Lord Elgin Hotel Downtown Ottawa

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Lord Elgin Hotel – Articles

Our Elgin Marbles

Sculptures of Lord and Lady Elgin have moved from hotel to Rideau Hall

From The Ottawa Citizen
By Tony Lofaro, February 9, 2011

OTTAWA — What is the rightful home of Ottawa’s marble busts of Lord and Lady Elgin? The answer is a compelling tale about an Ottawa landmark, a noble Scottish family and a government that appears to value fine print over tradition.

Since 2003, the busts of the eighth earl of Elgin, an influential governor general of Canada, and his wife, Lady Mary Lambton, have been at Rideau Hall. Before that they were displayed prominently in the lobby of the Lord Elgin Hotel, and had been there since prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King unveiled them at the hotel’s opening on a Saturday afternoon in July 1941.

There they sat, for more than 60 years, until the hotel sent the marbles to Rideau Hall for the exhibit Culture and Democracy: Lord and Lady Elgin in Canada, 1847-1857. Organized by Library and Archives Canada and the 11th earl of Elgin, the governor general’s great-grandson, it focused on the earl’s considerable contribution to the development of responsible government in Canada.

The hotel management and the current Lord Elgin were under the impression the busts would be returned at the close of the exhibit.

They were not. So, for eight years now, the hotel has been displaying lightweight resin replicas.

“We’d love to have them back in our lobby on display where they sat for over 60 years. That would be very desirable, but that’s all I can really say,” said David Smythe, the hotel’s manager since 2004.

He said it’s a matter to be taken up with the current Lord Elgin, who lives in Scotland. “They (the busts) belong to his family, they had them made and it’s really his family that’s being discussed here and what the busts mean today. So, it’s for him to comment on, not for me,” said Smythe.

Reached by telephone in Dunfermline, Scotland, Andrew Bruce, 11th earl of Elgin, said it would be nice if the busts went back to the hotel for its 70th anniversary celebrations in mid-July. He said his father, the 10th earl, was very moved when he learned in 1939 from King that a hotel in Ottawa was going to be built and named in honour of his grandfather. The marble busts were commissioned by the directors of Standard Life of Scotland for his family. English sculptor William Behnes created the bust of Lord Elgin, while Scottish artist Amelia Paton did the bust of Lady Elgin. They were shipped to Canada in a Royal Navy battleship.

“I don’t really personally want to get involved in this. I think that the gift to Canada was the main thing and that they were in the hotel for such a long time was a very wonderful thing,” said Lord Elgin, 86, who last visited Ottawa two years ago.

“The whole purpose of the hotel was to be what Mackenzie King said, and that is that ordinary people should be able to come to Ottawa and find a convenient place. And I think it (hotel) has fulfilled those responsibilities over the last 70 years extremely well,” said Lord Elgin, adding he’s met many of the current hotel staff.

He said it was his understanding that the original busts would be returned to the hotel after the exhibition at Rideau Hall concluded.

“The argument seems to lie with the director of the National Gallery at the time … but it’s terribly complicated,” he said, rifling through a mound of correspondence.

Lord Elgin quoted a letter from Pierre Théberge, former director of the National Gallery, to Don Blakslee, who was then hotel manager:

“Once the exhibition is closed the loans officer will co-ordinate the return of the sculptures to the Lord Elgin Hotel. Should you agree then, which we’re hopeful that you will, we ask you to sign the attached agreement form.”

But Rideau Hall’s view is that the busts were only ever “on loan” to the hotel. Marie-Eve Letourneau, a Rideau Hall spokeswoman, said the family donated the busts to the government of Canada and they were to remain on display at the hotel for an “indefinite amount of time.” There was a provision that the government could choose to move the busts sometime in the future, she said.

“We have correspondence between our office and the family stating that the family is in agreement with our recommendation to keep the busts at Rideau Hall,” said Letourneau, adding the agreement was signed in 2004. She said that in 2005 the National Gallery of Canada transferred custodianship of the busts to the National Capital Commission.

She said the family agreed to have the marble busts remain at Rideau Hall because they’d be in a “secure, controlled environment” and where they could be seen by numerous people on guided tours and at official events.

The current lord has no wish to be embroiled in a debate, but he has a sentimental spot for the hotel. “There’s been a family relationship ever since the hotel was built and that seems to me to be vital as far as we’re concerned. It’s our thanks for the people in Ottawa who all those years ago said they’d like to have the hotel called the Lord Elgin, that’s the family link. It annoys me that there should be arguments about this, that and the other thing,” he said.

This is not the first time the lords of Elgin have been involved in a dispute over marble sculptures. The seventh earl of Elgin, the father of the man represented by the marble bust, was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who removed about half of the classical marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens and had them shipped to Britain in the early 19th century. He said it was to save the treasures. Others called him a looter. The sculptures remain in the British Museum and the debate over their rightful home continues.

With a background like that, it’s unlikely this mild disagreement over the Ottawa busts’ true home would ever have played out in public, except for the sharp eyes of Citizen restaurant reviewer Anne DesBrisay. In a recent review of Grill 41, the hotel’s new restaurant, DesBrisay noticed that the busts were “hollow weightless fakes, plastic or resin, made to look like old plaster.” Then she added:

“This is the Lord Elgin Hotel, people. Time to get real.”

There is no doubt the marble busts were first destined for the hotel, A report in the Evening Citizen, July 21, 1941, contained the heading:

“Beautiful White Marble Busts Of Lord and Lady Elgin Are Presented to Hotel Co.”

But later in the story the busts were referred to as a gift to the government of Canada. Mackenzie King is quoted a saying:

“Acting upon Lord Elgin’s suggestion, the government has had great pleasure in loaning to the management of the hotel for an indefinite time these works of art.”

Lord Elgin admits to being upset by the comments about the fake busts.

He said on his last visit to the hotel two years ago he once again viewed the replica busts in the lobby.

“You really couldn’t tell the difference,” said Lord Elgin. “But as a family we feel we’ve got a personal link to the hotel which is even stronger than marble or resin,“ he added.