William St Clair, who has died aged 83, was an academic, historian, bibliophile, a senior civil servant in the Treasury, and, since 2005, a senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London; he had a lifelong interest in the Parthenon, and his first book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, appeared in 1967.
In its third edition, published in 1998, St Clair revealed a scandal at the British Museum. In the 1930s, on the orders of Lord Duveen, before they were hung in his eponymous new gallery, the Parthenon marbles were illegally scrubbed with copper brushes and carborundum to make them look whiter, in the process damaging or destroying the original painted surfaces.
It was 60 years later when, after many refusals, sometimes on the basis of spurious national security concerns, St Clair finally gained access to the report by the Keeper to the Trustees. It stated: “The damage is obvious and cannot be exaggerated.”
In 2001 St Clair discovered that Lord Elgin had bribed the Ottoman military governor of Athens (the Disdar) with a sum worth 35 times his annual salary. At this point St Clair changed his position and became a leading proponent for the restoration of the Marbles to Greece.
William Linn St Clair was born in London on December 7 1937 to Susan, née Bow, an English teacher, and Joseph, the London representative of a group of Scottish foundries. During the war the family moved back to Scotland.
From Edinburgh Academy William won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he read Classics, before joining the Admiralty as a civil servant.
In 1972 St Clair published That Greece Might Still be Free (republished in 2008), a classic account of the Philhellenes of the Romantic era, including Lord Byron, who fought for Greek independence. Around this time he moved to the Treasury but continued to pursue a parallel literary and journalistic career.
He had a weekly book column in the Financial Times and also reviewed books for The Economist, the London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement.
In 1988 he wrote a government manual for managers in the civil service which was translated into several languages, while The Godwins and the Shelleys (1989) cemented his reputation as a biographer of the Romantic period.
Quadruple coronary bypass surgery in his early fifties persuaded him to leave his position as undersecretary at the Treasury. A senior fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford (1992-96), was followed by a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge (1998-2006) and a similar position at the Institute of Advanced Studies, London (2007–21).
St Clair had many interesting and often brilliant friends, met not just at Oxbridge high tables or through journalism but on account of his lifelong passion for books and collecting books. Through his involvement with the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee, St Clair also got to know Harold Pinter, and Arthur Miller, whose biography he was writing until access to the Miller diaries was withdrawn after his death.
The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), which studied the political economy of the book trade over three centuries, is now standard reading in many university English departments. The Grand Slave Emporium (2006) described life at Cape Coast Castle, one of the centres of the British slave trade for 150 years.
St Clair was widely known for his intellectual generosity, wit, forthright advice and invaluable tuition, whether to professional writers or graduate students. A few days before he died, he was awarded the Lord Byron medal by the new Philhellenism Museum in Athens.
His last book, Who Saved the Parthenon?, is scheduled for publication in 2022.
William St Clair married Heidi Fischer, from whom he separated, and who predeceased him. He is survived by two daughters.
William St Clair, born December 7 1937, died June 30 2021