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

Ian Jenkins


In the late 1930s the art dealer Lord Duveen offered the Trustees of the British Museum a purpose-built gallery to house the 'Elgin Marbles'.(1) In 1937-8, while the sculptures of the Parthenon were being prepared for installation in this new gallery, a controversial cleaning of some of the sculptures took place. A major press scandal ensued, and at its height there appeared a newspaper cartoon (Fig. 1) with the caption: 'Elgin Marbles being spoilt by Cleaning - Epstein', and underneath, 'Lor, Em, That Mister Epstein is right. They must have cleaned this bloke with a pick.'. (2) There has been an attempt to revive this scandal. A photograph appeared at the head of a newspaper article in June 1998, (3) trailing the third edition of William St Clair's book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles. The caption read: 'The point where masons stopped cleaning the horse of the sun god Helios - and the previous glowing honey colour that they partly scrubbed off'. Neither Mr St Clair's book, nor the newspaper coverage of the claims it makes, has done service to clarifying what actually happened to the sculptures in the 1930s. The horse of Helios does not owe its patchy appearance to the cleaning, but to natural weathering.

The 1930s newspaper cartoon is funny because it is deliberately misleading. Nevertheless, it represents a typical reaction to the 1930s cleaning. Fascinated by the scandal of it, people have tended to make up their own version of its consequences. There is, and always has been, much loose talk of 'patina'.

Adjectives to describe it like 'warm, rich and glowing' reflect notions of how the sculptures should be, rather than how they are or were. The cleaning, we are told, has removed their glow. Contrast this opinion with that of a journalist writing in The Daily Graphic when the sculptures went back on show in 1949. He saw them 'glow with a Mediterranean warmth'.(4) This, it should be noted, was post cleaning, when others had argued that the sculptures had lost their 'glow'.

Everyone has their own idea of how they think the Marbles should look. Writing in 1857, Michael Faraday thought them far from glowing and lamented their discolouration from brown stains and black soot, whereas - or so he believed - sculptures in Greece and Italy, unaffected by Museum pollution, were white. (5) What I take Faraday to mean by 'brown stains' are the orange-brown coatings that can still be seen in places on the surface of the sculptures today. In 1988 I published a paper with my colleague Andrew Middleton entitled 'Paint on the Parthenon Sculptures', (6) We argued that these coatings were ancient and artificial, and likely to be the result of paint treatments applied to the stone in antiquity and afterwards partially weathered off. They appear where the ancient finish appears to be intact and, where the surface is weathered, they are missing. There is a dispute as to the origin of these coatings. The least that may be said is that whether artificial or natural these coatings are historic. They happened at specific moments in time and were then affected by weather or damage. They did not re-form in the areas that were affected by this wear.

A critical question has to do with the extent to which these coatings survived up until the 1930s. From an examination of the marble surface itself it is possible to see that they had already largely disappeared even before Elgin's men set eyes on the sculpture. I estimate that when the sculptures entered the Museum less than 20% of their overall surface retained its coating, of which in the 1930s about half was removed. The surface of the sculptures as you see it today is, without question, largely the product of weathering before they entered the Museum.

This is not to deny that weathered and some unweathered surfaces underwent further change as a result of the cleaning of the 1930s and, indeed, earlier. But natural weathering is by far the single most important factor determining the surface and colour of the sculptures as we see them today. It is important to state this at the outset, so as to get the 1930s cleaning into perspective. In 1998 it was very surprising to read Mr St Clair's assertion to the contrary, namely that 'when the Elgin Marbles were transferred to the British Museum in 1816, their ancient patina was still largely intact'. (7) Up to the 1930s the sculptures were, he says, a 'warm brown'. (8) Earlier in his account we read that 'in Elgin's day [they] were covered with a patina, in some places smooth, in others scaly, in a rich mixture of white, brown, orange and occasional black, the result of long exposure to the open air'. (9) This premise has been the very foundation of his argument and yet no scientific evidence is given to demonstrate it. Watercolour drawings and oil paintings are offered instead as literal representations of how the sculptures once were. We read that in Archibald Archer's oil painting of the Elgin Room the sculptures are 'honey-coloured'. (10) In fact, under fuliginous layers of old varnish, they are a pale cream, which is probably the colour Archer thought they should be, rather than what they were. (Fig.2) St Clair argues, however, that the sculptures were that colour actually. If so, his case for their having been covered in the brown coating is already destroyed. Lord Leighton's self-portrait now in the Uffizi is cited as evidence for the original colour of the Parthenon Frieze (11). But when this picture was painted in 1880, it is much more likely that Lord Leighton had in mind the casts installed in the walls of his own studio (12).

Why, we must ask ourselves, has it been so difficult, both in the 1930s, and since, for people to give an accurate report of the cleaning? It is not as if the sculptures have been hidden from view. St Clair is mistaken when he writes: 'As the Duveen gallery was being built . . . the Marbles were mostly not on public view'. (13). Photographs of the day and the Keeper's reports to the Trustees show that, once they had been cleaned on a piecemeal basis, the sculptures were returned to the gallery. There we see the cleaned ones looking white against the uncleaned sculptures and the darkened casts.(Fig.3) Nor, with the exception of their removal for safety during and after the Second World War, have the sculptures been hidden from view since their cleaning. They have been on show since 1949 and, if the damage is obvious, why was it so little remarked upon? Many published references have been made to the 1930s cleaning,(14) but the primary motive of these accounts has been a lust for scandal and, latterly, the campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Scandal mongering and politics have not provided a healthy climate in which to foster a truthful assessment of what actually was done to the sculptures.

It is ironic that already in 1939, the last word in the pre-War press coverage tried to move the discussion forward. On 9 June an anonymous correspondent to The Manchester Guardian wrote: '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 some cases by methods of which no expert could possibly approve . . . Folk who like to think 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". . . . But what, in fact, has happened?'(15)

Sixty years on, that question has yet to be answered. St Clair claims 'all the metopes, 80 or 90 per cent of the frieze, and about half the pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon were damaged by over cleaning at some time before the halt was called.'(16) 'The most vivid evidence', he says, 'for the extent of the damage is in the three pieces which were still being cleaned when Sir John Forsdyke discovered what was going on in September 1938, the Helios, the head of Selene's horse and the Iris.'(17) These are the ones mentioned in the Board of Enquiry's Report. This internal affair was concocted by Sir John Forsdyke, the Museum's Director, to create scapegoats for what was ultimately his responsibility. It is unwise to depend upon it as a source for what actually was done. The Board's phrase: 'the damage is obvious and cannot be exaggerated', is often quoted, but it seems anything but obvious and has been much exaggerated.

We read that most of the smaller sculptures of the west pediment were 'stripped'. Of the Iris St Clair writes: 'The white left leg, where a patch of residual patina had not yet been removed when the halt was called, looks as if it had been smeared in dog dirt.'(18) The hyperbole is embarrassing enough, but it is even more so, when we learn that he is describing entirely the wrong statue. He should have been looking, as was pointed out to him in 1998, not at this figure from the west pediment but another piece from the east pediment. In spite of St Clair's claims to the contrary, only east pediment pieces were rubbed and these were the Helios, the back of his two horses' heads, the drapery of Iris and the back of the head of the horse of Selene.

So what in fact did happen to these and other sculptures? A detailed analysis of their surface condition is given below. In order fully to assess this surface, however, something must be said of previous interventions that have made it what it has become.