A Brief History of British Concern
1. Britons have been concerned about the
dubious circumstances under which the Marbles were acquired from
the beginning of the affair. In the Commons debate of 1816 Mr
Babington thought the mode in which the collection had been acquired
partook of the nature of spoliation. Mr Hammersley objected to
the "dishonesty of the transaction" by which it was
obtained. He proposed that Great Britain should hold the Marbles
"only in trust until they are demanded by the present, or
any future possessors of the city of Athens". Byron's fury
is well known, and other Britons also demurred. Later in the century
the scholar Frederic Harrison denounced the excuses for retention
as "sophism", pointing out (1890) that "Athens
is now a far more central archaeological school than London".
Thomas Hardy wrote a poem (1905) in which the Marbles bewail their
fate. Harold Nicholson urged at least a partial restitution in
minutes to Ramsay MacDonald and later, in 1941, a Tory MP, Thelma
Cazalet, put down a question asking Prime Minister Attlee to introduce
legislation to restore the Marbles to Greece. This evoked considerable
sympathy at the Foreign Office. Mr Attlee rejected the proposal.
In 1961 the case was put to Harold Mamillan,
who thought it "a complicated question". The Foreign
Office re-examined the position. The department head concerned
consulted the British Ambassador in Athens, stressing that the
sculptures had "a close association with the history and
national life of Greece and that they fall into a small and narrowly
restricted category of works of art which should remain in the
[Greek] national heritage". "It seems to us", he
continued, "that the Elgin Marbles represent a special case
to which special arguments apply and which would not necessarily
constitute a precedent if it were decided to return them to Greece".
The Ambassador, Sir Roger Allen, agreed. The length of time the
Marbles had been in London, he wrote, was not sufficient reason
to retain them. "The argument that the Marbles are now closely
associated with British history and British national life seems
to me to be dangerously doubled-edged." Nevertheless, Macmillian
did not pursue the matter.
Again in the 1960s the writer Colin MacInnes
conducted a crusadeeven suggesting the face-saving solution
that the Marbles be lent to Greece in perpetuity. He observed:
Individuals make disinterested gestures rarely
enough, and nations almost never. Yet I have such irrational faith
in the ultimate decency of my fellow-countrymen that I cannot
believe them for ever incapable of doing the right thing. . .
2. THE POSITION
The present British Committee was formed in
1983 under the chairmanship of the late Professor Robert Browning.
Until that time, concern in Britain had been expressed by influential
individuals. From 1983 onwards, it was in some cases co-ordinated
and in others assisted by the Committee. The Committee's membership
is largely of concerned professionals in classical or archaeological
studies, but it is actively supported by people representing a
wide range of professions and interests.
The Committee has promoted the arguments for
restitution through the media and through exhibitions and debates.
It has largely been responsible for ensuring that the true facts
of the case are now accessible to the British public.