Roy’s West End View: It’s time to end Lord Elgin’s wretched Game of Marbles
Everyone has heard, if only vaguely, of the Elgin Marbles, and any mention of the subject typically resurrects ancient quips about “Greeks lost their marbles” or “what are the marbles doing in Elgin anyway” …etc.
However after a Homeric historic wrangle that has bubbled away since the end of the Napoleonic Wars it could be that a truly historic breakthrough is finally on the cards.
It’s a complex tale, but basically it’s about a British Lord’s opportunistic snaffling of a prime slice of ancestral art heritage from the Parthenon – that most illustrious of Greek monuments.
Lord Elgin always claimed he bought, fair and square, the magnificent friezes – depicting heroic figures on horseback, mythical creatures and so forth – from the then Turkish rulers of Greece (a claim for which evidence appears somewhat slim).
After a bit of haggling, and no little controversy (Byron wrote a poem to vent his disgust at Elgin’s cultural vandalism) the Marbles were flogged to the British Museum.
Elgin Marbles in The British Museum. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 3 December 2005.
There they have resided ever since, despite impassioned and very long-running efforts to have them restored to their homeland.
Curiously enough, there is a West End connection to the saga. Back in the distant days of the early 60’s I was a pupil at the old Hillhead Primary School, a glowering tower of a building (now converted into flats) which in later years we fondly nicknamed “the Bastille”.
As pupils progressed from Primary 1 on the ground floor they proceeded steadily up seemingly endless flights of stairs, a year at a time, to the giddy heights of the top floor, and on the vast walls opposite the stairs to that final level were displayed large replicas of those Elgin Marbles.
Old Hillhead Primary School (attribution:Lirazelf, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
What had inspired the school to put them there was never explained (and I’ve no idea what happened to them), but the school itself was built in 1883, and I’m guessing some classically-minded school administration of yesteryear imagined the epic images would inspire pupils to pursue the Classics in later post-primary years.
Hillhead High School taught Latin, which I dodged, as the Latin master (who must have departed to his personal Elysian Fields many years ago) was of the “corporal punishment never did me any harm” school of thought.
Like the brutal vine rod-wielding Roman Centurion he may have wished he had been he brutally belted pupils for such heinous offences as whistling in the corridor (and my how times have changed).
I opted for the relative safety of German language classes, on the premise that as an additional bonus people still actually speak German.
Hillhead also taught actual Ancient Greek, although in my time there the sole pupil – with a teacher all to himself – was a chap called Martin Crichton. I’ve often wondered whether his studies proved useful in later life.
Long after I left Hillhead I learned that the departure of the so-called Elgin Marbles from their rightful place in the Parthenon remains a major bone of contention for the Greeks to this day.
For various reasons only part of the original display was filched by the light-fingered Lord, and what remains in Athens is a sort of splendiferous jigsaw with some of the key pieces missing from the box.
In centuries past various other bits were horribly damaged in various accidents and mishaps. The Parthenon itself has from time to time been the site of bloody war and strife, too, having been fought over by everyone from the Persians in the 5th century BC to the Venetians and Turks. The Nazis raised the swastika on the Acropolis during the Second World War.
But broadly speaking all that stuff is like water off a duck’s back to such a timeless cultural landmark – the squabbles of mere transient humans figuratively played out beneath the stern gaze of the immortal gods of ancestral Western culture. They were temporary abominations to be wearily sighed at by the Olympians then chalked up to dusty posterity as regrettable incidents.
History, as someone clever remarked, is never “the past”. Despite all the millennia of intermittent slaughter and pillage it seems the original “glory that was Greece” can still be restored today.
The central idea is to replace the entire frieze in replica, while preserving and exhibiting the surviving original sections, lovingly restored and protected, in a state of the art museum.
The importance and pulling power of the Parthenon is already vast, but the full realisation of this vision would put it on a par (I’d argue) with sites such as Notre Dame – another world class historic icon which has hit hard times, but which will ultimately be restored to its former magnificence.
In recent years we’ve seen the grudging return to their original owning nations of such treasures as the Benin Bronzes and, from Glasgow, the Ghost Shirt of the Lakota Sioux (originally a parting present to the city from Buffalo Bill, no less, after his Wild West Circus paid us a visit), but until fairly recently the British Museum seemed determined not to lose “its” Marbles. (Ghost Dance Shirt story of repatriation YouTube)
Then, just a few days ago, there was a major development. The Times of London, the old Thunderer, which for years insisted the Marbles must stay in the British Museum, has completely changed its tune.
Asserting that the time has come for the Greek treasures to go home, the paper’s editorial on the subject said:
“They stand in the way of what should be a warm relationship with Greece: “Lord Byron is seen as a hero of Greek independence; Hellenism reached its zenith in Victorian Britain.”
“Separating components of an artistic whole is like tearing Hamlet out of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works and saying the two can still exist apart.”
“Giving back the Elgin Marbles would be a magnanimous gesture when Britain needs to rekindle European friendships”.
Lending strength to the argument is the example of the Italians, who have already returned to Athens the “Fagan fragment” – a piece of the frieze depicting the lower limbs of the goddess Artemis – blagged during the 19th century and sold to the University of Palermo.
Lord Byron, often seen as an upper class bad boy of British poetry (true, but as with Burns you have to allow for that artistic temperament) is better remembered in Greece as a hero who “dream’d that Greece might yet be free” and died for the cause of Greek independence.
Lord Byron (c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. 1813 Thomas Phillips, Wikipedia
That romantic streak of Philhellenism persists in the Oxbridge halls of academe where Times editorials relating to cultural matters are read and taken very seriously.
Here’s what that Byron thought of the desecration of the Parthenon, as he saw it.
In “The Curse of Minerva” he wrote:
Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee, Nor feels as lovers oer the dust they loved; Dull is the eye that will not weep to see Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed By British hands, which it had best behovd To guard those relics neer to be restored. Curst be the hour when their isle they roved, And once again thy hapless bosom gored, And snatchd thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorrd!
I couldn’t have put it better (!) – and it’s finally time to make amends for those past misdeeds and allow something wonderful to happen.
Roy Beers, 29 January, 2022
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