Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – Lord Elgin – and 11th Earl of Kincardine (20 July 1766 – 14 November 1841) was a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, known primarily for the removal of marble sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens.
Elgin was born in Broomhall, Fife, the second son of Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha Whyte. He succeeded his older brother William Robert, the 6th Earl, in 1771 while he was only five. He entered the army as an ensign in the 3rd Guards. He was elected as a Scottish Representative Peer in 1790, remaining one until 1807.
In 1791, he was sent as a temporary envoy-extraordinary to Austria, while Sir Robert Keith was ill. He was then sent as envoy-extraordinary in Brussels until the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands by France. After spending time in Britain, he was sent as envoy-extraordinary to Prussia in 1795. Elgin was appointed as ambassador to The Porte in December 1798.
On 11 March 1799, shortly before setting off to serve as ambassador at Constantinople, Elgin married Mary, daughter and heiress of William Hamilton Nisbet, of Dirleton; Elgin finally arrived at Constantinople on 6 November 1799.
Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803; he showed considerable skill and energy in fulfilling a difficult mission, the extension of British influence during the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and France. He departed Turkey at last on 16 January 1803.
Acting on the advice of Sir William Hamilton, Lord Elgin procured the services of the Neapolitan painter, Lusieri, and of several skilful draughtsmen and modellers. These artists were dispatched 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, Elgin received (as is said) a firman, from the Porte which allowed his lordship’s agents not only to ‘fix scaffolding round the ancient 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.’ Due to the loss of the original firman, it isn’t sure that the translation is correct.
The actual removal of ancient marbles from Athens formed no part of Elgin’s first plan. 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.
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, 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.
The removal of about 1/2 of the frieze metopes, frieze and pedimental sculpture was a decision taken on the spot by Philip Hunt, Elgin’s chaplain (and temporary private secretary, i.e. representative, in Athens), who persuaded the voivode (governor of Athens) to interpret the terms of the firman very broadly.
Lord Elgin bribed local Ottoman authorities into permitting the removal of about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He used these antiquities to decorate his mansion in Scotland and then later sold them to the British Museum in an attempt to repay his escalating debt.