The Elgin Marbles

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When last year the British Museum lent the statue of Ilissos, a Greek river god, to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to help celebrate that institution’s 250th anniversary, I was reminded that the ‘Elgin Marbles’ , of which this sculpture is one, had also made an appearance in the Papers of James Watt and Family.

Thadjusted elgin005ee statues have been in the British Museum since 1816, when the British Parliament purchased the collection from Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and presented them to the Museum. Elgin had removed the sculptures from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens during his time as Ambassador to the Ottoman court in Istanbul , 1798 – 1812 (Greece was then part of the Ottoman Empire) and arranged their transport to England.

Even before their move to the British Museum, John Henning (1771-1851), a Scottish artist who made portrait medallions and cameos, had visited Burlington house to draw and make copies of the sculptures. He also studied drawings of the sculptures by earlier artists and went on to create slate moulds of the sculptures which he used to reproduce the frieze from the temple as a miniature version two inches high. One copy of the frieze was purchased by William IV for £42 but Henning was unable to obtain a patent and did not profit from his invention. The British Museum has preserved a copy of the frieze and the original moulds.

adjusted elgin004John Henning wrote to James Watt on 27 February 1812 to ask for the name of a tool shop in London ’where a great variety of curious tools……might be had’, which Watt had mentioned to him when he made a model and drawing of Watt in Edinburgh [MS 3219/4/51/52]. Henning had recently moved to London and asked also for an introduction to Wedgwood and to Rundle and Bridges, jewellers. On 17 May 1816, Henning wrote to James Watt for advice about the tools required to engrave steel, and mentioned that he had been paying ‘unremitting attention to make studies from what I conceive to be the finest works of Antiquity’, including the Elgin Marbles: ‘I have a Folio of almost the whole of them many of them I have modelled and within the last two years I have carved several of them in Ivory from which I intend to make casts in Enamel and plaster.’ [MS 3219/4/53/47]. The following year, he sent a printed notice advertising his miniature version of the Parthenon frieze to James Watt jr. [MS 3219/6/2/H/47]

adjusted elgin002aAnother acquaintance of the Watt family who was impressed by the sculptures and produced a book of drawings of them was Richard Lawrence (d. c.1828), veterinary surgeon, who had given both the Watt and the Boulton family assistance over purchase and care of their horses when he lived in Birmingham. He appears to have fallen into debt and decided to move to London late in 1813, where he engaged himself for a year, at £300, to Captain Blagraves’s Veterinary Establishment, Oxford Street, to lecture on the horse. [Letter to James Watt, 16 December 1813: MS 3219/4/51/58]

In 1818 he produced: ‘Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon at Athens, exemplified by fifty  etchings, selected from the most beautiful and least mutilated specimens in that collection, and accompanied with explanatory and critical remarks on the style, composition and peculiar excellence of those transcendent relics of Greek sculpture’. (London) 1818. (1 vol.)  [MS 3219/9/5/29]  

The illustrations with this blog post are all from Lawrence’s book.

Fiona Tait, Archivist

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