Appendix 5 - R.D. Barnett's memorandum


To: The Director, The British Museum

From: Dr. R. D. Barnett

9th February 1984

The Cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures

I first met John Forsdyke, then Deputy Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, when I was a student at the British School of Archaeology at Athens in 1931-2. When I joined the BM staff in 1932, in department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities under Sydney Smith, Forsdyke took some interest in me and caused me to be appointed London Secretary of the British School. In 1934? Forsdyke became Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, in which capacity he was heavily involved in the plans for building the new Parthenon galleries financed by Lord Duveen, and for the new exhibition there of the 'Elgin Marbles'. About this time I saved Greek and Roman from some possible embarrassment by reporting to Forsdyke that I had overheard a journalist boasting of a 'scoop' in interviewing, without permission, their stonemason - a man called Fisher - about restorations etc.

In spring 1935 I was sent out by the Trustees to assist in Mallowan's excavations at Chagir Bazar in North Syria. I returned to the BM in . At that time my department (Egyptian and Assyrian) shared with the Greek and Roman department a storage space known as the Carthaginian Basement. Here I often worked and was puzzled, amazed and worried at seeing an elderly labourer who sat 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, Mallowan and I were down there (I think) at lunch-time when the 'cleaner' 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 hearsay, 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!!'

The rest is history, though unpublished: heads rolled in all directions, blistering reports were written. I heard Plenderleith at the lunch club admit that the surface of the horse's head or nose from the pediment on which the wretches had just got started, had been partly removed to the depth of 1/16th". Certainly the removal of all the patina from the reliefs and metopes was pretty thorough and has (in my view) removed the top skin of the stone into which the master sculptor finished off his work, and without which the sculptures become dead and lifeless, like Roman copies. The appearance of these once magnificent sculptures before they were thus ruined may only be gauged now from an old publication. Curiously enough, the only sculptures from this monument which appear to have survived unscathed are those of the gods (who seem to have saved themselves), the divine figures in the round from the west pediment, and the relief showing the seated gods and goddesses at the centre of the frieze. Perhaps they saved themselves.

Forsdyke sent for me and asked me why I didn't intervene. I told him I had been forbidden. He asked me whether if I saw someone murdering his wife I would not have intervened. I said the cases weren't parallel and it was not for me to interfere in the affairs of another department (which meant in effect questioning the Keeper's and even the Director's control) especially when I had been explicitly ordered not to do so.

I think Forsdyke forgave me, but not Sydney Smith with whom a long and very bitter running war was now started, lasting till they both retired in 1950 or thereabouts.


February 1984