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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: Whitewashing the Whitewashing?

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

The discovery of this ‘cleaning’ by the Director of the British Museum led to a report by a small number of trustees chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury (also a trustee) in January 1939. This found that there had been some damage to the sculptures. The British Museum moved to close the issue and avoid publicity. The Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Frederick Norman Pryce, had been on longterm sick leave since 1936 and was retired. Pryce’s deputy, Roger Hinks was the only person in post throughout and was effectively made to resign. The chief mason Arthur Holcombe was put on sick leave, then retired.

The Daily Mail had first published the story of the cleaning in March 1939 and it featured in broadsheet, tabloid and local newspapers for a couple of months. On 25 March journalists were invited to inspect the damage for themselves, though there was no one there from the British Museum who would answer exact questions (‘Priceless Marbles’, 1939: 5). In addition, there was a back and forth of complaints in The Times between artist Jacob Epstein, who had previously complained about the whitening in the cleaning of the Demeter of Knidos in 1921, and Sir George Hill, the former Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities 1921-30, who rebutted criticism of the museum (Epstein, 1939; Hill, 1939). However, Holcombe gave an interview about the cleaning to The Daily Express on 19 May 1939 - it was this sort of exposure in the press that the British Museum had desperately wanted to avoid.

Page from a newspaper in 1939
The page from the Nottingham Evening Post. World events figure alongside the 'Priceless Marbles' article.

One reason the museum and government wanted to minimise the situation was anxiety about discrediting Britain in the increasingly fragile international situation. In a letter to his sister, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain recorded being shown around the new galleries at the British Museum by Duveen in 1937, commenting that ‘I think he has made sure that the latter will never leave London but of course some day they may be bombed out of existence’ (Quoted in St Clair, 1999: 464). The discovery of the cleaning took place against the aftermath of the Munich Crisis and the news of the pact between Italy and Germany. The museum trustee Lord Harlech (William Ormsby-Gore), a critic of Nazi Germany, was particularly worried about the Greek reaction to news of the cleaning. Philhellene Robert Byron expressed his fury over the scandal in a letter to The Sunday Times and pointed out the profound implications on:

‘our relations with Greece. Greece has never relinquished her claim to the marbles’ return’ (Byron, 1939).

The Greeks were potential British allies in a war against Italy and Germany. The Foreign Office even prepared plans for a potential restitution of the Parthenon Sculptures to when Britain and Greece were the only allies fighting against Germany and Italy in 1940/41 (St Clair, 1998: 334).

The cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum can be put in the broader context of the treatment of art objects in public galleries and for sale in showrooms. In 1936 Velazquez’ Philip IV in Brown and Silver was cleaned and rehung at the National Gallery in London, where it attracted controversy in parts of the press over its ‘over-cleaning’. The controversy about the cleaning (or damage) of paintings in the 1930s was such that the National Gallery mounted an exhibition of cleaned paintings in 1947 to explain the process and let people judge for themselves (Keck, 1984: 83). Duveen was himself ‘notorious’ for cleaning and restoring pictures and other art works; he was known to even get wood carver and sculptor Grinling Gibbons’ work recurved to suit fashionable aesthetic tastes (Wilson, 2000: 241; Simpson, 1987: 238). This broader context has led to the 1930s cleaning episode being seen as a traditional, if modernist, aesthetic approach privileged over archaeology and context, rather than about race.

By the time of the discovery of the cleaning Duveen was terminally ill and not implicated in the scandal. He died as the controversy hit the press in May 1939. His obituary in The Times praises Duveen’s philanthropy and quoted his ‘delight’ in the new setting he was giving the Parthenon Sculptures:

‘Wait until you see them with the London grime removed and in their first purity. They will be luminous. To me there has never been any loveliness in dirt’ (‘Lord Duveen’, 1939).

The Times, 9 September 1948

After the debacle of the cleaning and subsequent scandal, the classical archaeologist Bernard Ashmole – one of the authors of the original 1928/9 report on the new Elgin Gallery – was appointed as Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities in May 1939. One of his first tasks on the outbreak of World War Two was to remove the Parthenon Sculptures from the new Duveen Gallery for safe keeping in Aldwych Tube station. It took a long time for the Parthenon Sculptures to be seen by the public again. Jacob Epstein began a new campaign for the public to see the sculptures in a letter to The Times in 1948. In 1961 the Duveen Gallery opened to the public again.


Byron, Robert (1939), ‘Elgin Marbles in British Museum’, The Sunday Times, 14 May 1939, 18.

Epstein, Jacob (1939), ‘Cleaning of Marbles’, The Times, 20 May 1939, 13

Hill, George (1939), ‘The Cleaning of Marbles’, The Times, 26 May 1939, 10.

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

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

Keck, Sheldon (1984),’Some Picture Cleaning Controversies: Past and Present’, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 23 (2), 73-87.

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

Nelson, Charmaine (2007), The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth Century America, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

‘Priceless Marbles. Reported Damage to Elgin Treasures. A view of the Cleaned Statuary’, Nottingham Evening Post, 25 March 1939, 5.

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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