Robert Byron and Byzantium

“These certainties sprang from reading the books of Robert Byron; dragon-green Byzantium loomed serpent-haunted and gong-tormented”

A Time of Gifts, introduction, page 17

Robert Byron

Writer and Critic; born 26 February 1905, Wembley, Middlesex; died 24 February 1941, off Cape Wrath, Scotland; Educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford.

David Talbot Rice CBE

Art Historian; born 11 July 1903, Rugby; died 12 March 1972, Cheltenham; Educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford; Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh.

Mark Ogilvie-Grant

Captain, Scots Guards; translator; botanist; born 15 March 1905, Kensington; died 13 February 1969, Southwark; Educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Oxford.

As Paddy makes plain in selecting Constantinople for the destination of his walk he was following in the footsteps of Robert Byron.  Byron, more than any other figure, at least amongst the British, popularised the study of Byzantine civilisation.  In a short life Byron wrote a number of popular works on late Roman architecture, art, and Orthodox Christianity. His best known work on the topic, the Station (1928) is an account of his trip to the Orthodox monastic communities of Mount Athos in Greece, along with fellow Eton and Oxford friends David Talbot Rice and Mark Ogilvie-Grant.  The latter of whom, as is noted on page 20, later donated his bergen rucksack from this trip to Paddy, directly linking these two most significant of interwar literary pilgrimages.

Byron, Talbot Rice, and Ogilvie Grant all hailed from the generation immediately preceding Paddy, and belonged to the same haute bohemian set of ‘bright young things’ memorialised in the early works of Evelyn Waugh.  Somehow, in the midst of all the cocaine and champagne, at least some of the bright young things managed to write a book, travel the world, and challenge the ossified conventions of the long nineteenth century.  The iconoclastic achievement of Byron, ironically enough, was to rehabilitate the prevailing assessment of Byzantine civilisation. For more than a century a sort-of liberal enlightenment condescension prevailed. This is best exemplified by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which largely dismisses the Eastern Roman Empire as mob of superstitious icon-worshippers, dominated by corrupted eunuchs and ineffective emperors.  Byron, in the wake of the Great War, which shattered much of the liberal enlightenment project, was able to look at Byzantium with fresh eyes.  What he saw was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilisation which preserved and improved upon the achievements of antiquity at a time when Western Europe was being overrun by countless waves of illiterate barbarians from the north and east.

Paddy, with Constantinople and Mount Athos as his destination, and Mark Ogilvie-Grant’s rucksack on his back (at least until it was pinched in Munich), owes much to the example of Byron and his set.

Further Reading

Byron, Robert. The Station (1928)

Byron, Robert. The Byzantine Achievement (1929)

Byron, Robert. Birth of Western Painting. A History of colour, form, and iconography. Routledge (1930)

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. Oxford, Oxford University Press (1982)

Knox, James. Robert Byron: A Biography. London, John Murray (2003)