Bruce, Thomas, seventh Earl of Elgin and eleventh Earl of Kincardine 1766-1841, was born on 20 July 1766, and succeeded to his earldoms in 1771 on the death, without issue, of his elder brother, William Robert. He was educated at Harrow and Westminster, and studied at St. Andrews University and in Paris. In 1785 he entered the army (major-general 1809, lieutenant-general 1814, and general 1837). His diplomatic career began in 1790, when he was sent on a special mission to the Emperor Leopold. In 1792 he was appointed envoy at Brussels, and in 1795 envoy extraordinary at Berlin. In 1799 he was appointed to the embassy to the Ottoman Porte, and he was desirous that his mission to Constantinople should lead to a closer study and examination of the remains of Grecian art within the Turkish dominions. Acting on the advice of Sir William Hamilton, he procured at his own expense the services of the Neapolitan painter, Lusieri, and of several skilful draughtsmen and modellers. These artists were despatched to Athens in the summer of 1800, and were principally employed in making drawings of the ancient monuments, though very limited facilities were given them by the authorities. About the middle of the summer of 1801, however, all obstacles were overcome, and Elgin received a firman from the Porte which allowed his lordship's agents not only to fix scaffolding round the antient Temple of the Idols [the Parthenon], and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum, but also to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon. The actual removal of ancient marbles from Athens formed no part of Elgin's original plan, but the constant injuries suffered by the sculptures of the Parthenon and other monuments at the hands of the Turks induced him to undertake it. The collection thus formed by operations at Athens, and by explorations in other parts of Greece, and now known by the name of the Elgin Marbles, consists of portions of the frieze, metopes, and pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as of sculptured slabs from the Athenian temple of Nike Apteros, and of various antiquities from Attica and other districts of Hellas. These sculptures and antiquities, now in our national collection, may be found enumerated and illustrated in the Description of the Collection of Ancient Marbles in the British Museum (parts vi-ix.), in Michaelis's work Der Parthenon, and in other archæological books. Part of the Elgin collection was prepared for embarkation for England in 1803, considerable difficulties having to be encountered at every stage of its transit. Elgin's vessel, the Mentor, was unfortunately wrecked near Cerigo with its cargo of marbles, and it was not till after the labours of three years, and the expenditure of a large sum of money, that the marbles were successfully recovered by the divers. On Elgin's departure from Turkey in 1803, he withdrew all his artists from Athens with the exception of Lusieri, who remained to direct the excavations which were still carried on, though on a much reduced scale. Additions continued to be made to the Elgin collections, and as late as 1812 eighty fresh cases of antiquities arrived in England. Elgin, who had been detained in France after the rupture of the peace of Amiens, returned to England in 1806. No inconsiderable outcry was raised against his conduct in connection with the removal of the antiquities. The propriety of his official actions was called in question; he was accused of vandalism, of rapacity and dishonesty, and in addition to these accusations, which found their most exaggerated expression in Byron's Curse of Minerva, an attempt was even made to minimise the artistic importance of the marbles which had been removed. Elgin accordingly thought it advisable to throw open his collections to public view, and arranged them in his own house in Park Lane, and afterwards at Burlington House, Piccadilly. Upon the supreme merits of the Parthenon sculptures all competent art critics were henceforth agreed. Canova, when he saw them, pronounced them the works of the ablest artists the world has seen. After some preliminary negotiations, a select committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1816 to inquire into the desirability of acquiring the Elgin collection for the nation. This committee recommended its purchase for the sum of 35,000l., and in July 1816 an act was passed giving effect to their proposal. The committee, after a careful examination of Elgin and other witnesses, further decided in favour of the ambassador's conduct, and of his claim to the ownership of the antiquities. The money spent by Elgin in the formation, removal, and arrangement of his collection, and the sums disbursed for the salaries and board of his artists at Athens, were estimated at no less than 74,000l.
Elgin was a representative peer of Scotland (1790-1807 and 1820-40), but after his return to England he took little part in public affairs. He died on 14 Nov. 1841.
Peerages of Burke and Foster
Douglas's Peerage of Scotland (ed. Wood), i. 522 f.
Memorandum on the Earl of Elgin's Pursuits in Greece, 1810 and 1815
Report from the Select Committee on the Earl of Elgin's Collection, 1816
Ellis's Elgin Marbles, pp. 1-10
Edwards's Lives of the Founders of the Brit. Mus., 1870, pt. i. pp. 380-96
Michaelis's Der Parthenon, pp. 73-87, 348-57
Michaelis's Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, pp. 132-51.
Contributor: W. W. [Warwick William Wroth]