Friday, April 18, 2008

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

Two hundred years ago a young woman from a wealthy Scottish family married newly appointed British ambassador Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. Shortly after their wedding the two set off to the heart of the Ottoman Empire. The journey, which would take them from Istanbul to Athens to France, would eventually bring countless treasures from ancient Greece to London. The young bride was Mary Nisbet, the subject of Susan Nagel’s biography Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. This book is a rich and fascinating biography of a powerful woman with an infamous tie to nineteenth century art history. The name Elgin is the eponym for a collection of marbles in the British Museum and in this book Nagel recounts the events of the taking of 2,000 year old Greek sculptures from the perspective and letters of Lady Elgin.

Nagel’s book fleshes out the life of this extraordinary ambassadress who could be an intellectual peer of Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams. Many of the storied events in Lady Elgin’s life are described in Nagel’s well executed writing. When Mary was twenty-two years old she oversaw the delivery of vials of the smallpox vaccine to the Persian Gulf, Baghdad and India. She became a celebrity in both Europe and Asia and was credited for saving many lives through her unofficial medical diplomacy. She broke cultural barriers by disguising herself as a man to enter into ceremonies at the Turkish court.

Nagel successfully integrates the life of this complex woman with the well known accounts of how treasures of ancient Athens made their way into the British Museum. After returning to England Lord Elgin began pursuing a divorce from Lady Elgin, not because she had been having an affair, but because she refused to have more children. Nagel praises this as just one of her progressive stances in the early history of women’s rights. When the two divorced the loss of his wife’s wealth forced Lord Elgin to sell his collection to the trustees to the British Museum. Mistress of the Elgin Marbles presents the story of a notable woman, and enriches the history of one of the most controversial collections of art in world history.

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