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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

The Legacy of the Earl of Elgin's Memorandum

This afternoon, I have been attempting to write my conference paper for next month's Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Making of the Modern Middle East: Global Histories 1800-1939 at the University of Warwick. I am honoured to be speaking amongst so many fabulous and learned people (even if I am giving the first paper - eek, and fingers crossed for the trains!). I'm speaking on how the walls on a castle in Bodrum connect to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and revisited 'Armchair Antiquities', a chapter I've written for a publication connected to my research with Milesian Tales at the University of Liverpool. In this, I referenced the Greek revival architect Thomas Harrison as he designed the Portico Library, where I currently work; the travel books I wrote about in the chapter are from its collection. I argue in it that travel writing both fed and justified an appetite in Britain for taking antiquities from Asia Minor (Ionia / Turkey). It's not a particularly original argument, but important when we think about how the image of classical Greece was re-made materially in Britain (and elsewhere), for good or bad (see my previous blog).

In 1796, Thomas Harrison re-designed the Earl of Elgin’s Scottish Highland country pile Broomhall House in Greek Revival style. The Portico Library even has a topless bust of Harrison - see left - in suitable classical style. I previously blogged about how in a Memorandum, first published in 1810 and written by Elgin's secretary William Hamilton, Harrison is mentioned on page one as a voice of authority whom Elgin contacted for advice when he was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Porte (i.e. Empire) in 1799:

‘[. . .] he happened to be in habits of frequent intercourse with Mr. Harrison, an architect of great eminence in the west of England, who [. . .] had besides studied many years, and to great purpose, at Rome. Lord Elgin consulted him, therefore, on the benefits that might possibly be derived to the arts in this country, in case an opportunity could be found for studying minutely the architecture and sculpture of ancient Greece; and his opinion very decidedly was, that although we might possess exact measurements of the buildings at Athens, yet a young artist could never form to himself an adequate conception of their minute details, combinations, and general effect, without having before him some such sensible representation of them as might be conveyed by casts.
This advice, which laid the groundwork of Lord Elgin's pursuits in Greece, led to the further consideration, that, since any knowledge which was possessed of these buildings had been obtained under the peculiar disadvantages which the prejudices and jealousies of the Turks had ever thrown in the way of such attempts, any favour-able circumstances which Lord Elgin's embassy might offer should be improved fundamentally; and not only modellers, but architects and draftsmen, might be employed, to rescue from oblivion, with the most accurate detail, whatever specimens of architecture and sculpture in Greece had still escaped the ravages of time, and the barbarism of conquerors. (Hamilton 1811, 1-3).

There is much to unpack here. This vindication of Elgin needs to be put in the context of criticism (even at the time) that damage had been done to the Acropolis, the first public display of the sculptures and the shock to traditional tastes of this display of unrestored fragments of sculpture. Then there was the cost of their potential sale to the British nation at a time when the harvest had failed and the cost of living was rocketing, not aided by the on / off Napoleonic Wars (Heringham 1998). As William St Clair has noted, the Memorandum was written to vindicate Elgin’s actions and he gave copies to influential people (St Clair 1998, pp. 175-176). It soon sold out. The copy in the Portico Library is a second edition from 1811 of which 500 copies were printed; this edition included additional essays from the artist Benjamin West and a reprint of an article from France on the - just - one piece of the Parthenon frieze it had acquired.

White woman in a museum in front of a greek temple
In the Acropolis Museum at Athens with the Parthenon behind.

There is, of course, much spoken and written on this subject and I'll be adding to the noise on Tuesday 25 April with an in-depth look at the Memorandum in the Portico Library. (I vowed to myself that this 2006 article would be the only thing I would publicly say on the matter as I was so dismayed at the circular discourse on the whole debate when doing my PhD in the 00s.).

When I was thinking about all this today, reading various traveller accounts of the Mausoleum and looking at the reliefs embedded in the Castle of St Peter in Bodrum, I realised that this pamphlet is an important document in articulating the shift from observation of material objects to the removal of sculpture and then excavation (and further removal) in sites across the Eastern Mediterranean. It is about even more than Greece, Britain, museums and classical sculpture but how and where that shift of power was made. I've not yet pulled my thoughts together on this, but I'm hoping the talk and conference will help me articulate this more lucidly through speaking and listening to other interested people.


Hamilton, W. R; West, Benjamin; Millin, A. L.; Moses, H, (1811), Memorandum on the subject of the Earl of Elgin's pursuits in Greece, London: John Murray.

Heringham, N. (1998), ‘Stones so Wondrous Cheap’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 37 No. 1, pp. 43-62.

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


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