The 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841)

Thomas Bruce was born in Dunfermline on 20 July 1766, the younger son of Charles, fifth Earl of Elgin, and Martha, only child of Thomas White, a London banker. When Charles died in May 1771 he was succeeded by his infant son, William Robert (b. 1764) but William died the same year, aged seven, having held the title for only two months. Thomas became the seventh Earl of Elgin and eleventh of Kincardine a few days under the age of five.
Educated for a short time at Harrow and at Westminster, Thomas studied at St Andrews and in Paris, where he acquired an excellent command of French. In 1790 he was sent on his first diplomatic assignment to Vienna, a special mission to the newly crowned emperor, Leopold II. In 1792 he was made Envoy at Brussels liaising between the Belgian and Austrian armies and in 1795 became Envoy Extraordinary at Berlin, returning to England in 1798. On August 14, 1799, Elgin became Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Sublime Porte.

Lord Elgin and his Collection

In 1916, Arthur Hamilton Smith's article, Lord Elgin and his Collection, was published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (volume 36). Written to commemorate the centenary of the sale of the collection to the British nation in 1816 it crystallised the biased account of Lord Elgin's acquisition of the Greek antiquities and remains a seminal publication because of the access Smith was granted to the Elgin archives. It is the starting point to understanding what took place during Elgin's embassy in Constantinople.

A. H. Smith was Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum

Memorandum on the subject of the Earl of Elgin's pursuits in Greece

Much of the justification for Elgin's actions derives from the Memorandum so it is no great surprise the question of authorship has been steered away from the man himself. However, the publication of The Letters of Mary Nisbet of Dirleton, Countess of Elgin in 1926 (111 years after the final version of the Memorandum appeared) inadvertently confirmed Elgin as the author.

Similarly, Smith's use of Elgin's correspondence for his 1916 article proves that Elgin lied to the Select Committee hearing in 1815. Again, unintentionally.

"I recollect [Professor Carlyle] saying that he did not think Lord [Elgin] would [take] papers unless he could convert them into money; and he always expressed himself in terms of contempt when speaking of his Lordship."
(The lawyer, James Losh, recounting in 1814 one of the many conversations he had with The Rev. Mr. Joseph Carlyle, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, who had accompanied Elgin's embassy to the Ottoman Porte in order to explore the existence of literary treasures in and around Constantinople).