Robert Byron: a short life, a big personality

Robert Byron was born in an eccentric Victoria middle-class Wilshire family in 1905. Though the family was not rich, his parents managed to send him to Eton and Marton College in Oxford, where he obtained a third-class degree in History in 1926.

Robert Byron’s personality was already well developed in his late boyhood or early adulthood. An aesthete, well ahead of his time, he was primarily ‘opposed’. Opposed to the authority, for instance, his “provocative tirades” are remembered by Acton when he describes Byron, dressed up as an old woman, sneaking out from the college to attend the cinema. An aesthete he was well ahead for his time: his love for the Byzantine arts and customs is a good example for his opposition to the mainstream view that despised and overlooked the Byzantine period. This would become more and more clear after the publication of Byron’s book on the Mt. Athos.

Byron was also an early traveler and travel writer. His first trip, to Italy, dates back to 1923, when he was 18. The year after, in 1924, he visited Hungary, and in 1925 he undertook with two friends a motor tour of Europe to Athens. This trip was the source for his first book: Europe in the Looking-Glass. This is an early work, published in 1926, where Byron style is of course not fully developed, but where the reader can already see his wit, that will become in his later books on of his distinctive traits.

Robert_ByronThe turning point for his writing career was his visit to Mt. Athos. Byron visited Mt. Athos twice, the first time in 1926, the second in 1927. This second visit was sponsored by his publisher Duckworth and was organized with the aim of photographing the frescoes in the churches and monatìsteries. The outcome of this trips to Mt. Athos was incredible. Byron published three books.

The book The Station, published in 1928, was an account of the mule trip across the monasteries. Here, Byron blends learned and comic accounts, proving his intelligence and skillfulness in transforming what he sees in language. The main source of comedy in the book is the contrast between the monks’ supposed spirituality and their readiness to cheat the visitor.

But the trip to Mt. Athos gave birth to two other books. In 1929 Byron published The Byzantine Achievement, a book opposing the mainstream view of Byzantium as a bastion of medieval superstition, celebrating its arts, customs, and styles. The book is even more interesting if we consider that Byron was a self-taught amateur of Byzantine art and architecture: The Byzantine Achievement is a professional account and a sharp polemic.

Last but not the least, Byron published together with Talbot Rice, in 1930, The Birth of Western Painting, where Giotto and El Greco are described as the linking point between Byzantine and Western art.

The Road to Oxiana can be considered Byron’s masterpiece, though. In 1931, the mosques of Isfahan and elsewhere in Iran and Afghanistan had been opened for the first time to Western visitors. This stimulated a widespread interest and genuine curiosity amongst European. An aesthete such as Byron was not immune to this fascination. Also, Islamic art was another mean for Byron to practice his opposition, this time against English grayness. He indeed sets off to Central Asia to find ‘colored architecture’. And probably also to be a sort of pioneer: as Sykes puts it, Central Asian mosque “had been seen by so few Europeans that no reliable record of them existed; not one single photograph had been taken of them”. This is the background of Robert Byron’s 10-month-long trip, together with Christopher Sykes between Iran and Afghan Turkestan between 1933 and 1934. After reaching England in 1934, Byron start writing the book resulting from this trip, in the form of a travelogue. The Road to Oxiana was published in 1937.

In 1941, aged 36, Robert Byron was heading to Cairo as a war correspondent when the ship he was traveling on was torpedoed by a submarine in the Atlantic. His body was never found.


Sources and further readings

Paul Fussell, “Sancte Roberte, Ora pro Nobis”, in P. Fussell, Abroad. British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, Oxford University Press, New York – Oxford, 1980, pp. 79-112.
James Knox, Robert Byron, John Murray, London, 2003.

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