HC Deb 24 October 1950 vol 478 cc2751-5

6.10 p.m.

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for accepting very short notice of my supplementary Adjournment subject. At the start, I would say that I am a little conscience-stricken on account of the Government and Opposition Whips because, for too long, I remember having sat on the Government Front Bench and wondered why hon. Members must get up at improbable moments and raise still more improbable subjects. If they will accept that little expression of sympathy from me, perhaps they will bear with me.

I want to raise tonight a subject in which I think many Members on both sides of the House will take an interest when they trouble to think about the history in this country of the valuable contents of our museums. I refer to the fact that there exists in the British Museum one of the six caryatides, this caryatid having been removed from the Erechtheum on the Acropolis over a hundred years ago.

Hon. Members will know that in the newspapers at fairly regular intervals there is correspondence discussing the pros and cons of the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles to Athens. This caryatid is an object which I think can be conveniently segregated from the main Elgin Marbles in that it was from a different part of the Acropolis itself and is a single object. I know that there are arguments frequently used against the returning of the Elgin Marbles. It is said that they were removed at an opportune moment to prevent further damage; that if they were returned to their original position people would not be able to see the detail of the work anyhow; and that in their original form they were probably coloured. But, Sir, I am not really concerned with that sort of argument.

The House will remember that after the Armistice of 1945 many valuable works of art which had been removed by the Germans and their allies from the various capitals and museums of Europe were returned to their original places. Lists of these treasures which had been removed were the subject of very detailed inquiry when the Germans were confronted with their war crimes.

The history of the caryatid in question is that it was removed between the years 1801 and 1803 by James Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin at the time he was the ambassador to the Porte, the "Sublime Porte" as I believe it is correct to call it. The 1945 American edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica says of the Earl of Elgin: During his stay at Constantinople he formed the purpose of removing from Athens the celebrated sculptures now known as the Elgin Marbles. His action was censured by some as vandalism, and doubts were also expressed as to the artistic value of many of the marbles; but he vindicated himself in a pamphlet published in 1810, and entitled 'Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin's Pursuits in Greece.' I think that is quite a good description. In 1816 the collection was purchased by the nation for £36,000, and placed in the British Museum, the outlay incurred by Lord Elgin having been more than £50,000. I detect a suggestion there against the nation for not being very generous. The Encyclopaedia then says that Lord Elgin was a Scottish representative Peer—whatever that may mean—for 50 years.

It is probably true that during the Turkish occupation the Erechtheum as such was very badly misused. As a matter of fact, I understand that the Erechtheum was used as the harem of the then Turkish commandant. That is as it may be. But is it not logical that if, during this last war, the Germans removed works of art and then were forced to return them, we should start considering whether that great 19th century tendency to remove works of art from their original places should be reconsidered?

There are many beautiful things in our museums which one would like to suppose were fully appreciated by the public. I took the trouble to go to the British Museum to look at this caryatid. I had some difficulty in making myself understood, possibly because I am not a classical scholar and perhaps my pronunciation was not very good. The fact is that eventually I found this caryatid in a very secluded corner in a very secluded wing of the British Museum. It was not an object which attracted very much attention, except possibly from classical students and the like.

One must try to weigh in one's mind whether the value to the student world, and to artistically appreciative people as a whole, of the caryatid in its present position outweighs the emotional and, I think, the political value that it would attract if the gesture was made by the Government of returning it to the Greek Government. The Greek Government, as we all know, have had their trials and tribulations. We do not always approve of the form of Government which has persisted in Greece since the end of the war. The fact is that any nation at times needs some sort of focus with which to attract the patriotism and communal feeling of its people. That is especially so in a country where there has been a disastrous civil war. There some instrument is needed whereby popular sentiment can be attracted and forged into a patriotic feeling.

I appeal to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to see whether he can do something in this matter. I should like to thank him for coming at very short notice to listen to what I have to say. I ask him whether he can draw this matter to the attention of the Treasury, or whatever Government Department is concerned, to see whether it is possible to introduce if necessary some sort of Motion not involving legislation, because that would be out of order during an Adjournment Debate, which would permit us to return this caryatid to its original place.

I saw the so-called Porch of the Maidens, which is the relevant spot of the Erechtheum, about three years ago; and I must say that it did not look very good to see five statues with the sixth place occupied by what appeared to be a block of wood. At one time the missing caryatid was replaced by a terracotta replica. I do not think that was the case when I saw it. A block of wood was in its place. No doubt the Germans, or the occupying authorities during the war, created still further havoc and removed that terra-cotta replica. I do not know.

It is now 150 years since this sixth young woman was removed from the stone sorority of the Erechtheum. I think that it is about time that she should be returned. The poor girl is getting tired of being cloistered away in the British museum. It is about time that she went back to the sunny climate of Greece. It is most important that every aid should be given to any nation which is trying to create a new conception of democracy. This would be a very modest contribution. Every aid should be given to this nation in its efforts to promote democracy.

6.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

From the nature of things, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, I have had no notice at all that this subject was to be raised on the Adjournment. I regret to say that offhand I cannot say whether there is any Governmental responsibility in this matter. Even if there were Governmental responsibility, I am not certain whether legislation would be involved to do what my hon. Friend suggests. My qualifications for replying to the hon. Gentleman are really that I am an admirer, as I think we all are, of the works of the Greeks of the fifth century B.C. and because I have visited not only Greece but the British Museum. The only undertaking I can give is that I will pass on to the trustees of the British Museum a full note of my hon. Friend's interesting speech.