James Hobson

Lord Elgin and “his” marbles were well known in 1816. Elgin had collected them all by 1805, and this haul amounted to just over half of the original frieze. Elgin has offered the friezes for sale during the war for £60,000 without success. They were, by his own admission, gently deteriorating in the damp shed of his Park Lane home. When the decision about purchasing them was made in February 1816, the MPs spend little time enquiring about what they were. They all had a classical education. A large number of experts were called by the select committee to attest to their artistic merit. Antonio Canova, the most famous Italian sculptor, told the Lords that he felt that he was in the presence of greatness when he saw the work. He asked for a marble caste to be sent to Florence.

In the words of the 1816 select committee report they considered “whether they ought to be purchased by the nation, and at what cost” The first debate in February took place after a day’s discussion of the economic distress of the country, and, while there were some members who believed that the country could not afford to have the Marbles , that was not the unanimous  view.

The vote to grant His Majesty the money to purchase them for the nation was passed by 82 votes to 30. Many Members of Parliament thought that it was wrong for Elgin himself to benefit from the fact that he was a British Ambassador to Turkey and used his position to gain the marbles. One ,radical MP, Hugh Hammersley, claimed that the marbles were acquired by bribery and that a reduced figure should be offered for the treasures on the understanding that they would be kept as a sacred trust for the people of Athens and returned to them when they wished. Interestingly, the MPs voted on this issue, but the vote was to return it one day to the Greeks, not to their Turkish occupiers, despite the fact the Imperial Parliament did not doubt for a moment the right of the Turkish occupiers to dispose of the treasures of a Greek civilisation.

Many MPs wanted to buy these artistic gems to stop individuals-possibly even foreigners-getting hold of them. MPs noted that the Muslim Turks had no interest in the sculptures and had been seen using the Acropolis for firing practice. Most accepted that Elgin was acting with permission of the Ottoman authorities .MPs also worried that the French had already taken a bit during the war with Napoleon.

Elgin had suggested £73,000 in the beginning of 1816, but that was never going to happen. MPs did not want Elgin to make a profit. Lord Ossulton wanted to offer Elgin only the cost of bringing the marbles over. Finally, in July 1816, Elgin accepted £35 000 for the friezes, and was slightly mollified by the fact that they would henceforth be called the “Elgin Marbles” Even at this late stage, there was still some worries. The Whig MP for Carlisle, John Curwen thought that ” the manner in which they had been withdrawn from the country of which they had so long been a sacred inheritance, ought to be marked with reprobation”

By December they were on view at the museum for three days a week. It is believed that the noble Lord had spent at least twice as much as these employing agents to remove the marbles from the Parthenon

In the same week, Wheat prices rose to the highest they had ever been. The wheat quartern loaf had doubled in price since January. Newspaper articles were giving the poor advice on how survive on second rate flour and rotten bread. It was indeed fortunate then that visiting the Greek friezes was free.

I have written two books on this period.

Other books

More about Passengers here. More about the Dark Days of Georgian Britain here.


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