1801: Removal of Sculptures from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin’s Men

Commented by: Eleonora Vratskidou

Material description

The watercolour depicts the removal by Lord Elgin’s men of a metope representing a scene from the Centrauromachy (South 26) at the south-east end of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, on July 31, 1801. Τhe image is part of the opulent visual output from Edward Dodwell’s (1777/8-1832) travels to Greece in 1801 and again in 1805-1806, when he was accompanied by the professional Italian painter Simone Pomardi (1757-1830). Though Dodwell was a witness of the represented scene, the work was not produced ad hoc. It was probably made in 1805 by Simone Pomardi and/or Dodwell, based on the drawings Dodwell had made on his first visit in 1801 (McKesson Camp II, 2013, p. 56). This type of collective authorship was often the case across the c.1000 drawings and watercolours produced by the two men during their trips through the country and upon their return to Rome in 1806, documenting the landscape, architectural remains, and scenes of modern life in Ottoman Greece (McKesson Camp II, 2013, p. 32). The painting was never included in any of the three main publications issued from Dodwell’s and Pomardi’s trips (Dodwell, 1819; Dodwell, 1821; Pomardi, 1820); it belonged for a long time to a private collector, before being purchased by the Packard Humanities Institute (Williams, 2009, 28, n. 93), where a total of 857 images from Dodwell’s and Pomardi’s Greek output are held today.

No inscription.

Short Summary

Dodwell/Pomardi’s watercolour is the only known image to record the operation of the removal of the marbles from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin’s team. The watercolour does not figure the discovery or collection of items on the ground (i.e. already fallen parts of the decoration of the temple), but captures rather the extraction of sculptures from the temple itself, a practice not explicitly authorised in the firman obtained from the Ottoman authorities, and remaining until today a major point of contestation of Elgin’s deeds in the debates around the Parthenon marbles. Dodwell was an eyewitness to the first phase of the British ambassador’s archaeological expedition in Greece and has also given a written account of the depicted event in his travelogue. In this regard, Dodwell/Pomardi’s watercolour is an ideal example with which to reflect on the relation between visual and written accounts of translocations.


In 1801, on the grounds of an ambiguous firman, whose original is still missing in the Τurkish archives, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Sublime Porte, obtained permission to measure, draw and make casts of the architectural remains in Athenian monuments, as well as to excavate and remove any pieces of interest in the Acropolis, at the time a military fortress. Under the direction of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821) and Elgin’s chaplain, the Reverend Philip Hunt, a team of artists and craftsmen – a figure painter, two architectural draftsmen and two moulders (formatori) – initiated work on the monuments of the Acropolis in July 1801. They started extracting the sculpted decorations from the Parthenon on July 31, opting first for the best-preserved South metopes. The one represented as being lowered by Elgin’s men in Dodwell/Pimardi’s image was the very first piece of sculpture taken from the temple (Williams, 2009, pp. 20-21).

Edward Dodwell and William Gell (1777-1836), his travel companion during his first trip to Greece who also published extensively on topography and antiquities, arrived in Athens at the same time and stayed until mid-September 1801 (Williams, 2001, p. 126). Athens was a major station in their trip through Greece to study the country and its monuments, but also to obtain pieces of archaeological interest for their collections. Like Elgin’s crews, they were granted unrestricted access to the Citadel of the Acropolis – a privilege difficult to obtain – thanks to the intervention of Lord Elgin himself. As Hunt reported to the ambassador, the two men »almost live in the ruins of the Parthenon« and »sketched ›currente calama‹ (sic)« (Letter from Hunt to Elgin, August 21, 1801, cited in Williams, 2001, p. 124). Apart from their drawings of the city, the Acropolis and the monuments, they also recorded as external observers the activities of Elgin’s men, leaving an inestimable visual archive of the inaugural stages of Elgin’s expedition in Greece.

In his travelogue published in 1819, Dodwell mentions that he witnessed the removal of the sculptures by Elgin’s men in 1801 and made drawings »on the spot, before as well as after« the event, in an attempt to document the »objects which have been taken away or destroyed« (Dodwell, 1819, vol. 1, p. 322). He describes the removal of the sculptures in the harshest terms (»I had the inexpressible mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculptures«, Dodwell, 1819, vol. 1, p. 322), leaving no doubts about his ideological positioning on Elgin’s highly controversial expedition to the Acropolis, decried by authors like Lord Byron as vandalism and theft. The intense reprobation expressed in his text is, though, difficult to discern in this sober visual account made fifteen years earlier.

The image shows the east end of the temple projected against a clouded, inauspicious sky (unusual for the 31st of July in Athens). In the bottom left corner, a man dressed in European costume, possibly Lusieri or Hunt, is pointing a stick and seems to have the overall supervision of the operation. In front of him, three men dressed in local costume hold the rope bringing down the detached marble piece from the top of the temple. The upper end of the rope on top of the building is managed by three men: a local, dressed like the men on the ground and two members of Elgin’s crew, dressed in European clothes. In front of them an Ottoman official smoking a long pipe seems to be supervising their efforts. It is worth noting that Dodwell/Pomardi chose to capture the operation at the moment when the metope is safely brought to the ground and not, for instance, suspended mid-way in the air. A similar operation by Louis-François-Sébastien Fauvel, the agent of the French ambassador to the Porte was alleged to have resulted in the terrible destruction of a metope (Williams, 2001, p. 128). Reverend Hunt could not help confessing his agony to Lord Elgin: »when I saw those beautiful statues hanging in the air, and depending on Ragusan Cordage, I was seized with a trembling and palpitation, which only ceased when they arrived safe to the Ground.« (Hunt, cited in Williams, 2009, p. 21). Remaining purely factual and documentary, the image does not seek to create suspense or to alert the viewer as to the danger the reliefs were in.

On the northern side, another man wearing Ottoman costume and smoking a pipe is shown on top of the temple, while another one is climbing up the wooden ladder constructed by Lusieri to access the upper parts in the east end of the building (Williams, 2001, p. 123). The small mosque built at the beginning of the 18th century, still to be seen in 1842, is depicted in the interior of the temple. Also recorded are some of the humble constructions and dwellings of the Turkish military that surrounded the monument during this time: constructions that other illustrations tended to omit (Hobhouse, 1813, 1, p. 343). It is however questionable whether Dodwell is accurately recording the site in this respect: the small cabin prominently depicted adjacent to the last east column is not shown (as such or in the same position) in other images by William Gell and by Dodwell himself (Williams, 2001, p. 124 and 127, fig. 3 and 4; Williams, 2009, p. 21).

Heaps of fallen stones and marble blocks are depicted in the interior of the temple, while isolated architectural pieces (mainly from columns) are also shown in front of the colonnade, scattered on the ground around the figures: one of the blocks on the right bears a relief, making this the second piece depicted to hold figurative decoration, along with the detached metope. Is this meant to suggest the existence of pieces of interest available on the ground, relativising thus the need for a violent intervention on the temple itself – as Dodwell has argued in his travelogue? In this written account, he contested the archaeological rationale of the expedition and condemned Lusieri’s handling (Dodwell, 1819, p. 323). The tension between Dodwell and Lusieri was actually mutual: in his letters to Elgin, Lusieri complained about Dodwell’s and Gell’s not inconsiderable excavations on the Acropolis, on the grounds that they disregarded the local authorities and aroused discontent, resulting in new restrictions and eventually full prohibition by the Turks on any activity at all on the monuments (Williams, 2001, pp. 149-150).

The first day of intervention in the temple is vividly described in Hunt’s report to Elgin dated 31st July 1801. According to the report, six members of Elgin’s team were helped by twenty Greeks on the ground (Williams, 2009, p. 20). The scene captured by Dodwell/Pomardi is somewhat less crowded, but does not omit to record at least four representatives of the local Ottoman authorities present at the scene, surveying the activities of Elgin’s agents. In the foreground at the centre and further right, two men dressed in oriental costume are seated on marble blocks on the ground, smoking. The first figure at the centre, his hands engaged in a gesture that is not easy to identify, wears a tall fur cap and long priest-like robes, typical of the Greek Archons of Athens (Stackelberg, 1828, pl. 28): elected officials of the local Ottoman administration and tax collectors from wealthy Greek families. The man depicted could perhaps be the British consular agent Logothetis, who played a key role in the negotiations that resulted in Lord Elgin obtaining the sculpted friezes of the Parthenon, and who, in the absence of Lusieri, took charge of the expedition crews, assuring them access to the monuments for their operations (Williams, 2009, p. 13). The clothes of the second man, shrouded in the smoke of his pipe, further right, allude to another seminal figure involved in the operation, the Disdar of Athens, military commandant of the Citadel, who had the last word on every intervention of Elgin’s team on the monuments and was the receiver of Lusieri’s payments for the removed sculptures (Williams, 2001, pp. 154-155). Dodwell had depicted the Disdar in several of his drawings (Mc Kesson Camp II, 2013, pp. 158-159; Dodwell, 1821: Bazar of Athens). Among them is another view of the south-east corner of the Parthenon, in which the commandant is similarly seated on the ground smoking his pipe in front of the temple with its friezes still intact, but with a wooden platform hanging from the cornice to permit the drawing of the metopes from a closer distance. This view belongs to the Elgin collection, probably a gift to the British ambassador by Dodwell himself in gratitude for his facilitating their access to the monuments (Williams, 2001, p. 126). The Disdar’s presence on the scene surveying this novel major intervention in the temple is almost certain; less likely is the presence of Logothethis (I have not yet been able to consult Hunt’s report (Broomhall, Fife, Scotland), a source which could verify this).

Both men seem fully detached from the scene, idly absorbed in their thoughts. Sitting impassively, they form the sole audience of the scene: nothing in their attitude suggests disapproval, discomfort or resistance to the ongoing removal. Ιs Dodwell’s choice to depict the local authorities as present at the inaugural dismantling of the monument a way to highlight their indifference and their collaboration with the British, in exchange for economic gains and micropolitical advantages, as opposed to the indignation of the Athenian people for the taking of the sculptures? As he emphatically noted in his written account, not only did the Athenians, Greeks and Turks »lament the ruin that was committed«, but they also »loudly and openly blamed their sovereign for the permission he had granted« (Dodwell, 1819, vol. 1, p. 323).


Edward Dodwell, A Classical and Topographical Tour Through Greece, During the Years 1801, 1805, and 1806. 2 vols. London 1819.

Edward Dodwell, Views in Greece from Drawings. London 1821.

Edhem Eldem, »From Blissful Indifference to Anguished Concern: Ottoman Perceptions of Antiquities, 1799–1869«, in: Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik, and Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753–1914, Istanbul 2011, pp. 281-330.

John McKesson Camp  (ed.), In Search of Greece: Catalogue of An Exhibit of Drawings at the British Museum by Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi from the Collection of the Packard Humanities Institutes, Los Altos, California 2013.

Simone Pomardi, Viaggio nella Grecia fatto da Simone Pomardi negli anni 1804, 1805, e 1806. Rome 1820, 2 vols.

Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, Costumes & Usages des Peuples de la Grèce Moderne dessinés sur les lieux. Paris [1828].

Dyfri Williams, »Lord Elgin’s firman«, in: Journal of the History of Collections (January 2009), pp. 1-28. doi:10.1093/jhc/fhn033.

Dyfri Williams, »›Of Publick utility and publick property›: Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Sculptures«, in: Athéna Tsingarida and Donna Kurtz (eds.), Appropiating Antiquity. Saisir l’Antique: collections et collectionneurs d’antiques en Belgique et en Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle, pp. 103-164. Bruxelles 2002.

Cite this article as:
1801: Removal of Sculptures from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin’s Men, commted by Eleonora Vratskidou, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Bildquellen zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1801-removal-of-sculptures-from-the-parthenon-by-lord-elgins-men, published on 03.12.2019.
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