Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex C

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 crusade—even 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. . . .


  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.

Graham Binns

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