Like anyone on summer vacation, the young ladies and gentlemen let loose in nineteenth century London during the Season (see previous post) wanted to see the sights. Thrill seekers might visit the Tower Zoo, cringe through the feeding of the tigers at the Royal Menagerie in the Exeter ‘Change, or watch a balloon ascend over Hyde Park. For those of more historical or artistic pretensions, a visit to the Elgin Marbles was a must.
Before the marble sculptures even arrived in England, they were the center of controversy. Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, actually made off with them while serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Greece. He claimed these sculptures, which once decorated the Parthenon in Athens, could be better protected in England. Seems some people (not Greeks) were breaking off the noses of statues as souvenirs.
Unfortunately, Elgin didn’t do a very good job of protecting the sculptures. One of the pieces removed from the Parthenon fell and was crushed into dust. The first shipment sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean and had to be salvaged. Then Elgin and his family were kidnapped on the way home from Greece and held as political hostages for three years!
Meanwhile, the arrival of the marble sculptures in England between 1803 and 1812 helped ignite the passion for Greek designs. Woman piled up their hair like the hairstyles in Greek pottery. Dresses turned to classic lines and draperies. Columns and friezes decorated buildings. Artists from all over England and as far away as Italy and America came to ogle the pieces and weep that their own work was so pitiful in comparison.
Not everyone was so thrilled. Several members of Parliament expressed concerns about how the sculptures had come to be in Elgin’s possession. In his Childe Harold, one of the bestsellers of the period, Lord Byron attacked Elgin for plundering history.
Elgin had hoped the British Museum would purchase the collection, but the museum offered less than what he asked. When he had to move from his Park Lane home, he stashed the sculptures in the rear yard of palatial Burlington House, where they were stacked in and around the coal shed. They remained there until 1816, when the British Museum increased their offer. It was still lower than Elgin wanted, but he was getting desperate and Burlington House had been sold, so he accepted the offer.
Today, the Elgin Marbles are still the center of controversy. They remain on display at the British Museum, but Greek patriots and English supporters continue to lobby for their return to their homeland.
And Elgin? His nose rotted off. No lie.