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William St Clair: The Tireless Campaigner for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles

William St Clair Parthenon
Part of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. Credit: Paul Hudson/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

When William St Clair passed away on June 30, Greece lost one of the most ardent campaigners for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.

The Parthenon Marbles are a collection of sculptures taken from the Parthenon frieze by Lord Elgin in the 1801-1812 period and transported to England.

Today, the Elgin marbles — as they have been dubbed by the British — are on display at the British Museum, as Elgin was exonerated after a public debate in Parliament and sold them to the British government in 1816.

Certain people in England, such as Lord Byron, likened Elgin’s acquisition of the precious marbles to vandalism and looting.

In the 1980s, Greece started a campaign asking for the marbles to return where they belong, to the Acropolis Parthenon. The campaign continues to this day, with the British Museum claiming ownership.

William St Clair’s four writings on the Parthenon sculptures, stress their cultural  value and the importance of their return to their righteous owner, Greece.

The British historian’s campaign brought him to a confrontation with the British Museum in London over the ownership rights of the priceless artifacts.

Uncovering a scandal

In a new chapter in the third edition of his book Lord Elgin and the Marbles, the historian exposed that museum staff caused irreparable damage to the sculptures in an effort to clean them in the late 1930s.

St Clair came to the abuse of the sculptures by accident. After going through the British Museum’s records for research purposes in 1996, he came upon a discovery:

In the late 1930s, donor Lord Duveen had ordered that the Parthenon Marbes should be cleaned and polished.

The museum’s staff scrubbed the marbles using copper brushes and caustic materials, causing irreparable damage to the sculptures.

According to St Clair, 80 percent of the historic surfaces of the marbles was lost forever when they were scrubbed with metal scrapers to make them look white.

It is said that Lord Duveen disliked the gold-colored patina that covered their surface, which in fact was the residue of their original bright paint.

In his caustic style, the historian wrote that the museum’s cleaning methods would have “disgraced a municipal cemetery,” and “defied all notions of conservation, then as now.”

After that, many of the marbles were re-stained with a colored coating, with St Clair believing that the museum deliberately tried to cover up the incident.

The uncovering of the scandal added more ammunition to the Greek government’s ongoing efforts to have the sculptures return to the Parthenon.

After William St Clair’s findings, then Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, handed a formal request for an independent inquiry to assess the damage to the British ambassador to Athens.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou who inspected the marbles in London claimed the damage was clear even to a non-expert.

Nevertheless, the British Museum’s claim is that the sculptures were sold to Lord Elgin by the Ottomans when they ruled Greece, around 1800.

Lord Elgin then sold them to the British Museum for £35,000 in 1816. According to the British Museum, the Greeks wrongfully believe that the Ottomans had no right to sell the marbles and refer to them as “stolen.”

William St Clair: An academic philhellene

Born on December 7, 1937, William St Clair was a renowned British historian, academic and researcher who graduated from St John’s College, Oxford.

He had a rich academic career at the Royal Society of Literature; All Souls College, Oxford;
Huntington Library, California; British Academy; Trinity College, Cambridge; Institute of English Studies; Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge and Harvard.

St Clair was mostly interested in the history of books and reading, but his other great interest was Ancient Greece.

His writings on the Parthenon Sculptures are: Elgin and the Marbles, (1967; 3rd Revised Edition, 1998); The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Authenticity and Accountability (1999), The Parthenon in 1687: New Sources (2004), and Imperial Appropriations of the Parthenon (2006).

St Clair also wrote That Greece Might Still Be Free. The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (1972) which was awarded the Heinemann prize by the Royal Society of Literature.

The British historian travelled to Greece many times and has visited most archaeological sites and museums.

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