A tribute to Melina Mercouri


Μελίνα Μερκούρη (amaelia) made her name in the west with “Never on a Sunday” and “Topkapi” but she was also a staunch campaigner against the Greek military Junta in 67-74 ending up as an MP in the Greek Parliament and the PASOK minister for culture. Her statue, or rather her bust, is at the entrance to Plaka, opposite the temple of Zeus in Athens. It is an odd piece of work and I drew it a while ago. I am afraid the notebook is now overwritten with things about Victorian poetry but the statue comes out fairly well.

The “Elgin” Marbles

During her campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles, all captured on the evening TV news, unfortunately, she began weeping in the wrong part of the British museum and needed to be guided to the Duveen gallery where she wept again with passion to protest at the theft of these great pieces of Greek Art. Elgin acquired the marbles between 1799 and 1805 from the Ottomans who were, at the time, in  overall control. It can be argued that the Ottomans, though legally in possession of Greece, could therefore sell the sculptures to whoever wanted to buy them. However, the moral case is less clear: the Ottomans twice used the Acropolis as a weapons depot and twice saw bits of the monument blown sky-high, once in 1687 and then again during the war of independence when, to stop the Ottomans’ further destruction of the site, and their attempt to take the iron from the columns to melt into bullets, the Greek armies offered to give them ammunition. The whole Acropolis, frankly, was in danger of destruction as the war inched towards the capital and Elgin can be seen as the saviour, rescuing great art from the jaws of bellicose chaos.

Elgin’s plans:

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin planned for the marbles to undergo extensive restoration but the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova refused to do the work. Elgin’s return journey was disastrous. He found himself repeatedly arrested by Napoleon as he tried to get back home. Some of the marbles sank near the Greek island of Cythera on the voyage back to Scotland.  The rest were later bought by the British parliament from Elgin in 1816 and presented to the British Museum under the particular Parliamentary directive of the Local and Personal Acts 56 George III c.99 of 1816.. Other museums with bits of the Acropolis include: The Louvre, Copenhagen National Museum, Wurzburg museum, the Vatican, The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Glyptothek in Munich. The marbles in the British Museum are held under an act of Parliament from 1963  (the British Museum Act) which prevents the museum from permanently loaning any objects that are unique or that are not considered “unfit to be retained and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students”. The debate about the sculptures is ongoing and fairly heated, but I think the fact that there are other pieces elsewhere weakens the British claim to be housing the marbles in a way that guarantees access and comparison with other works. While other museums retain pieces, though, the argument by Athens for repatriation is also weakened. A loan would be reasonable, but I think the intensity of feeling about repatriation means that it would never be a temporary loan and so would be illegal under the terms of the 1963 act. The Elgin collection is more than just the Parthenon marbles- there is a large scarab beetle from Istanbul and some Egyptian stuff as well as some bronze tableware and jewellery. Duveen was an antique dealer involved in a dispute about “La Bella Ferronniere” and a number of fakes in his collection. The Duveen Gallery was designed by the american architect John Russell Pope. Much of Duveen’s work was about selling fine art to America and his trade forms the core of the great American Museums’ various art collections.

It is very unclear why Elgin was granted the firman that allowed him to take the marbles in the first place. The general understanding is that this was a personal mark of gratitude by the Ottoman representative in Athens for Elgin’s help in the Ottoman war against the French that had been going on in Egypt. In fact, two such permissions were granted. The first in 1800 and the second to  Sir Robert Adair in 1810. As a rule, the focus tends to be on the first firman which survives only in an italian copy and which has been argued particularly by a professor in Crete not to be a firman at all. It was this firman, after all that formed the basis of Parliamentary approval to buy the marbles, though they not only did not have the original Turkish Firman; they did not even have the italian copy. They simply had an english translation that the Rev. Philip Hunt insisted was genuine. It is not at all clear which of the three documents was signet by Seged Abdullah Kaimacan.  Much of the debate in parliament, anyway, was about whether the marbles were genuine or simply Roman copies of the originals. An english writer claimed at the time that an Ottoman official tried in vain to stop Elgin from taking the marbles.


byron and keats

There were protests about the sale of the marbles from the very beginning. Here is an extract from ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. There was also “the Curse of Minerva” which was never intended for publication in the UK. Keats, however, also writes about the marbles but only after seeing them in London and while he writes two poems specifically about the marbles, their inspiration leads to the Ode on a Grecian Urn and his idea about “truth and beauty”. I think he must have approved of the sale as did Goethe. When Goethe saw the marbles in London he claimed ‘the beginning of a new age for Great Art’. Certainly the marbles were deeply inspiring.

Cleaning the Marbles

There was the original method of severing the frieze from the walls of the Acropolis itself. The architect hired by Elgin for this task, an Italian man called Lusieri, confessed, “I was obliged to be a little barbarous”. But the most worrying bit of the Elgin/Parthenon marbles story is the cleaning of the frieze in 1938 in preparation for the move in London from the Elgin gallery to the newly-built Duveen. Over a period of 15 months, copper chisels and carborundum were applied to the sculptures to clean them. The man in charge, F.N. Pryce and his assistant, Roger Hinks, both of whom promptly resigned, seemed to think that the appropriate colour for the marbles was white and, therefore, they made an effort to get rid of the yellow/brown patina. The story did not come to light until 1950 when an Italian, Cesare Brandi, published a critical report about cleaning Classical pieces in general. Later, in 1984, the diaries of Roger Hinks were published detailing the cleaning process and, in the same year, the Greek government renewed a demand first made by Hugh Hammersley in 1816 for the repatriation of the marbles through UNESCO. The request was formally rejected by the British Government in 1984, and further demands were made in 1985 and 1997. It remains the position of the British Government (as stated by Tony Blair in To Vima in March 2001) that the marbles should remain in London and should be accessed by the public free of charge. There is a detailed account in Christopher Hitchens’ book The ElginMarbles – should they be returned to Greece? (1987). A later book, Lord Elgin & the Marbles (1998) by William St Clair makes use of restricted papers about the Hinks/Pryce cleanup which led to a conference in November 1999.

Now, all of this sounds fairly catastrophic until placed in context because the Greeks used a similar cleaning process on the Hephaisteion in 1953. In addition, the Athens pollution has seriously damaged the existing sculptures: Olga Palagia writes in The Pediments of the Parthenon (Brill Leiden, 1993) that, when sculptures from the west pediment were removed in 1977,  “the industrial pollution of modern Athens had wreaked havoc upon their delicate surface”. A paper by I Jenkins (Cleaning and Controversy) deals with the whole sorry subject.

There have been two modern Greek positions on the marbles and that is unfortunate. The first was a suggestion of a joint and permanent exhibition in Athens. This would have recognised the moral authority of the original sale to Elgin while allowing that the marbles might be better viewed in the context of their original setting in Athens. The second was a demand for the return of the looted property of the State. Anything else would, said Antonis Samaras for the Greek government in 2009, “condone the snatching of the marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” This was an uncompromising and rather silly posture that effectively makes the repatriation of the marbles impossible in the near future, because any arrangement would imply that the British government in the early 19th Century was covering up a crime. The issue of the legality of the sale was in fact debated in the House of commons before the marbles were ever bought from Elgin. I think if there had only ever been a single Firman (permission) granted by the Ottomans, then the sale would not have been recognised as wholly legitimate. But there were two. Even so, Elgin demanded just over £70,000 and received only £35,000 from parliament. This was not a profitable venture and the acquisition of the marbles effectively bankrupted Elgin.

Many years later, on June 21st 2009, the new museum in Athens, designed by Bernard Tschumi, opened. The empty spaces along corridors housing the Parthenon frieze provide a reason and an urgency for reuniting all the various parthenon marbles, as indeed the museum’s initial director, Dimitrios Pandermalis, fully intended. the spaces in the exhibition amount to cultural blackmail, and it is effective.

The Future:

I think now, however, as the various personalities dig in (the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor, would not countenance any return when the Athens’ museum finally opened), there remains only one course of action available. In the next few years, Britain should lend the Athens museum a piece of the Parthenon frieze and only when it is duly returned to the UK, will there be a general sense of reassurance about the legal ownership of the marbles. At that point, and it might take an act of parliament to arrange this with the present trustees of the Museum, a much bigger portion of the collection might then be packed off to be displayed in a semi-permanent format in Athens.

Our Film, Following Lear:

Anyway, Melina Mercouri’s character, Ilya, in “Never on a Sunday/ Ποτέ Την Κυριακή” is the basis of one of the animated characters we have devised for the Edward Lear Film – though in the song, she is married and has “lost” her husband. David Watson has written a sensational bit of music to the Lear Limerick about “an old man of Corfu” and Vassilisso Vasilinho wrote the very funny words in Greek. Katerina Tiropoli did the voice and Duncan Skinner did the english voice- he will be a “Bud Flannigan type”. Here are some initial drawings of the Melina Mercouri character..

melina 2

moleskin again new 1075

moleskin again new 1076

moleskin again new 1077

moleskin again new 1078


Author: timewilson

animator director and teacher

4 thoughts on “A tribute to Melina Mercouri”

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