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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: Chromophobia for Chromophobia's Sake

Now we jump to the 1920s and 1930s and the subject of that conference at the British Museum in 1999. The Parthenon Sculptures remained in the gallery built for them in the 1830s for 100 years. By the early 1920s, there was increased pressure to display them in less cramped surroundings and to create more space for other objects in the British Museum. After the First World War, there was little money or willingness from the government to fund massive arts projects. The diplomat, financier and art collector Edgar Vincent, Lord d’Abernon, chaired the Royal Commission on National Museums and Art Galleries from 1927-1929, which considered the difficulties of adequate finance for national museums and galleries. Philanthropy, mainly from private individuals, was the way forward for many museums and galleries. D’Abernon suggested to his friend Sir Joseph Duveen that he bankroll the gallery as a means of getting a peerage (Kehoe, 2004: 506). Duveen was an ‘unscrupulous art dealer’, who spent his time between Britain and the USA (St Clair, 1998: 295). He had many contacts in Europe through which he would acquire art from impoverished upper-class families to sell on to millionaires (mainly) in America. In 1928 Duveen offered £40,000 to fund the construction of a new gallery to display the Parthenon sculptures.

Duveen had previously funded a new exhibition gallery at the Tate (now Tate Britain) for contemporary art, which opened in 1926, and a restaurant with a bespoke mural by the artist Rex Whistler, The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. The mural has caused much controversy due to its racist caricatures of Chinese people and depiction of bound Black children (Bailey, 2020). Duveen was also a trustee of the National Gallery from 1930 to 1936, despite a conflict of interest as an active art dealer and donated £40,000 towards new galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, which were opened by George V in 1933, the same year Duveen was made Baron Duveen of Millbank.

Duveen wanted his preferred architect J. Russell Pope, who went on to design the National Gallery in in Washington DC, to do the work. Pope was known as the ‘last Roman’ due to his austerely classical style and his plans for the new gallery at the British Museum were no exception (Jenkins, 1992: 226). Duveen got his way in choice of architect but the trustees requested plans for the redisplay from experts on classical art. In 1929 John Beazley (University of Oxford), Donald Robertson (University of Cambridge) and Bernard Ashmole (University of London) provided ‘Suggestions’ that focused on putting the original sculptures from the Parthenon – metopes, frieze and pediment – in one gallery. This re-display was a reaction against the use of casts from the original sculpture that remained in Athens and downplayed the archaeological and architectural context. Beazley, Donaldson and Ashmole emphasised the Parthenon sculpture as ‘primarily works of art’ and argued that there was a need for the British nation to act:

‘[. . .] we are conscious of our duty to the works themselves, and to the noble civilization, mother of our own, that produced them; and of our duty to a wide, not insensitive or uncultivated public, of our own race and beyond’ (Quoted in Kehoe, 2004: 508).

Their proposal reflected aesthetic attitudes of the time as well as academic fashion with a privileging of material made by known and named artists, in this case Pheidias. Their emphasis on ancient Greece as an ancestor to modern Britain and ‘our own race’ continues the reflections made by Sir Henry Ellis, Robert Knox and many others. Former British Museum Director David Wilson comments that ‘art for art’s sake triumphed’ (Wilson, 2002: 241). And so, for a while, did chromophobia.

In his many decades as an art dealer, Duveen projected himself as ‘an arbiter of taste’ to his clients and was concerned with the ‘complete setting’ in which the art he sold would be displayed (Penny and Serres, 2007: 403). A generation earlier, Duveen Brothers had provided bespoke interior design services and gradually specialised in selling works of art. Duveen presented ‘works of art in an architectural setting that was as sober and restrained as it was opulent’ and this is what Duveen wished for the display of the Parthenon sculptures. Clearly attracted by the renewed emphasis on the sculptures as art objects devoid of historic (and geographic) context, Duveen wished to create a similarly sober yet opulent gallery in which the sculptures could ‘be luminous’ (‘Lord Duveen’, 1939: 16).

Photograph of Bernard Berenson c. 1900
Bernard Berenson circa 1900 NPG Ax161068 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Duveen’s chromophobia reflected traditional aesthetics, such as those espoused by his advisor the Renaissance expert and art dealer Bernard Berenson. Berenson was on a retainer from Duveen so that he would alert him about Italian art for sale. (In addition, he had a secret agreement to authenticate Renaissance Italian artwork for Duveen, often giving misleading attributions to named artists that inflated value for a quarter of the profits (Simpson, 1987: 137). Berenson has been described by David Batchelor as the ‘chromophobe’s chromophobe’ as he thought colour ‘was indulged in by communities where brain was subordinated to muscle’ (Batchelor, 2000: loc. 1569). It is likely that Berenson’s opinions influenced Duveen’s, though the two fell out over a sale at about the time of the cleaning at the British Museum. Chromophobia is not just about aesthetic taste but it is also, as Charmaine Nelson, notes an ‘ideological choice’ as white marble had long guarded against sexualised flesh and racial difference (Nelson, 2000: 89).

The Pentelic marble of the Parthenon Sculptures ages very differently from the Italian marble used on smooth ‘white’ sculptures such as Apollo Belvedere and, in addition, they are still largely covered with a golden-brow patina. Yet, Duveen thought they should look ‘white’ and he ‘harangued’ the trustees over their colour, contending that he would dip them in acid (St Clair, 1998: 294-5). The damaging cleaning of some of the Parthenon sculptures at the behest of Duveen in 1936-38 has been well documented by the historian William St Clair and the late British Museum curator Ian Jenkins, albeit from differing standpoints. The events that unfolded can be retold relatively briefly. Duveen brought his own foreman to assist with the cleaning of the sculptures. The chief mason at the British Museum Arthur Holcombe knew that the method of cleaning with medicinal soap and ammonia, which had been designed by the museum’s conservator Harold Plenderleith, was safe and effective. But he was bribed to look the other way or use more robust methods, including copper tools. This interference was finally observed in September 1938 by John Forsdyke, the Principal Librarian of the British Museum. Forsdyke had previously been Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities and in charge of the new Duveen Gallery – he had been appointed Principal Librarian in 1936 partly because the trustees thought he could handle Duveen. (The museum appears hopelessly out of its depth in dealing with such an influential art dealer and donor.) The cleaning stopped and the ramifications began.

*In this connected art world Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery 1933-45 and later the presenter of Civilizations (BBC 1968), worked as an assistant to Berenson at his home in Florence during 1925 (Simpson, 1987: 52-53).


Bailey, Martin (2020), ‘Rex Whistler’s Tate Britain restaurant mural is “offensive”, ethics committee says, threatening closure’, The Art Newspaper, 7 December 2020 [accessed 8 May 2021].

Batchelor, David (2000), Chromophobia, London: Reacktion Books.

Jenkins Ian (2001), Cleaning and Controversy: the Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939, London: British Museum.

Jenkins, Ian (1992), Archaeologists and Aesthetes in the Sculpture galleries of the British Museum 1800 – 1939, London: British Museum Press.

(2001), ‘The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Accuracy and Reliability’, International Journal of Cultural Property, 10 (1), 55-69.

(2001) Cleaning and Controversy: the Parthenon Sculptures 1811-1939, No. 146 (Occasional Paper), London: British Museum Press.

Kehoe, Elizabeth (2004), ‘Working hard at giving it away: Lord Duveen, the British Museum and the Elgin Marbles’, Historical Research, 77 (198), 503-519.

‘Lord Duveen’, The Times, 26 May 1939, 16.

Nelson, Charmaine (2000), ‘White Marble, Black Bodies and the Fear of the Invisible Negro: Signifying Blackness in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Neoclassical Sculpture’, RACAR: revue d'art canadienne / Canadian Art Review , 27 (1/2), 87-101.

Penny, Nicholas Penny and Serres, Karen (2007), ‘Duveen and the Decorators’, The Burlington Magazine,June 2007, 149 (1251), 400-406.

Simpson, Colin (1987), The Partnership. The Secret Association of Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen,London: The Bodley Head.

St Clair, William (1998), Lord Elgin and the Marbles. The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, David (2002), The British Museum. A History, London: British Museum Press.

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