Robert Byron 1905-1941
English travel writer, art critic, and historian.
A journalist for London's Daily Express, Byron is largely remembered for his travel narratives, including The Road to Oxiana (1937), which many critics consider to be his masterpiece. This work represents the culmination of Byron's somewhat fictionalized travel diaries that record expeditions through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the 1920s and 1930s. In The Ròad to Oxiana and similar works, Byron—primarily a Byzantinist—exercised his proclivity to examine and comment on the beauty of local architecture and art. His findings on ancient structures and the modern incarnations of the cultures that produced them are among his most enduring contributions. Somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic in his presentation of these themes, Byron is nevertheless recognized by critics for his carefully perceived and good-humored recollections of Europe and the East between the First and Second World Wars.
Byron was born in Wiltshire, at the town of Wembley, on February 26, 1905. Though his family was distantly related to Lord Byron, his parents were solidly middle class. He grew up, with two sisters, near Salisbury in Savenake Forest and, despite his family's modest financial means, attended Eton and later Merton College, Oxford. In 1925, while still an undergraduate, Byron and two companions undertook an automobile tour of Europe and eventually made their way to Greece. He recorded that excursion in his first travel book, Europe in the Looking-Glass, published in 1926. The same year he left Oxford with a third class degree in history. Byron returned to Greece twice soon after, once in 1926 and again in 1927, visiting Mt. Athos and examining the many frescoes contained in Greece's centuries-old churches and monasteries. These voyages resulted in his second travelogue, The Station. Athos: Treasures and Men (1928), The Byzantine Achievement (1929), and The Birth of Western Painting (1930), a collaborative work undertaken with the help of David Talbot Rice, one of his traveling companions. In 1929 Byron began his career in journalism, traveling to India as a correspondent for the Daily Express. The result, An Essay on India, was published two years later. Byron recorded his travels during the years 1931-32 in his next travel book, First Russia, then Tibet (1933). A tour in Persia with his close friend Christopher Sykes during the years 1933-34, followed by almost three years of writing and traveling in China and the Far East, culminated in the publication of his most widely acclaimed work, The Road to Oxiana. By 1936, however, he had returned to London and was experiencing the mounting tensions surrounding the Nazi domination of Europe. By the time war was declared by Great Britain in 1939, Byron was engaged as a special correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company Overseas News Department. While en route to Cairo for the news service in February of 1941, he was drowned when his ship was sunk by a torpedo.
Of Byron's nine works written without collaboration, nearly all were drafted in the form of travel diaries which examine the peculiarities of culture and architecture in Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Critics have observed that these writings describe a steady development in terms of Byron's overall style. His earliest travel books, Europe in the Looking-Glass and The Station, are thought to be of less consequence than his more mature writings, though both illustrate Byron's wit, erudition, and hint at the studied awareness of setting that characterize his later works. Marred by what Paul Fussell called Byron's occasional "massiveness of expression" and "polemical disposition, " these books nevertheless demonstrate the author's essentially good-natured and comic tone, a quality he maintained throughout his writings. In his third book, The Byzantine Achievement, Byron added a new dimension, providing a detailed history of the art and culture of the Byzantine east along with his personal travel narrative. In An Essay on India, Byron explores political factors more fully than in his earlier writings, evaluating the successes and failures of British colonialism in the region. Byron voices his disdain for the inelegant ideology of the Soviet Union, while delighting in the beauty of its architecture in First Russia, then Tibet; he goes on to detail his exploits in the largely untouched and alien culture of Tibet. The title of The Road to Oxiana, Byron's penultimate travelogue, refers to the Amus Darya river, called the Oxus, which runs through north-eastern Afghanistan. The story is both a quest for a glimpse of the river and a search for the sources of Moslem architecture and civilization. Critics of the work have almost universally praised its artful evocations of scene and manner, as well as Byron's masterful recreation of what appears to be a completely spontaneous travel diary—despite the fact that it was carefully constructed over the course of three years of thought and revision. In his brief How We Celebrate the Coronation: A Word to London's Visitors (1937), one of his last works published before the outbreak of war, Byron demonstrates his sardonic sense of humor, decrying the materialism and profit-mongering of real-estate developers in England.
Europe in the Looking-Glass (travelogue) 1926
The Station. Athos: Treasures and Men (travelogue) 1928
The Byzantine Achievement (art criticism) 1929
The Birth of Western Painting [with David Talbot Rice] (art criticism) 1930
An Essay on India (travelogue) 1931
The Appreciation of Architecture (art criticism) 1932
First Russia, then Tibet (travelogue) 1933
How We Celebrate the Coronation: A Word to London's Visitors (essay) 1937
Imperial Pilgrimage (travelogue) 1937
The Road to Oxiana (travelogue) 1937
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SOURCE: "The Byronic East," in The London Mercury, Vol. XXXVI, No. 212, June, 1937, pp. 195-96.
[In the following review of The Road to Oxiana, Greene discusses what he considers the book's strengths and shortcomings.]
"Samarcand, for the last fifty years, has attracted scholars, painters, and photographers. Thus the setting of the Timurid Renaissance is conceived as Samarcand and Transoxiana, while its proper capital, Herat, remains but a name and a ghost. Now the position is reversed. The Russians have closed Turkistan. The Afghans have opened their country. And the opportunity arrives to redress the balance. Strolling up the road towards the minarets, I feel as one might feel who has lighted on the lost books of Livy or an unknown Botticelli."
It is this mixture of scholarship and romanticism that gives Mr. Byron's account of a journey through Persia and Afghanistan [The Road to Oxiana] its unusual and agreeable flavour: the poetic imagination which evokes a personal East so vividly—the roses stuck in the rifles of Afghan soldiers, the opium flowers "glowing in the dusk like lamps of ice, " the dead wolf under a wild fruit tree in pink blossom—is strengthened by the architectural detail, so that at their best his descriptions have the merits of two worlds. Take, for example, his account of the doorways in Persepolis:
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SOURCE: "Cities and Harvests," in Daylight and Champaign, revised edition, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1948, pp. 28-34.
[In the following essay, Young praises Byron's display of insight and adept prose style in The Road to Oxiana.]
A diary is not to be judged like other books, because in real life incidents will not happen in the right order, or observe their proper artistic balance. Mr. Byron's objective was the Oxus: his route was by Cyprus, Jerusalem, and Damascus into Persia; and thence by Afghanistan and the Khyber to Peshawar. But though his appeal to the Minister of the Interior of Turkestan might have melted a stone—a stone being assumed to have no appreciation of irony—he was not allowed to see the stream which, as he gracefully informed His Excellency, had been celebrated by the sacred pen of Matthew Arnold. So it was not the Oxus but Mr. Byron that proved to be the foiled circuitous wanderer. But one disappointment, in a region which seems to be half-crazy with adolescent nationalism and the frontier-complex, is not much to set against such a harvest of things observed and felt. I divide travel books into those which make me want to go there, and those which make me thankful that someone else has gone for me. The Road to Oxiana is of the latter class. I trust I shall always be young enough to giggle consumedly over motor break-downs and funny foreigners, but in the flesh I find them...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, Pan Books, 1981, pp. 9-15.
[In the following essay, Chatwin expresses his admiration for The Road to Oxiana.]
Anyone who reads around the travel books of the thirties must, in the end, conclude that Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana is the masterpiece. Byron was a gentleman, a scholar and an aesthete, who drowned in 1941 when his ship to the Mediterranean was torpedoed. In his short life he travelled as far as China and Tibet, and to most of the countries nearer home. In 1928 he published The Station, an account of a visit to the monasteries of Mount Athos, and followed it up with two pioneering volumes on Byzantine civilization, which, at that time, received scant consideration from academic circles. He had some lively prejudices. Among the tar-gets of his abuse were the Catholic (as opposed to the Orthodox) Church; the art of Classical Greece; the paintings of Rembrandt; Shakespeare—and when his Intourist guide protested that the plays could never have been written by a grocer from Stratford-upon-Avon, he murmured, 'They are exactly the sort of plays I would expect a grocer to write.' In 1932, attracted by the photo of a Seljuk tomb-tower on the Turkoman steppe, he set out on a quest for the origins of Islamic architecture. And if it is fair to place his earlier books as the work of a dazzlingly gifted young...
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Fussell, Paul. "Sancte Roberte, Ora pro Nobis." In Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, pp. 79-112. Oxford University Press, 1980.
Fussell offers an overview of Byron's life and literary career.
Grant, A. T. K. Review of First Russia, then Tibet. International Affairs 13, No. 1 (January-February 1934): 447.
Discusses Byron as a "somewhat self-consciously unconventional traveller" in a largely positive assessment of this travelogue.
Sykes, Christopher. "Robert Byron." In Four Studies in Loyalty, pp. 95-146. William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1948.
Provides a survey of Byron's works. Sykes accompanied Byron on the travels described in The Road to Oxiana.
Young, Vernon. "Road Show." American Scholar 52, No. 1 (Winter 1982-83): 138-40.
Brief account of Byron's career occasioned by a reprinting of The Road to Oxiana. Young praises the author's ability to evoke settings in the work, while criticizing its overall style.
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