On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait

My story begins six years ago when we inventoried Bert H. Hill’s collection of photos at the item level. Among the images were early portraits of Hill when he was a little boy, and later, a handsome young man. A graduate of the University of Vermont (B.A. 1895) and Columbia University (M.A. 1900), Hill subsequently attended the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter) as a fellow for two years (1901-1903). He then secured a job as the Assistant Curator of Classical Antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1903-1905) and lecturer at Wellesley College where he taught classes in sculpture.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) was only 32 years old when he was appointed director of the ASCSA in 1906, a position he held until 1926.

Bert Hodge Hill, ca. 1910s. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

While processing the images my eye fell on a small portrait (12 x 9 cm) that was not a print but instead a well-executed drawing of Hill’s profile in pencil. On the back, Hill had scribbled “Huybers” and “BHH”.  An initial web search for “Huybers artist” produced four of his pencil sketches in the Harvard Art Museums, a gift from George Demetrios in 1933 (keep the name in mind); the artist was identified as John A. Huybers.

Portrait of Bert Hodge Hill by John A. Huybers, ca. 1915-1920. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

Pencil sketch of an old woman by John A. Huybers, Paris 1881. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of George Demetrios, 1933.

It would take multiple web searches and various combinations of his name before I could identify his middle name as Alfred. His name also appeared here and there as an illustrator of a number of books for children or works of historical fiction: Julia Augusta Schwartz’s Wilderness Babies (Boston 1905), George Barton’s Barry Wynn. The Adventures of a Page Boy in the United States Congress (Boston 1912), John McIntyre’s In Texas with Davy Crockett (Philadelphia 1914), and John P. Ritter’s The Crossroads of Destiny (New York 1901).  (Most of these books and their authors are now largely forgotten, perhaps because their genre –the adventures of young boys– is no longer popular or because their authors were not of the magnitude of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain.) Thus far, Huybers appeared to have made a living illustrating books on the East Coast in the early 1900s. From the Library of Congress entries, where he is listed as contributor to these books, I discovered his date of birth and death (1859-1920).

Subsequent efforts to learn more about Huybers failed to bear any fruit; however, over the years I have learned that one often has to be patient when doing archival research on the web. I know from experience that tons of new information is added to it daily, so it pays to conduct new searches every two or three months. My notebooks are filled with partially studied topics marked as “potential essays.” Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, archival research is really about “connecting the dots.” If you are lucky, once in a while, there is a breakthrough or a discovery and, suddenly, everything comes together.

Wandering Tasmanians

Another web search tracked Huybers’s name down in a collection of personal papers in the National Library of Australia: the Patricia Clarke Papers. Clarke (b. 1926) was an author and journalist, who wrote extensively about 19th century Australian women. One of her subjects was Jessie Couvreur (1848-1897), neé Huybers, also known as “Tasma,” after her pen name. According to Clarke, the Huybers were an English family of Dutch origin who migrated to Australia in 1852; most of their children, including John, were born in Hobart in Tasmania. In 1873, John’s mother, Charlotte, took five of her children on a tour of Europe that lasted several years. Perhaps as intended, it appears that very few of the Huybers children returned to Australia after the tour; most of them settled in Europe, earning their living as artists and foreign correspondents to English, Australian, and American newspapers.

In 1881 Jessie published (under the name Tasma) her first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, which earned her considerable success (although her reviewers presumed that the novel had been written by a man). In 1889 there is evidence that she was in Athens, either by herself or with her brother John, because she reported for the “Melbourne Argus” on the royal marriage of Prince Constantine of Greece and Sophia of Prussia.  Up to that point, my various web searches had revealed that John Huybers was an English Australian who had spent considerable time in Europe before he moved to the United States in the early 1900s.

A Memorial Fund

Huybers lay dormant in my notebook for another year until recently, when browsing Louis E. Lord’s History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), my eye landed on Huybers’s name in “Appendix V: Funds for General Purposes”: J. Huybers Fund; established 1921; $714.53 (which is the equivalent of about $18,000 today). There was, however, no additional information about why or how this fund was established. When studying the School’s institutional history, I find that the next best tool after the pair of “School Histories” is the collection of Annual Reports; and, sure enough, in the ASCSA Annual Report for 1920-21 (p. 21), Edward Capps, the School’s Chair of the Managing Committee, reported Huybers’s death, as well as some other biographical information:

“[He] was for many years a resident of Greece, whence he sent to the American press, and particularly to the Christian Science Monitor, admirable articles on Greek affairs. He died at Phalerum in 1919 [sic]. His writings showed such admirable sanity of judgement, good information, and genuine philhellenic sympathy and understanding that his friends in America, chiefly those of Hellenic descent, desired to perpetuate his memory in connection with the School, which they highly regard as the permanent symbol in Greece of American-Hellenic unity. We are indebted to Professor A. E. Phoutrides of Harvard University, for conceiving this idea and carrying it to completion, and to His Excellency Mr. Tsamados, then Minister Resident of Greece in Washington for generous assistance. A principal fund of $545 was contributed.”

At last, a real breakthrough in my search for Huybers: not just an illustrator but also a foreign correspondent stationed in Greece during the last years of his life, with strong connections to the School and possibly Harvard (where I found four of his pencil sketches), and a philhellene with ties to the Greek-American community in the U.S.

The Story of an Immigrant Boy

I ran another search, this time through the School’s website, because I wanted to see if his name appeared in any of our collections of personal papers. It did not, but I was pleasantly surprised to find him as an editor, as well as an illustrator, in a book titled: When I Was a Small Boy in Greece, by George Demetrios (Boston 1913). Huybers had edited and published the autobiographical story of Demetrios. At first, I thought that Demetrios was a fictional name that Huybers had invented in order to write a historical novel, but then I remembered that Demetrios was the donor of the four sketches by Huybers to the Harvard Art Museums in 1933.

George Demetrios (1896-1974) was a real person, who would become a sculptor and marry the novelist Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968). Barbara Elleman, the biographer of Burton, recounted the encounter of Demetrios with Huybers as follows: “In 1911, George, a Greek immigrant, had arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15 with a nametag attached to his lapel… To earn money, George shined shoes on the street. During slow times he amused himself by drawing faces of people he saw. One day a man, illustrator and painter John Hybers [sic], saw George’s sketches, and, very impressed, arranged for him to receive a scholarship, funded by art enthusiast Charlotte Hallowell of West Medford, to the School of Fine Arts in Boston…” (Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, Boston 2002, p. 15).

Huybers in the Editor’s Preface to When I was a Small Boy in Greece related a somewhat different story regarding his first encounter with Demetrios in 1911: “In the spring of last year, at the house of some Greek friends in Boston I heard a boy of sixteen, who had recently arrived from Southern Macedonia, tell in his own language, to some of his own people, the story of Xenophon’s ‘Retreat of the Ten Thousand’. The boy stood facing his audience. He spoke without a book… he knew the narrative well, and he put it in his own way in the beautiful modern language. I was seated behind the speaker and what impressed me strongly was the attitude and expression of the listeners… the look in their eyes showed their keen interest and the boy held the attention of all for an hour and a half, till he had finished… We spoke French, and he expressed his regret at having had to give up his studies and relinquish the promise of a university education… In leisure hours he told me the story of his boyhood in Macedonia. Then, too, he knew much story and verse by heart…In taking down all the boy had to tell me, I was a careful listener, and I tried to preserve –in the medium of translation—as far as possible, his thoughts expressions and words…”.

Marcia Gronblad: Finnish Girl, by George Demetrios. Cape Ann Museum (Gift of The George Demetrios Revocable Trust, 1990.)

As mentioned above, Demetrios became a well-known sculptor whose works are on display at the Cape Ann Museum in Massachusetts. On the Museum’s web page, one reads: “During his sixty year artistic career, Demetrios had a profound influence on an entire generation of artists who studied under him here on Cape Ann and in his Boston studio.”  In addition, in the possession of the Demetrios’s family is a fine watercolor of young Demetrios, dated 1913, by J[ohn] A[lfred] H[uybers] (B. Elleman, Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, Boston 2002, p. 16). It’s the one that was used for the cover of Demetrios’s book.

Dispatches from Athens

We do not know exactly when Huybers left Boston for Athens but probably sometime shortly after 1914. By 1915 he was working as a foreign correspondent for The Nation. Through the historical archive of The UNZ Review: An Alternative Media Selection I was able to retrieve 16 of his essays in The Nation. Most of them describe the political situation in Greece in 1916, especially the rift between King Constantine and Eleutherios Venizelos, as to whether Greece should remain neutral during WW I or join the Entente. Of great interest to me (and the readers of this blog) is an essay by Huybers, published on February 1, 1917 and titled: “The American School of Classical Studies at Athens” because it provides a vivid picture of life at the School and in Athens at the time.

According to Huybers one reached the School by taking Tram 15 which, however, brought you as far as the “Athens Normal School of Teachers” (a.k.a. Marasleion): “… taking the first corner on your right by the high wall enclosing the gardens of the Normal School, you come … to the gates of the American School, just beyond the tower of the British School adjoining. The name ΑΜΕΡΙΚΑΝΙΚΗ ΣΧΟΛΗ is carved in Greek letters on the stone pillar on one side of the high green gates of iron open-work, and in English on the other… To the left, pushed out on the hill, are a few small, one-story houses, tinted yellow and pink. In front of them stand some Australian eucalyptus trees, and seen above the tiled roofs a plantation of young pines on the hill gives a relieving note of green.”

He then proceeds to describe the School’s garden giving ample praise to “a great Judas tree, whose wealth of purple flowers is a springtime glory. Myrtles, laurels, and other native plants grow in the garden, and tall shrubs, with white and blood-red flowers.” The great condition of the garden must be credited to Carl W. Blegen who was the School’s Secretary at the time and a passionate gardener. Just a year before, the School had completed its first major expansion which had enlarged the library, added a women’s parlor as well as other space. I found it entertaining that Huybers made special mention of the three bathrooms added to the Director’s house during the expansion (hard to believe now, but until 1915 the Director’s house at the American School lacked an indoor bathroom).

“One of the most American features of the house is the three bathrooms, of the best quality and construction, American workmen and plumbers having come to Athens to carry out the work. The Queen of Greece recently visited the School, and repeated the visit the same week, accompanied by the King, pointing out to him the bathrooms, that were her special admiration. And both King and Queen admitted that the palace and royal summer home had no such faultless installations.”

The entrance to the School, ca. 1902. The Judas tree that Huybers is describing must be to the right. The gates (that have been replaced with simpler ones since then) were designed by Ernst Ziller. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

Huybers also praised the views from the library, when one tired from reading could “step out on the white marble balcony at the end of the library and rest his eyes on the great hill of Hymettus,” including a lyrical description of the mountain view: “The very bareness and barrenness if the mountain becomes a thing of beauty in the vaporous atmosphere—cool and warm grays, pinks, and neutral tints, with purple flying shadows from the clouds above…”. Hard to imagine any of this today, with the large and horrendous mass of Evangelismos Hospital blocking all such southward views.

The School had great views to Mount Hymettus until the 1930s. Here a photo taken from the Gennadius Library, ca. 1930. ASCSA, Archives.

Echoing most likely Hill and Blegen, Huybers could not refrain from adding a comment about the increasing excellence of the American School in comparison with the French School. “The American student may as a rule come less well prepared than the man of the French School, but they ‘make good’ by their initiative and originality, bringing with them the new breath and clear vision of the young Western world.” Hybers backed up this comment with a statement by Wilhelm Dӧrpfeld, an authority in the study of Classical architecture, who reported that in the study of Athenian buildings, the “newest and most original interpretations were the work of the American School.”

The French American rivalry was not limited to just scholarly matters. “The French Government considers the proper maintenance of the French School at Athens as one of the obligations of good government. The American Government leaves such work to the enterprise of its colleges and the practical devotion to ideals of private individuals among his citizens.” Huybers concluded his essay with a line from Plato’s Protagoras: τρέφεται δέ, ὤ Σώκρατης, ψυχὴ τίνι; μαθήμασιν δήπου, ἢν δ’ἐγώ (and what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge.)

The Boston Connection

Aristeides E. Phoutrides

The short “obituary” on Huybers in the School’s Annual Report of 1920 also noted the creation of a fund through the initiative of Professor A. E. Phoutrides of Harvard University. The life of Aristeides Phoutrides (1887-1923) deserves an essay of its own (and is duly noted as such in my “Notebook”). I am not sure what to make of the connection between Huybers and Phoutrides, except that the latter, like Demetrios, had also immigrated to the U.S. at a young age. Born on the island of Icaria and having lived for a short time in Egypt, Aristeides arrived in America at the age of 19 without any knowledge of English. After attending Mount Hermon, a preparatory school for students who had interrupted their education, for two years, Phoutrides was accepted at Harvard College where he graduated in 1911 summa cum laude. Three years later he obtained his doctoral degree and an assistant professorship at Harvard.

A big proponent of Modern Greek Studies, Phoutrides, until his premature death in 1923 at the age of 36, travelled to Greece several times and launched several campaigns in the U.S. in order to support Greek national causes. His reputation was such that in 1919 he was offered the Chair of Greek Literature at the University of Athens by Eleutherios Venizelos, which in the end failed to materialize after Venizelos’s defeat in the elections of 1920. I suspect that Huybers must have met the young Phoutrides at one of the gatherings of the Greek American community in Boston about the same time that he “discovered” George Demetrios (ca. 1911).

A Sketchy Life: Hobart, Boston, Athens

Except for the pencil profile of Bert Hodge Hill, the four sketches at the Harvard Art Museums and the one watercolor in the possession of the Demetrios family, I was not able to discover any other original artwork autographed by Huybers. Most likely his papers were not preserved, especially since he moved around so much. There are major gaps in his life, especially until the early 1900s, when we find him working as a book illustrator on the East Coast; by then he was in his early 40s.

Another one of Huybers’s pencil sketches, now at the Harvard Art Museums. It was executed the same year he painted “The Paris Soup Kitchen.” Perhaps it was a sketch for that painting.

A final search through old Australian newspapers produced a letter from Huybers to the Editor of Mercury (a Tasmanian newspaper), written from Boston and published on December 29, 1911. He was offering for sale to the Hobart Art Gallery one of his paintings, “The Paris Soup Kitchen,” from 1886, which was exhibited together with two more of his paintings in the new Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He identified himself as a painter who had been forced “to take book and newspaper work because ‘Art for art’s sake’ did not procure a living.” He wanted to sell because he needed the money for an operation. I have not been able to find what happened to Huybers’s “Paris Soup Kitchen” or any of his other paintings. To judge from his book illustrations, however, he must have been a gifted artist, and Hill must have treasured his little portrait by Huybers.

On September 23, 1920 an obituary appeared in Tasmanian Mail reporting Huybers’s death (as having taken place on May 27, 1920).  I was unable to obtain online access to this document, but it really didn’t matter so much because I had already achieved my real objective which was to draw a rough sketch of Huybers’s life and learn why the School came to own one of his drawings.

 


13 Comments on “On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait”

  1. Judith Robinson Levine says:

    Natalia, you have done it again. Your stories and research from the archives never fail to catch the imagination and bring fascinating characters back to life. Thank you!

  2. Tessa Dinsmoor says:

    Wonderful, as always;Re Demetrios: a shoe-shine boy conversing in French?

  3. Glenn Bugh says:

    Wonderful story, Natalia, another finely-crafted archival journey of discovery. I particularly liked the comment about the lack of preparedness of American students compared to those at the French School being compensated by their ‘originality and initiative, bringing a new breath and clear vision.’ So true. . even to present day. Thanks for uncovering yet another little nugget of American School biography. Keep up the good work. Glenn

  4. Ann Eldridge says:

    Wonderful to lose oneself in such a serendipitous search, and find such rewards. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing the thrill of the search!

  5. michael karathanos says:

    Wonderful Article as always!

  6. Dear Natalia,

    Bravo! Thank you for adding another facet to the jewels of the ASCSA.

  7. Maria Liston says:

    What a wonderful story. It is fascinating to hear still more details of the array of people who have passed through the School. Thank you for your efforts!


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