Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, (1766 - 1841)

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, (1766 - 1841) British diplomat and art connoisseur. He served on diplomatic missions to Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Constantinople. While in Constantinople (1799 - 1803), he arranged for the so-called Elgin Marbles to be brought to England. His son James Bruce, who became the 8th earl, succeeded him.

When envoy at Constantinople, he feared the destruction of Greek antiquities in the conflict between Turks and Greeks and obtained permission from the Turks to remove them. Between 1803 and 1812 he transported a number of sculptures to England, many from the Parthenon in Athens, which was under Turkish control. The British government vindicated Elgin's actions and purchased the "Elgin Marbles" from him in 1816 for ?35,000 to exhibit them in the British Museum, where they can still be seen, in spite of Greek claims for their return.

When he decided to marry, he promised his wealthy young bride a handsome new mansion as a wedding present. So, he engaged Thomas Harrison to build Broom Hall and the architect, who had studied in Rome, persuaded his client that the ‘classical’ style was the only fitting one for a gentleman’s residence.

In 1799 Elgin was offered the plum posting of ambassador to Constantinople at the court of the Sublime Porte, as the sultanate was known. Harrison was overjoyed, and told Elgin, to ‘transport Greece to Scotland’. Elgin’s influential position with the sultanate would allow him to make detailed drawings of ancient Greek architecture and sculpture. Fashionable society in Britain, influenced by such bodies as the Society of Dilettanti, was turning to Greek culture, so long overshadowed by Roman.

If Lord Elgin would but supply his architect with copious and faithful copies of Greek art and architecture, then Harrison would build for him a perfect Classical Greek building. Elgin would be the envy of fashionable society. Again Elgin agreed.

He left England in the summer of the same year with his bride and his personal secretary, an energetic young man called William Richard Hamilton. In Naples, he and Hamilton engaged a Neapolitan painter, Giovanni Lusieri. Elgin and his wife then went on to Constantinople, leaving Hamilton and Lusieri to assemble a team of craftsmen who, according to a detailed brief, were to go to Athens and ‘carefully and minutely measure every ancient monument’, making plaster casts of the more interesting. Nothing at all was said about removing any of the sculptures.

Hamilton and his team arrived in Athens to find that its greatest glory, the Acropolis, was a squalid mess. A little over a century before, on 26 September 1687, Venetian gunners had lobbed a mortar shell on the Parthenon, then being used as an ammunition store by the Turks. The resultant explosion had totally destroyed the building, but the Turks continued to use the Acropolis as a fortress.

Dr Philip Hunt, Chaplain to the British Embassy at Constantinople, was the kind of clergyman which the Anglican Church frequently produces to the benefit of scholarship if not of religion. He shared to the full the prevailing British passion for antiquities, but where his compatriots still tended to satisfy themselves with elegant drawings and descriptions, Dr Hunt wanted the real thing. And he thought on the grand scale. At one stage he even proposed to move the Palace of Mycenae to Britain. Defeated by its size, he turned his speculative gaze upon the Erechtheum: it would fit nicely upon a British man-of-war, he latter assured a slightly dazed Lord Elgin.

Hunt arrived in Athens in early 1801 to watch incredulously as Elgin’s agents went about their uninspiring task. In a lively letter to Elgin, he urged him to use his influence as an ambassador to obtain a firman that would free his agents in Athens from pettifogging local restrictions. And it was not sufficient simply to get permission to erect scaffolding and make plaster copies. Elgin should also request ‘the liberty to take away any sculptures which do not interfere with the works or walls of the citadel’.

Hunt’s letter arrived in Constantinople at an ideal moment. Nelson had just fought and won the Battle of the Nile, British influence was in the ascendancy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Britain’s ambassador, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was showered with honours. It seemed a little matter to accede to his slightly eccentric request to take away some of the battered stones from the Turkish fortress on the Athenian Acropolis. Elgin received his firman.

The original Turkish firman has long since been lost, the copy transmitted to posterity being in Italian. The crucial clause gave Elgin permission to take away ‘qualche pezzi di pietra con iscrizione e figure’. The whole controversy of the Elgin Marbles turns on that word ‘qualche’. Usually, it is translated as ‘some’ and the translation should therefore read ‘some pieces of stone with inscriptions and figures’. But it can also be translated as ‘any’. Whether or not the original firman gave Elgin this sweeping permission, his agents so interpreted it, immediately beginning with the dismantling of the Parthenon frieze.

The size of the operation can be gauged from the fact that it occupied more than 300 workmen for over a year. Edward Dodwell, an English visitor to Athens at the time, was appalled by what he saw. ‘Everything relative to this catastrophe was conducted with an eager spirit of insensate outrage, and an ardour of insensate rapacity, in opposition not only to every feeling of taste but to every sentiment of justice and humanity.’ In defence of Lord Elgin it should perhaps be remarked that he was not present during the operation, apart from one brief visit in the spring of 1802.

But far from deploring his agents’ action he urged them to greater speed, anxious to get the marbles away from Greece before the tide turned in favour of the French. By 1803 some hundreds of pieces of sculptured marble, including a column from the Erechtheum, seventeen figures from the Parthenon pediments and fifteen metopes, were boxed in 200 chests waiting to be shipped to Scotland to adorn Broom Hall. Elgin, as a high-ranking diplomat, obtained permission to ship the treasures by HM warships. It would cost him nothing, but he had already paid out ? 28,000 for the work of dismantling and boxing the marbles. His treasures safely packed, he set off home.

Unwisely, he took advantage of the fact that there was a brief peace between Napoleon’s France and England and returned home overland. While he was on route, war broke out again. He was taken prisoner and held as hostage until 1806. Released on parole, he at last reached England to find that his comfortable world was collapsing around his ears. His wife left him for another man and his diplomatic career was in ruins. He lost his seat in the House of Lords- and his marbles, his precious Grecian antiquities, were the subject of a vicious controversy.

The majority of the cases containing the marbles had arrived in England by 1805, the year before Elgin was released. War had broken out between England and Turkey, the French had re-established themselves in Athens, and, smarting over the affair of the Rosetta Stone, had tried to turn the tables by seizing eighty of the chests. English supremacy at sea prevented them from getting their booty away and, in due course, the chests turned up in England. Twelve more chests sank with their freighter off the island of Cerigo, but were raised, two years later, at a cost to Elgin of ? 5,000. Altogether, it was not before 1812 that all the marbles were assembled in England.

Elgin had long since abandoned the idea of taking them to Scotland. Already he was turning over in his mind the possibility of selling them to the government and so recouping his increasingly heavy financial investment in them. Despite the jibes of Payne Knight and his friends the tide of opinion was gradually turning in his favour. Had not the French government actually offered him his freedom if he would but pass the marbles over to France? And had not Ludwig of Bavaria, that prince among collectors, made a special journey to London to try and buy them?

Far more important was the opinion of the artists who came to inspect the marbles stored in a large shed which Elgin had had built on the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly to act as gallery. Undoubtedly the most influential artist to see the marbles was Canova. Posterity owes him a particular debt. When, on his ill-fated journey through Europe, Elgin had visited Canova in Rome, he had asked him to ‘restore’ the sculptures. The Italian resolutely refused. ‘They were the work of the ablest artist the world has even seen,’ he declared. ‘It would be sacrilege for me, or any man, to touch them with a chisel.’

Elgin had had enough. The wife, for whom he had planned to bring Greece to Scotland, had abandoned him. The marbles, which should have earned him fame as a connoisseur, were being used to condemn him as a philistine. He was in need of money. In 1816, therefore, he offered the marbles to the British Government for the sum of ?74,240.

On Elgin’s calculation, it was by no means an outrageous price. The total cost of dismantling, packaging, and, later, salvaging at sea, ran to some ?33,000. Giovanni Lusieri’s salary came to ?12,000- a sum Elgin must have bitterly regretted paying, for it was Lusieri, for some devious reason, who had taken Byron round the Acropolis pointing out the damage that had been wrought. The expense of building the gallery in Park Lane, together with all the incidentals of transporting and guarding the marbles, took care of another ?6,000. Elgin claimed, reasonably enough, that if he had invested the whole sum it would have earned him ?23,240. He added this to the initial outlay and came up with that grand total of ?74,240.

In vain, Elgin protested that such a sum would not cover even his original outlay, much less the interest he had lost upon it. Take it or leave it, was the attitude of the Committee behind their courteous phrases. Elgin took it, bitterly, and stepped out of history, leaving it to the marbles to carry his name down to posterity and obloquy.