Scanning the Elgin Marbles

Guerrilla archaeologists

Sherds was amused to read recently about a group of archaeologists who took digital scans of the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles ‘by stealth’ after the British Museum refused a formal request from the Oxford-based Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) for permission to scan the sculptures. The story was seen as a further blow to the argument that the Marbles must stay in London – replicas ‘accurate to a millimetre’ could be displayed at the British Museum and few visitors would know the difference. That argument cuts both ways, of course: replicas could equally well be displayed in Athens.

Copying the Parthenon sculptures is not a new idea. Casts were made of the carvings in situ in the late 18th century, even before Lord Elgin’s men began to remove them. Plaster copies of the Marbles were distributed to museums and galleries throughout Europe when they first arrived in London between 1801 and 1812. Louis Fauvel, the French diplomat, artist and ‘Father of Archaeology in Greece’, also made casts of those Parthenon sculptures that remained in Athens, and these were originally displayed in London alongside those removed by Elgin.

In fact, the Elgin Room at the British Museum resembled an incomplete jigsaw. Between 1812 and the outbreak of the First World War, new pieces were regularly added whenever sculptural fragments were found on the Acropolis that could be identified as having once formed part of the Parthenon series. Most of these early casts survive, and they are now of great value because they preserve details lost to zealous cleaning and atmospheric pollution. They were removed in the 1930s to the British Museum’s vast and unseen collection of moulds and casts that includes Egyptian, Central American, and Assyrian sculpture, as well as Greek and Roman.

right One of four Portland stone sculptures on the theme of the seasons on the façade of 42 Kingsway, built in 1906 as the offices of The Garden magazine.
One of four Portland stone sculptures on the theme of the seasons on the façade of 42 Kingsway, built in 1906 as the offices of The Garden magazine. IMAGE: Christopher Catling.

The time has surely come for the British Museum to do something more positive with the Parthenon Marbles than leave them in limbo. A special exhibition devoted to these sculptures and casts is long overdue. The Museum seems fearful of doing anything official that might reignite the fires of controversy over repatriation. [Their position can be read at]

London at its zenith

Carvings from a much later era are the subject of a joint conference devoted to the theme of ‘Architectural Sculpture in Britain 1850-1914’, to be hosted by the Victorian Society and the Public Statues and Sculpture Association at the Art Workers’ Guild, Queen Square, London, on Saturday 17 September 2022. It is heart-warming to see that the legacy of this period is at last being recognised.

Most of the UK’s cities benefited, during the Victorian and Edwardian age, from the public spirit of architectural clients who were happy to pay for richly decorated façades that created streetscapes of enduring interest – purely for the benefit of the passing public. Nobody inside the building could possibly have seen the decorated doorcases, carved keystones and swags, the statuary, the Classical pilasters and capitals, the terracotta plaques, the mosaic work, the corner towers, cupolas, and turrets that decorate the commercial premises and public buildings of this period.

Andrew Saint, General Editor from 2006 to 2015 of that admirable institution The Survey of London, agrees. Based on his deep knowledge of the capital’s buildings, he has written a book called London 1870-1914: a city at its zenith (Lund Humphries, £29.95), arguing that the London that we see today is very largely the product of this period.

The City Beautiful

London must then have been one huge building site. Places that attract visitors today in their thousands were still being constructed, from the frontage to Buckingham Palace, the Victoria Memorial, the Mall, and Admiralty Arch to the department stores of Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Piccadilly. Andrew reminds us that the 1890s and 1900s were the heyday of the City Beautiful Movement, a progressive social reform philosophy – largely associated with Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, and Washington DC – that promoted monumental grandeur in public buildings as a catalyst for social harmony and ‘the fostering of moral and civic virtue’ among urban populations.

Architectural display was regarded as the mark of civilised urban society, and the many fine buildings London has from this period include the Old Bailey, Selfridges, and several monumental town halls, including County Hall (opposite the Palace of Westminster). Another great building of this era is the Old War Office on the site of the former Whitehall Palace, currently hidden behind hoardings as it is being converted into a five-star hotel and expensive apartments branded the OWO. If you are rich enough, you will soon be able to sleep in the suite where John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in the early 1960s, entertained Christine Keeler in his wood-panelled office, or follow in the footsteps of the fictional James Bond and enter the building via the inconspicuous ‘spies door’ at the rear of the building.

Sweetness and Light

Several of the large hotels built in London during the latter part of the reign of Queen Victoria looked to Second Empire Paris as their inspiration – hence the style of the station hotels at Paddington, Charing Cross, and Victoria, with their pavilion roofs and banks of fancy dormer windows. But Paris fell out of favour thanks to the bloodshed and bitterness of the Third Republic, while Italianate and Gothic were ‘worn out’ as style templates. In came the home-grown Queen Anne style, bringing what Andrew describes as ‘an optimism and individualism to English architecture’.

The Victorian Society, which included Cowbridge School on its 2019 list of the Top Ten Most Endangered Buildings, has been helping local people in their campaign to save the building. IMAGE: Tom M.

It is intriguing to discover from Andrew’s book that the School Board for London was an early adopter of this style, which we tend to associate with the suburban villas of Bedford Park, Hampstead Hill, Belsize Park, or the studio houses of Chelsea artists. With a limited budget, the School Board was often forced to buy cramped, undersized, and awkwardly shaped sites for its buildings, but the Board architects rose to the occasion, adopting the ‘picturesque irregularity’ so characteristic of the Queen Anne style to create buildings that stand as proud beacons of civilisation.

Threat to pioneering school

It is the fate of many of those board schools to have been converted more recently into trendy apartments. In Wales, a similar conversion scheme is being promoted by campaigners as a way of saving Cowbridge Girls School, in the Vale of Glamorgan. Completed in 1896, this was the first secondary school to be built in the UK specifically for girls, making state-funded secondary education available to girls for the first time (England did not follow suit until 1902).

The Hafod Housing Association is seeking permission to demolish the school and build 30 new flats and four houses, arguing that it lacks the funds to preserve the old buildings. These survive within the original railed forecourt and include purpose-built laboratories – testimony to the school’s pioneering approach to science education for girls – and a ‘baronial’-style hostel range, with crow-stepped gables, oriel window, and prominent corner chimneys, paid for by local benefactor John Bevan to accommodate weekly boarders from outlying areas.

The people of Cowbridge are proud of their school’s heritage and have petitioned the Welsh Senedd, saying that the school building ‘survives as a prominent and attractive testimony to a pivotal moment in Welsh history and the equal opportunities afforded to underprivileged girls’. SAVE Britain’s Heritage, working with architect Philip Tilbury, has proposed an alternative renovation scheme that would see the school converted into 23 apartments, with an additional 12 new apartments and two new houses to be built around two separate courtyards on adjacent land. Meanwhile, the school’s future remains in limbo, the buildings neglected and overgrown.

The case of Cowbridge illustrates how badly planning laws need to be reformed in favour of the retention of historic buildings that make a positive contribution to the built environment, regardless of whether or not they are listed. In a case like this, where an economically viable alternative to demolition exists, common sense and community values should surely prevail – not to mention the growing realisation that recycling historic buildings is essential to cutting the UK’s carbon emissions and meeting the target of being carbon neutral by 2050.