Lord Elgin and Edward Dodwell meet again 200 years after their travels in occupied Greece.
Today, it is a rare opportunity to witness the actions of these two travelers, one a collector and the other a painter. Their endeavors are on display at the British Museum – Lord Elgin in the permanent collection and Edward Dodwell in the current exhibit “In Search of Classical Greece Travel Drawings of Edward Dodwell, and Simone Pomardi 1805 to 1806” on exhibit until April 28, 2013.
“70 views exploring the beauty of the Greek landscape and picturesque ruins of Classical civilisation have been selected from an archive of over 1,000 images. Many of them are highly finished in watercolour and have never been on display before. They record buildings that have disappeared or changed and landscapes that are now unrecognisable under modern cities.”
“Disappeared or changed”. An ancient culture exposed to the elements of nature – both natural and man. As beautiful as Dodwell and Pomardi’s paintings may be, Dodwell’s words bear witness to the destruction of ancient monuments he so admired. His words may not be included in the exhibit, but, they and others who witnessed the destruction (or ‘disappearance’) of the Acropolis are preserved.
In Travelers’ Greece Memories of an Enchanted Land complied by John B. Tomkinson, Dodwell, who traveled to occupied Greece between 1801 and 1806 wrote,
“The Destruction of the Parthenon Again
During my first tour to Greece I had the inexpressible mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculpture, and instead of the picturesque beauty and high state of preservation in which I first saw it, it is now comparatively reduced to a state of shattered desolation. It is indeed impossible to suppress the feelings of regret which must arise in the breast of every traveller who has seen these temples before and since their late dilapidation. The whole proceeding was so unpopular in Athens, that it was necessary to pay the labourers more than their usual profits before any could be prevailed upon to assist in this work of profanation.
It is to be hoped that the ancient remains of Greece will for the future be preserved with more respect than they have hitherto experienced. The Constantinopolitan patriarch has been induced by the Greeks, who are fondly anticipating the regeneration of their country, to issue circular orders to all the Greeks not to disturb any ancient remains; and neither to assist nor connive at their destruction nor removal, under pain of excommunication.”
As Dodwell described his “mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculpture”, he must have witnessed the destruction of the Parthenon or the removal of the Caryatid for the personal collection of Lord Elgin. Yet, being a gentleman, he did not name in his journal how a fellow countryman raped the cultural heritage of Greece.
According to notes in Travelers’ Greece Tomkinson introduces other witness accounts with the lines:
Edward Clarke (1801) The “collection” of Greek statuary culminated in the removal of the Parthenon Marbles by Lusieri on behalf of Lord Elgin.
F.S.N. Douglas (1802) One of the Caryatids, the six pillars of the Erechtheion in the form of maidens, was removed by Lord Elgin. Douglas writes,
“An illiterate servant of the Disdar of Athens … assured me that when the five other (maidens) had lost their sister, they manifested their affliction by filling the air at the close of the evening with the most mounful sighs and lamentations, that he himself had heard their complaints, and never without being so much affected as to be obliged to leave the citadel till they had ceased; and that the ravished sister was not deaf to their voice, but astonished the lower town where she was placed by answering in the same lamentable tones. We cannot refuse to acknowledge that the Athenians are not so indifferent as it has been sometimes represented to the wonders and monuments of their city.”
Lord Elgin did not silently in the middle of the night acquire his ‘gifts’. He rather loudly took them in broad daylight and now they are on display in the permanent collection of the British Museum, in Room 18 and Room 19 on the ground floor. The Parthenon Marbles, the solitary Caryatid sister removed from her five sisters of the Erechtheion Temple at the Acropolis and other Greek monuments are presented to the public as though the title of ownership is passed on despite devious circumstances.
In its defense, the British Museum writes,
“It is a popular misconception that Elgin purchased the antiquities. In fact the firman was granted to him as a personal gesture after he encouraged the British forces in their fight to drive the French out of Egypt, which was then an Ottoman possession.”
A gift, a bribe, a purchase … that aside, curious an employee of a government, brought these monuments home as a personal collection and then had the audacity to sell them to the very government that had been his employer. Eventually in an effort to alleviate his personal financial debt, Lord Elgin sold these Greek monuments to the British Parliament that then gifted the collection to the British Museum.
Once again, two foes meet in spirit, Lord Elgin and Edward Dodwell: one who destroyed and collected ancient Greek monuments for his personal gain and the other who bore witness by painting and writing of the beauty of ancient Greece.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C. Am thankful to Nikos Chatziandreou, editor of AcropolisofAthens.gr for recommending Travlers’ Greece and alerting me to the Dodwell exhibit. Follow him on Twitter at
@nchatziandreou @AcropolisAthens .