Dear George Clooney, About those marbles…

 

 

Dear George Clooney,

 

As another Lexington, Kentucky boy, I’ve often wanted to write a fan letter to you. (I’ve been told that some members of our families knew each other, though I’m a good deal older than you, and left my old KY home when you were a child.)

Monuments Men is the perfect excuse, as I’m now working on a feature  and a video piece for The Wall Street Journal about an old friend, Anne Olivier Bell, who was a Monuments Woman. (Most will know her as the editor of the diaries of her aunt-by-marriage, Virginia Woolf.)  I haven’t yet seen your film, but have tickets for its first screening tonight.

But now you’ve gone and said something silly about the Elgin Marbles (that’s pronounced with a hard g, by the way), and made it even worse by suggesting they be returned to the Pantheon, rather than to their original home in the Parthenon.

So I just have to add my two cents-worth (in truth, I’ve lived in England so much longer than in the US, that it comes more naturally to me to say tuppence-worth). As I’m sure you’re aware, the Parthenon friezes were endangered when Lord Elgin bought them in 1816, having shipped them to London with the permission of the Ottoman authorities. Yes, there is controversy, but title is clear: they were not stolen or illegally exported.

But, as another friend, Ben Macintyre, points out in today’s The Times (that’s our national  Times, not New York’s), Britain has been a remarkably conscientious safe-keeper of these wonderful objects that I (and millions of others) have seen so many times in the British Museum. During the War your movie deals with, they were the subject of a magnificent preservation effort that was ordered by Churchill and carried out in total secrecy, so that the Nazis never even got wind of their whereabouts.

Carefully packed up in crates, the Elgin Marbles were hidden in the disused Tube tunnel at Aldwych, deep underground and protected from German bombing. They stayed there until 1948, safe and secure, though the Luftwaffe and the V1 and V2 rockets rained destruction on London, even scoring a hit on the British Museum and three on the National Gallery, breaking almost every pane of glass in its windows.

Britain’s stewardship of the Elgin Marbles has been faultless (save for an episode of over-cleaning). Would the world still have them today if they had remained in Athens? That’s a rhetorical question: the answer is almost certainly No. And is Greece now stable enough to ensure their security? Another rhetorical question.

As Ben Macintyre quipped today: “Clooney has earned a place in the ‘Parthenon’ of great Hollywood actors, but he should brush up on his art history.”

I expect I’ll love the film, though.

Yours ever,

Paul

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Comments

  1. Nicolas Pilavachi says

    “An EPISODE of over-cleaning”, you write, presumably in plain English. Have the rest of us missed something? After Lord Duveen arranged to have the Elgin marbles gouged and scraped with chisels and abraded with carborundum stone, did they somehow recover their lost surfaces?

  2. says

    I don’t think I in any way minimized the damage done. But that was long ago and, in any case, better than Greek stewardship would have been over the intervening years. You can hardly use this as an argument for the “return” of the Elgin marbles

    • Nicolas Pilavachi says

      I beg to differ: your post did indeed minimize the extensive and irreversible damage caused to the marbles during the British Museum’s far from “faultless” stewardship. As for your next argument, that the sculptures would not have survived had they remained in situ, I can only comment that it is doubly ironic: first, because of course the Elgin marbles promptly sank to the sea bottom after their removal; second, because the remaining sculptures are in Athens’ new Acropolis Museum for anyone to see.

      My purpose in responding was not to plead for the return of the Elgin marbles. It was to protest against the bias that all too frequently mars the arguments of those who advocate their retention.

  3. Nicolas Pilavachi says

    Are you requesting me to moderate my comments? In that case, for “bias” please substitute “uninformed bigotry”.

  4. says

    Shall we ship the Egyptian Pyramids, the Mayan Temples and the towers of Angkor Thom to London for safe keeping? The sun is wreaking havoc on those treasures and, sadly, the uncivilised locals are doing very little about it.

  5. Reshmi Dasgupta says

    Whether a national treasure can be “bought” and shipped out is debatable, especially since the Ottomans did not build (and therefore own) the Parthenon or any other monument in Greece of similar vintage. I am sure the British also thought they were doing India a favour when they melted the copper roof of the Diwan i Khas in Delhi’s Red Fort (Nadir Shah had already melted the previous silver roof) and took it away as the pesky natives may have done the same later. Anyway, even if the Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back, I am quite happy to let the Kohinoor stay in Britain… It has brought bad luck to whoever possessed it and looking at Britain today, it obviously hasn’t lost its touch!

  6. Korky Paul says

    NOT the Elgin Marbles, but The Parthenon Marbles and they should be returned.

    The Ottomans where an occupying force and had no right to flog ‘em to Elgin.

    Give them back to their rightful owners.

    Korky Paul

  7. S M Pugh says

    Well that’s an interesting argument: “I can look after your property better than you can, so I’m entitled to it”. I’ll be round to collect your car, TV and sound system in the morning…

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