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10 January 2023

Stop dithering, British Museum – give the Elgin Marbles back

Why trustees need to act now. Plus: political interventions at the ENO, the National Gallery and the Tate.

By Andrew Marr

Give them back. For goodness’ sake, just give them back. In June I spoke to George Osborne, now chair of the trustees at the British Museum (though he has, I believe, some other jobs as well). I asked him about the Parthenon marbles, known in Britain as the Elgin marbles – the largely headless, armless frieze of chunky men, draped women and confused-looking horses created by Phidias (Plutarch tells us) around 430 BC.

Much of it now resides not above Athens’s most famous war memorial and civic bank but in an echoing, grey chamber in the British Museum. That’s because the Parthenon, after being converted into a mosque under Turkish rule, had been used as a munitions dump and partly blown up in 1687. In 1800, Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, employed a team of artists to sketch the ruins, and claimed the following year he had instructions from the Turkish authorities to remove them for safekeeping. Eventually Bruce took them to London. It’s not true that this was considered acceptable at the time: among others, Lord Byron protested vociferously at the vandalism and theft.

But it is true that their presence in London changed British culture, sparking a revived craze for Hellenism and influencing artists into modern times. You only need to see them to realise that without those wrinkled mysteries, there would have been no Henry Moore.

The point is they are not ours – they are a central part of Greek heritage. Osborne knows this. In June he told me there was “a deal to be done where we can tell both stories in Athens and in London”. When I asked if they could be moved to Greece, at least for a while, he replied “this kind of arrangement” might be suitable. The argument over their repatriation has been heating up ever since. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that when the marbles go home to Greece, they’ll regularly pop back again via Heathrow. But it doesn’t mean our museums will empty of everything not made in Shropshire or Essex. Each case is different. The Parthenon is to Greece what Stonehenge is to England; if Stonehenge was moved to Texas, we’d feel the same. Sending them home, open-heartedly and without conditions, would right an old wrong and do a lot for Britain’s shaky reputation as a reliable European partner. The museum, in short, must get on with it. Give. Them. Back.

When levelling up goes wrong

Words I’m slightly surprised to be writing: I agree with Nadine Dorries. The former culture secretary has attacked Arts Council England (ACE) for its decision to demolish English National Opera – a company that has done all possible to encourage working-class and younger audiences – by withdrawing its funding. She suggested ACE made the decision as part of a politically motivated bureaucratic protest against some of the consequences of levelling up. “You want levelling up, Nad? Well, here’s what it looks like.” If that’s the way the council was really thinking, it would be beyond disgraceful. It needs to explain itself.

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Harry’s distraction act

And so from opera to soap. Republicans have long argued that part of the “function” of monarchy is to distract the masses from what really matters. Whether it is the dramas of Shakespeare, Georgian misbehaviour or the clattering processions of Victorian times, the main thing about royalty is its ability to get itself talked about. If the royal family is not the opium of the people then it’s the people’s pot. Harry is widely criticised for trying to bring down the monarchy. But in trying to get Britain talking about his bare buttocks being spanked by an older woman, his frostbitten penis, and getting floored by big brother Wills – rather than about the NHS or inflation – surely Harry is proving himself the most traditional royal of all?

[See also: Why the British Museum should return the Elgin Marbles]

Repressed melodies

I’m keen to promote the work of female composers on my new Classic FM show (Sunday mornings, 10am to 1pm), not out of box-ticking but because, as they have been elbowed out, we have missed out on so much wonderful music. We began with Louise Farrenc, a Parisian composer of three symphonies and a successful fighter for equal pay; and Augusta Holmés, French but of Irish descent, whose work included symphonic poems, patriotic oratorios, songs and opera. She was greatly admired by Saint-Saëns, but at times had to use a male pseudonym. More to come.

There’s growing interest in the painting of forgotten female artists as well: such as the National Gallery’s show comparing Manet and his pupil Eva Gonzalés. “Woke” reassessment of art history is easily mocked, but it’s also revealing a glorious flood of work the patriarchy kept stuffed under its grand walnut desk.

The shock of the old

Ambling lately into the Tate Britain, I was struck by the dominance of relatively old-fashioned representational art with a strong political twist. Is this something in the wider culture or just a quirk of curating? In the main hall, there’s the huge, colourful, pugnacious The Procession by the British-Guyanese sculptor Hew Locke, referring to migration, the sugar trade and symbols of nationality.

Beyond it is a display of fictitious black portraits, once seen, never to be forgotten. Painted with gusto and subtlety by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, it refers to earlier traditions in painting. So too do modern frescoes by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings dealing with LGBTQ experience – pictures in conversation with Renaissance art and yet utterly modern. I was brought up to think of abstract art and conceptual art as modern. Am I, perhaps, now out of date?

[See also: The secret lives of Katherine Mansfield]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor