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William St. Clair, Leading Campaigner for Return of Parthenon Marbles, 83

September 15, 2021

LONDON, UK – William St. Clair, British historian, senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, author and leading campaigner for the return of the Parthenon Marbles passed away on June 30, The Times of London reported on September 10. He was 83.

“If the new chapter in the third edition of his book Lord Elgin and the Marbles made William St. Clair a hero in Greece, it certainly made him enemies at the British Museum,” The Times reported, adding that “St Clair, an academic, uncovered a scandal while looking through the museum’s records.”

“In the late 1930s, the museum’s Parthenon marbles had been scrubbed using copper brushes and caustic materials, on the orders of the donor, Lord Duveen, whose name still graces the gallery,” the Times reported, noting that “in typically robust style, St. Clair wrote that the British Museum’s cleaning methods would have ‘disgraced a municipal cemetery,’ adding that they ‘defied all notions of conservation, then as now.’”

In a tribute to William St. Clair which appears on the Open Books website, Professor Anthony Snodgrass said: “At times, William St. Clair seemed to have lived more than one life. Even in our supposedly 'globalized' age, it came as a revelation to many of his fellow campaigners for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, to learn that he was also an acclaimed literary and historical authority on the Romantic Era — to the point where, on the strength of this, he had been elected a Fellow of the British Academy back in 1992. The same may have been partly true in reverse; and to both parties, it was surprising to find that he had served for years as a senior civil servant in the Treasury, whose research was at first a side-line.”

Snodgrass noted the “explosive Chapter 24” in the revised third edition of Lord Elgin and the Marbles, published in 1998, is titled “‘The Damage is Obvious and Cannot be Exaggerated’- a quotation from the secret internal Board of Enquiry, set up by the Trustees in 1938 to investigate reports that over-zealous cleaning of the Marbles had seriously damaged them.”

“What William had uncovered (but only after repeated requests under the Thirty Year Rule of the Public Record Act) was the full record of that near-forgotten scandal,” Snodgrass continued, adding that “he ended his chapter with an appeal for an honest, international inquiry into the events of 1938-39.”

“It is a reflection of his standing and influence that a version of such an inquiry was indeed set up within a year or so, but by the Museum itself, at the (creditable) instigation of its then Director, Robert Anderson,” Snodgrass said. “Attending this violently controversial event myself, I could hardly believe my ears when we heard one of the Museum's own Deputy Keepers, the late Ian Jenkins, say that 'the cleaning [of 1938] was a scandal, and its cover-up was another scandal.’ It was William's victory that such words could now be openly uttered.”

St. Clair received his education at Kilsyth Academy, Comely Park School, Falkirk, Edinburgh Academy, and St. John's College, Oxford. He began his academic career as Fellow of Royal Society of Literature in 1973. He was Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford in 1981-82 and in 1985, became fellow of Huntington Library, California. Since 1992, St Clair was fellow of the British Academy, and was Member of Council from 1996-2000. From 1992-1996 he was also fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University. In 1998-99, he was Visiting Fellow Commoner, Trinity College, Cambridge University. From 1999-2006 he was fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Since 2005, he was senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. From 2008, he was also senior research fellow at the Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge and Harvard.

St. Clair was also chairman of Open Book Publishers, an academic publisher of peer-reviewed monographs in the humanities and social sciences since 2008 and was also member of the Enterprise Management Committee, the Re: Enlightenment Project, main partners New York University, New York Public Library, and University of Cambridge.

“From 2009, St. Clair was chairman of Open Book Publishers,” the Times reported, noting that “an expert in the history of copyright, he disapproved of academia's recent enthusiasm for paywalls” and “he was open about his disdain for restraints, whether institutional, marital or religious.”

St. Clair was adding the final touches to his last book, titled Who Saved the Parthenon?, to be published by Open Books, when he passed away, the Times reported, adding that “one chapter is written in the style of a speech by the 5th century BC statesman Pericles.”

St. Clair authored several books, besides Lord Elgin and the Marbles, including That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (1972) which won the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann prize, The Elgin Marbles: Questions of Authenticity and Accountability (1999), The Parthenon in 1687: New Sources (2004), and Imperial Appropriations of the Parthenon (2006).

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