, for example, the highly inflammatory report to the Board of Enquiry by Harold Plenderleith, who at the time of the cleaning was scientist in charge of the Museum's laboratory. William St Clair reports a conversation with him in 1997, shortly before his death, in which Plenderleith recalls that Forsdyke hated everyone, 'was much feared and was effective in getting his own way.'(111) Plenderleith also had cause to feel animosity towards his peers, especially in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. He was a pioneer of conservation science. In 1932, under pressure from Lord Duveen to brighten up the Parthenon sculptures and rid them of their accumulated dirt, the Museum had charged Plenderleith with the task of devising a safe but effective means of cleaning the sculptures. This he did, and the sculpture was cleaned with a neutral solution of medicinal soft-soap and ammonia. At some point, however, the Museum masons, under the charge of the officers of the Greek and Roman Department, left off Plenderleith's method and initiated the unauthorised cleaning of their own devising. Already before the final 'discovery', Plenderleith had intervened when he saw metal tools being used.(112) But why had he allowed it to continue? As with Forsdyke, so with Plenderleith, we must ask why, if the cleaning was as bad as they later claimed it to be, was it allowed to go on for fifteen months? The sculptures were not kept hidden after they were cleaned, at least so far as the frieze and metopes are concerned, but were returned to public view pending their redisplay in Lord Duveen's new gallery.(Fig.3) Why, it must be asked, in the very small world of the British Museum, was an unauthorised cleaning, the results of which were for all to see, allowed to continue by the very people who subsequently condemned it?

Plenderleith complained that sculptures were chipped with copper chisels, the marks then removed by polishing with a loss of up to a tenth of an inch of surface. If true, such action would indeed have damaged the sculptures to the extent of removing important detail in drapery and anatomy. However, as the sculptures themselves bear out, this was not done. The rubbing of the surface with a copper tool, although not itself advisable, is not the same as chiselling. So why did he say it? There was perhaps a degree of personal outrage on his part against the officers of the Greek and Roman Department for their having ignored his instructions. This may have distorted his judgement.

In connection with Plenderleith's testimony, it is interesting to read his correspondence fifteen years later with Professor Homer A. Thompson of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.(113) On 30 May 1953, Thompson proposed to clean off the historical coatings on the east inner frieze of the Hephaesteum (Theseum) a sister monument of the Parthenon situated on a hill overlooking the Athenian Agora. On 1 July Plenderleith replied laying out a range of possible approved methods. Among them is cited the use of the very tools which he had condemned in the cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures:

(2) Chiselling by wooden wedges: If good results obtained up to a point you could go one stage further with a soft copper chisel as used for cleaning marble gravestones. This has about the same degree of hardness as marble in Moh's scale.

(3)Abrasives? Definitely dangerous but possibly justified for removing spots. Sharp sand, pumice or carborundum, applied with plenty of water, but better to avoid them if possible on sculpture.

Professor Thompson did avoid them, but went instead for steel chisels and brass brushes! The cleaning was done between June and September of 1953 by two Greek workmen under the direction of Miss Alison Frantz.(114) Thompson himself wrote to Plenderleith:(115)

'After experimenting with implements of wood, bone, copper and brass, we found that light chisels of steel gave the best results, being both speedier and, where it was thickest, the deposit flaked off under gentle tapping, but for the most part it was loosened by the edge of the chisel under pressure applied by hand. Over much of the background, where the ancient surface tooling was somewhat rougher, a soft brass brush was used; in these areas no effort was made to remove the last particles of deposit from the miniature depressions, particularly since it soon appeared that the thoroughly cleaned figures stood out more effectively against a slightly off-white ground . . .'

The 1950s cleaning of the Hephaesteum frieze is a remarkable, but hitherto overlooked event in the history of conservation.(Fig.23-25) In advising on it, Plenderleith seems himself to have forgotten what he had said fifteen years earlier in condemnation of the removal of 'spots' from the Parthenon sculptures using copper chisels and abrasives. By all the same arguments that condemned the cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, the stripping of the 'patinas' from the Hephaesteum with steel chisels and wire brushes, should not have happened. No criticism was voiced then, nor since. Let us be clear; the Hephaesteum cleaning is not mentioned here with the intention of attaching scandal to it. I wish, however, to demonstrate the degree to which the British Museum incident has been isolated from similar cases and to ask the question why. The answer is that interest in the scandal has overshadowed interest in what actually was done.

Hitherto, those who have commented upon the episode since the sculptures were re-exhibited after the War have done so from the point of view of a scandal. Some have done it privately in their diaries, published posthumously (Hinks, Crawford). Others have declaimed aloud in the political arena of the debate over the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures (Hitchens, Tzedakis). Others still have shouted their protest from the high ground of moral indignation (Epstein, Brandi, St Clair). This sense of outrage and scandal has obscured the need for proper assessment of what actually was done. Brandi's account, for example, is largely composed of rhetoric, while his observations about the sculpture are more sensation than sense.

A preoccupation with scandal has not only obscured what was done in 1937-38, but also what happened to the sculptures before then. The 1930s cleaning has a broader context, which to some extent explains it. It is interesting to discover that modern instigators of public outrage at the Museum's treatment of the sculptures have their forerunners in such persons as 'Marmor', the anonymous author of complaints in The Times about the Victorian scrubbing of them. Nor is the British Museum alone in having a history of such criticism. In the nineteenth century 'Verax' (J. Morris Moore) was to the National Gallery what 'Marmor' was to the Museum.(116) It is also interesting to reflect upon the degree to which criticism of cleaning the Parthenon sculptures has followed the pattern of controversy over the cleaning of pictures at the National Gallery. There have been others, but there were three main periods of controversy, in 1846-53, 1936-7 and 1946-7. Each acted as a prelude to debate over the cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures: in 1857-8, 1938-9 and 1950.(117) Of the 1936-37 controversy Philip Hendy writes: 'There has never been anywhere so protracted an argument over the cleaning of a single picture. It began with an article by the art critic of the Daily Telegraph published 19 December 1936, but the resulting correspondence soon spread to The Times and other newspapers. By March 1937 more than fifty letters and a dozen articles had been printed, and a broadcast had been made.'(118)

From this we can deduce how well primed was the public for the cleaning scandal of the Elgin Marbles in 1938-39.

The lust for scandal has continued. The restitution lobby, in particular, has focused its attention on the cleaning of the Elgin Marbles. Christopher Hitchens is one of those who has dwelt upon the episode at length as part of the argument for returning the sculptures to Greece. With a long account of the cleaning, he counters the claim that 'The marbles are safer in London than they would have been in Athens', and concludes: 'if 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.'(119) I would agree. Hitchens, however, fails to apply his own fair principle. In order to balance the argument, he should have given instances of where the Acropolis sculptures have suffered in Athens. Architectural sculptures that Lord Elgin did not remove from the Acropolis -- the Caryatids of the Erechtheum, the battle friezes of the Temple of Athena Nike, the pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon and its west Ionic frieze -- have all been damaged by continued exposure to the weather. The west frieze was only taken down from the Parthenon in 1993 and now presents a major problem of conservation. The Nike Temple frieze has only just come down. Its pollution-ravaged surface compares unfavourably with the casts made of it by Lord Elgin In her book on the Parthenon pediment sculptures, the Greek archaeologist Olga Palagia writes of the statues of Kekrops and his daughter: 'B and C were finally removed from the [west] pediment to the Acropolis Museum in 1977 after the industrial pollution of modern Athens had wreaked havoc on their delicate surface.'(120)