Internal British Museum correspondence between J. Forsdyke and the officers concerned

COPY LETTER TO Pryce from Forsdyke


27th September, 1938

The Keeper,

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

My dear Pryce,

You will remember that I told Duveen recently, when he pressed for further cleaning of the Parthenon `Iris', that we could not try to clean these marbles beyond the point of ordinary washing; and I told you at the same time that even this must not be done without advice from Plenderleith, since he instructed me long ago that wetting may be dangerous.

But last week I found by the accident of walking through your Department that the Frieze of the Parthenon was being scraped with copper chisels and that the Helios group, was being skinned with similar tools and a carborundum rubber.

I enclose a report by Plenderleith on the damage done to the Helios group, which I must submit to the Trustees at their next meeting I shall be glad if you will let me have your explanation of what has happened, to be submitted with this report.

Meanwhile I instructed Hinks that all cleaning work on the Parthenon was to be stopped. You may go on again now, so far as is really necessary, but only with our normal washing by skilled men, and with Plenderleith's authority and supervision. I have not had time to enquire into the various degrees of responsibility involved in this disaster, but it is clear that Holcombe must at once give up his position as senior mason. Let Fisher take over the general supervision of the shop, and let Holcombe do nothing but act as foreman of the moving gangs, if you think he is still trustworthy in that position.

Yours sincerely,

(Sd) E. J. Forsdyke

Director and Principal Librarian


Letter from F. N. Pryce to Forsdyke, 29 September 1938

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

British Museum London W.C.1. 29 September 1938

Dear Forsdyke,

The standing orders you gave for the washing of the marble have not been altered in any way by me, but often reiterated. The men all knew they were to wash with Dr. Plenderleith's preparation and do nothing else.

The only time I have ever seen the copper tools in use was when the metopes came down from the walls, and I saw them used to remove the cement, etc, from the edges. It seemed to me legitimate to use thus the stock implements provided in the Department to get rid of accidental accretions. I have regularly inspected the work and never seen the men using the chisels, and think that this abuse must be very occasional. The men when questioned admitted that they have used them on other occasions, but say - only to remove similar accretion. They state that they have never touched the marble with carborundum.

I can offer no explanation of what happened to the Helios in my absence, except that the men may have been trying to cut short the cleaning process and were not under continuous supervision. It would have been better to have had Holcombe in the room; I did not think this necessary, because I had come to consider that the men knew their job.

Yours sincerely,

F. N. Pryce


Extract of Letter from R. P. Hinks to J. Forsdyke dated 26th September 1938

Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities

British Museum

London W.C.1. 26 September 1938

My dear Forsdyke,

I have stopped all cleaning of the Parthenon sculpture, pending your examination of the horse's head and the Iris with Plenderleith. (Pencil mark says Helios?)

Just before I saw you this morning, I went down to Holcombe's shop and found him washing the horse. He was using Plenderleith's mixture with a brush, but on his bench were a tin of some white powder and a bottle of blue stuff. I asked him what they were; he replied evasively that he did not know, and that they were left there from Pinker's day. I told him to take them away. On his bench were several of these copper scrapers. Holcombe told me that he had not used them on the horse's head. He also told me that the two men who were working on the Iris had instructions to use nothing but Plenderleith's soap with a brush and clean water. I went into the Elgin Annexe and found them with a complete array of copper scrapers, which they were actually at that moment using. I told them to stop.

Yours ever,

R. P. Hinks.

[rest of letter not relevant to Parthenon Sculptures]





My attention has been called today to an experiment in the "renovation" of two of the Elgin marbles conducted by the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities without my knowledge, and which I regret to have to condemn in the strongest possible terms.

According to this process, the surface of the marbles has been chipped with a variety of copper chisels, the tool marks being removed thereafter from the marble by rubbing with a piece of carborundum; the surface patina has thus been skinned off, with what I feel to be most disastrous results, exposing the light crystalline sub-surface of the stone in its raw condition, in some places to a depth of about one tenth of an inch below the original tooled surface. It was apparently the intention to remove the whole of the surface of the marble in this way had the work not been interrupted by its chance discovery.

I have examined the tools used.

The whetted cutting edges of the copper chisels are decidedly harder than marble and these edges have nevertheless been blunted and turned over by impact during use.

The interstices of the carborundum block were found to be clogged with marble dust particles and there can be no doubt that its use was not restricted to the sharpening of chisels. Carborundum is more than twice as hard as marble (9:4 on Moh's scale) and that any such process should have been entertained in connection with the Elgin marble collection passes my comprehension.

I much regret that it has been possible for such an unfortunate method to have been tried in view of the work which has already been done to ensure that the mildest possible neutral reagents would alone be used in removing surface dirt. In the two marbles in question, the original surface, already largely gone, can never be restored. It remains to be seen whether any other highly-cleaned Parthenon sculptures owe their surface to surgery rather than washing.

H. J. Plenderleith

26th Sept. 38.


Letter from Arthur S. Holcombe to Sir John Forsdyke.

Oct 4th 1938

Sir John E. Forsdyke

Dear Sir

As you requested I questioned the men and they said that it was after we had cleaned about eight slabs of the Frieze one of the recent lot was found some hard substance. I gave permission to gradually ease it off with, a small copper tool.

I personally have cleaned 10 Slabs & 3 Fragments of the Frieze & three Metopes & I can honestly assure you that the Frieze was cleaned entirely with Dr. Plenderleiths cleaning material. But on the Metopes, I occasionally used a copper tool.

& it seems unthinkable that men who have had dealings with the marbles for so many years & know the penalty of damage should do anything that would in any way damage the Elgin Marbles I can only say whenever I went in to see them at work they were always doing it properly but should any of them have taken an advantage when I was not there. I think Sir John you would be able if you saw them to get at the truth sooner than they would tell me. I sincerely thank you for your great kindness and fairness when I saw you. & you know my heart is in the G&R Department & that I would not tolerate any act of damage.

Yours respectfully

Arthur S. Holcombe