That Unspeakable Stoa

 

Posted by Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou

Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook an essay about Nancy Mitford’s visit to the Athenian Agora during the re-construction of the Stoa of Attalos in 1955. Unhappy with the building, Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, wrote acidic comments about it in the press as well as to the Director of the Agora Excavations, Homer A. Thompson. Lizabeth (Liz), who studied Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York University, found Mitford’s letters when she catalogued Thompson’s vast correspondence for the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens a few years ago. Her extensive catalogue of Homer Thompson’s papers is available at: http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/archives/thompson-finding-aid/

 

Over a decade ago, I archived the papers of Homer A. Thompson. Two of his letters are the subject of this article.

It [Athens] is probably the ugliest capital in Europe . . . [with] formless conglomerations of modern buildings overlooked by an immortal monument . . . . The traffic is noisier, wilder, and more evidently intent on homicide than that of Paris, and consists entirely of enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars.

Nancy Mitford, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, The Sunday Times, 24 July 1955.

The Mitford sisters

The Mitford sisters

Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), acclaimed author of comedies of English upper class manners (The Pursuit of Love), biographies (Madame de Pompadour), essays and reviews, was the eldest of six intelligent, beautiful and sometimes scandalous daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale (Ben Macintyre described the sisters as Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur).1  In the summer of 1955, she traveled in Greece. She spent time with Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was living in Nikos Ghikas’s house on Hydra; went to Tatoi, the summer residence of King Paul; and visited friends in Spetses, Crete and the Peloponnese.2

Nancy Mitford, 1932

Nancy Mitford, 1932

When she was in Athens, she stayed at the Grand Bretagne and visited the ancient sites. One day she went to the Ancient Agora, but since the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was not finished—it was covered with scaffolding and only the lower storey and colonnades had been reconstructed—Mitford must have needed permission to visit the site and one of the Agora staff to guide her. Homer A. Thompson, director of the Agora excavations from 1945 to 1967 and deeply involved with all aspects of the reconstruction of the Stoa, often mentioned visitors to the Agora in his letters to his wife, Dorothy Burr Thompson; but he made no mention of a visit by Nancy Mitford. Possibly Judith Perlzweig or C. W. J. Eliot, who bore the brunt of conducting visitors through the excavations and museum, served as her guide.3

Shortly after Mitford returned to her home in Paris, she wrote an article about her trip to Greece for The Sunday Times. Published on 24 July 1955, the title, “Wicked Thoughts in Greece”, gave readers a heads up that this was going to be another of her scathing attacks. Opening with the declaration that Athens is probably the ugliest capital in Europe, full of homicidal drivers and enormous pastel-colored American motor-cars, she continued to deplore the hideous newness of Athens, which from the air is a desert of khaki-coloured cement. But she did find an oasis in Plaka, where she delighted in the classical monuments, churches and old houses, until . . .

 Alas! After ten minutes of happy wandering the dream is shattered and the dreadful wasteland of the Agora appears. Here the American School of Classical Studies seems to have torn down whole streets in order to search for a few pots. Here the Americans are building, in a ghastly graveyard marble, the Stoa, said to be ‘of Attalos’, but really of Mr. Homer A. Thompson. And here a gracious garden will be planted, complete, no doubt, with floral clock.

The Stoa of Attalos under construction, 1955. Photo: ASCSA, Agora Excavations

The Stoa of Attalos under construction, 1955. Photo: ASCSA, Agora Excavations

A few pages later, describing her visit to Knossos, she again attacked the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos:

. . . Knossos, a fraudulent reconstruction like the Stoa, English this time, alas, and built in an art nouveau style reminiscent of Paris metro stations. It is evident that Anglo-Saxons should be kept away from Mediterranean sites . . . . Knossos, however, matters less than the Stoa, because it is out in the country and does not spoil anything else. The Stoa in all its vileness hits the eye from the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus. It is as though the French had allowed Frank Lloyd Wright to build his idea of a Petit Trianon at the bottom of the tapis vert at Versailles.

But Mitford was not through with Homer Thompson; at the end of her article, she added one last swipe:

Unspoilt both inside and out, with its incomparable mosaics and brickwork, Hosios Loukas gives the happy, holy feeling of a great work of art. Mercifully, it is very far from Athens. We must hope that Mr. Homer A. Thompson will never get there.4

Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford

Sometime between the appearance of this article in The Sunday Times and 7 September 1955, Thompson, who presumably read the article and was understandably upset about her criticism of the ASCSA’s reconstruction of the Stoa, wrote to Mitford. Unfortunately, this letter is not with Thompson’s papers in the School’s Archives; but Selina Hastings, author of Nancy Mitford, described Thompson’s letter:

The Director of the project, Mr. Homer A. Thompson, was deeply hurt, as was Nancy’s intention. He protested to Nancy, who replied [on 7 September] with all the vigour and rudeness of a defiant child.5 (Nancy Mitford’s mother, once pointed out that Nancy’s letters ‘usually contain a skillfully hidden dagger pointed straight at one’s heart’).6

Dear Mr. Thompson:

 Thank you for your letter which has only just arrived.  I must tell you that I shall never forget the shock I received when I just saw that unspeakable Stoa – which I truly supposed to be a cinema or public swimming bath.  The fact is that you Americans are using your enormous power to spoil this world we live in – and getting on with the job very fast.  I am thankful that I am now old and shall soon be dead, because words cannot say how terribly I mind these things. Meanwhile I shall continue to protest against all forms of transatlantic hideousness in Europe – useless though I know it to be.

Yours sincerely

Nancy Mitford

The "Unspeakable Stoa" letter

The “Unspeakable Stoa” letter

Thompson answered on 7 October with a dig of his own.

Dear Miss Mitford:

 Thank you for your letter of September 7th which has just reached me via Athens.  I am sorry that you were distressed by the Stoa. I am also surprised that you were so bewildered since this stoa is simply a good example of what was easily the most characteristic type of civic building in the Greek city state. Our aim in restoring the building was to assist the visitor in visualizing the physical setting of this rather distinctively European form of polity, and your reaction makes it clear that some help was needed.

Yours sincerely,

Homer A. Thompson

Homer A. Thompson, Director of the Athenian Agora Excavations (1947-1967)

Homer A. Thompson, Director of the Athenian Agora Excavations (1947-1967)

As if Mitford’s repeated criticism of the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos in one article was not enough, four years later, she again heaped scorn on it in an article titled “The Tourist”, which appeared in the October 1959 issue of Encounter :

Some Americans, who had probably seen the Victor Emmanuel monument on their way through Rome, generously decided to present the Athenians with its equivalent which they call the Stoa of Attalos. It is ghastly, but does not matter much, since Athens is past praying for.7

However, Nancy Mitford was not the only one to object to the ghastly graveyard marble of the Stoa which in all its vileness hits the eye from the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus. In 1951, William T. Aldrich, an ASCSA trustee, objected to the restoration of the Stoa of Attalos saying it was an absolute profanation to erect so near these universally sacred relics of a great past a glaring new restoration of one single structure. And in 1955, Anastasios Orlandos, director of the Ministry of Education’s Department for Restoration, Christos Karouzos, director of the National Archaeological Museum, and Ioannis Miliadis, director of the Acropolis Museum, began to express some reservations about the reconstruction. Miliadis described the Stoa as the horrible huge Stoa dominating the Agora and the Theseion, and at the dedication of the Stoa of Attalos, on 16 August 1956, Orlandos, who did not attend the ceremony, sent a statement (paraphrased here) which was read to the gathering:

the gleaming white of the Stoa’s new columns made for an ugly contrast with the weathered beauty of the marbles of the ancient buildings, and [Orlandos] asked that either the white colonnade of the Stoa be painted or the Agora covered with green trees.8

Will we ever know why Nancy Mitford held Homer A. Thompson, and only Homer A. Thompson, responsible for what she described as the unspeakable Stoa; viciously attacking him not just in one article, but in another written four years latter? Was Thompson aware of Mitford’s virulent anti-Americanism? (In 1953, Mitford wrote to her friend, Evelyn Waugh, I hate them [Americans] so much now that I ALMOST (I don’t say quite) don’t care to touch their beastly money.)9 And would Homer Thompson have been in Nancy Mitford’s sights if she had known he was Canadian?

 

ENDNOTES

1“Those utterly maddening Mitford girls”,  by Ben Macintyre, The Times, London, 12 October 2007.

2 Nancy Mitford’s itinerary is from letters she wrote to her family when she was in Greece (Helen Marchant, archivist, Chatsworth House, email 7 March 2014). Ben Downing, “A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor”, The Paris Review, 14 July 2013.

3 “Activities in the Athenian Agora: 1955,” Hesperia 25 (1956), p. 46, n.1.

4 “Wicked Thoughts in Greece,” republished in Nancy Mitford, The Water Beetle, Penguin Books (1962), pp. 108 – 110.

5 Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford, Vintage (2002), p. 210.

6 Thomas Mallon, “Red Sheep, How Jessica Mitford Found her Voice,” The New Yorker, 16 October 2006.

7 “The Tourist” republished in Nancy Mitford, The Water Beetle, Penguin Books (1962) p. 132.

8 Niki Sakka, “ ‘A Debt to Ancient Wisdom and Beauty’: The Reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora of Athens,” in Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, ed. J. L. Davis and N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, Hesperia 82 (2013), pp. 203- 227, esp.  222, 217, 218.

9 Joseph Epstein, “Anglophilia, American Style,” in Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays, First Mariner Books (1999), p. 243.


2 Comments on “That Unspeakable Stoa”

  1. Glenn Bugh says:

    Liz, fascinating article. Thanks. I am not too surprised that Nancy Mitford went after Homer Thompson with such singular vitriol–she blamed him for the idea of reconstructing the Stoa; when I talked to Homer in Princeton in 1989 about it, he did claim to have played a key role in the discussion in the late 1940s to provide a storehouse for the increasingly large collection of material from the Agora. Voila, the Stoa of Attalos! He delighted in the cleverness of the concept, an intersection of ancient and modern. In addition, did you find any reference to Kevin Andrews in her letters–he speaks with the same hypercritical tone about the ASCSA archaeological mission, its overindulgence in studying useless ancient pots, and the demise of the Plaka in the face of modernism and large archaeological takeaways, i.e., the Agora. They could have been kindred spirits. Best, Glenn

    • Lizabeth Ward Papageorgiou says:

      Hi Glenn, I am happy you enjoyed it. Yes, Homer Thompson played a very key role in the reconstruction of the Stoa, and he was very proud of his contribution. I have no idea if Kevin Andrews corresponded with Nancy Mitford. If you are interested you can contact Chatsworth House (see their site online) and ask them if they have anything. It would be interesting.


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