THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A DILETTANTE: RALPH HENRY BREWSTERPosted: January 6, 2021
The recent discovery of a head of Hermes in central Athens brought to mind another herm (one of the best of its kind), which was stolen from Greece almost ninety years ago. (A herm is a stone pillar with a sculpted head and genitals. In ancient Greece, herms were thought to have an apotropaic function and were placed at crossings, borders, and in front of houses or public buildings.)
I pick up the story in September 1932, when Richard Stillwell (1899-1982) returned to Athens after two months of vacation in America. A Princeton graduate and an architect by training, Stillwell had been appointed the new Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1932-1935). He was no stranger to Greece or the American School (ASCSA or the School hereafter). As Fellow in Architecture in 1924, he had learned “the skills and rigors of archaeological fieldwork in the excavations at Corinth”; and as Professor of Architecture (1928-1931) he would begin a “long series of architectural studies which would form one of his major contributions to the field” (Shear 1983). In 1931-1932 Stillwell was Assistant Director during Rhys Carpenter’s last year in charge of the School. Starting with Stillwell the School introduced a new model of administration: new directors would learn the ropes by serving as assistant directors during the previous year. (This model was abandoned in the late 1960s, when it became increasingly difficult for incoming directors to extend leaves of absence from universities.)
Less than a month into his new position, Stillwell was confronted with a serious problem that had real potential to tarnish the School’s reputation in Greece. One of its students, Ralph Brewster, had committed a serious crime, involving the theft of a herm from the island of Siphnos, which he then smuggled out of the country. Although the crime had occupied the front pages of several Greek newspapers, it was only brought to Stillwell’s attention by Georg Karo (1872-1963), the Director of the German Archaeological Institute. Stillwell related the news to his predecessor, Rhys Carpenter, on October 2, 1932: “Karo called this afternoon, and as he was leaving told the following tale. Apparently, Brewster turned up at Siphnos last summer and tried to negotiate the purchase of one of the archaic Herms in the museum there. The scholarch, in charge, naturally refused, and later the herm was actually stolen, under what circumstances I do not know. The Greek authorities suspect Brewster of having had a hand in the matter.”
Why was Karo the one conveying the bad news to Stillwell? Brewster was an unusual student. Born in Florence in 1904 to an American father (Christopher Henry Brewster) and a German mother (Elisabeth von Hildebrand), he spoke fluent English, German, French and Italian, and traveled with ease in Europe. The Brewsters owned a former medieval convent in Florence dedicated to San Francesco di Paola (which remains in the family’s possession today). “It was here that his grandfather, the sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, lived and worked and created a center of European culture where such visitors as Richard and Cosima Wagner, Clara Schumann, Ethel Smythe, Henry James, William Ewart Gladstone, and Bernard Berenson came and went,” as Harry Brewster (1909-1999), Ralph’s younger brother, recounted many years later in Out of Florence. Karo, also a Florentine, knew the Brewster family well and it is quite possible that young Ralph applied to the American School with his encouragement.
Brewster appears to have been a rolling stone who invested very little time as a student of the School. Soon after his application, he became ill and “spent some time in the German School where they looked after him He then disappeared but was known to have been keeping company with some very shady Greeks… Nevertheless he slunk into the G[erman] School once or twice to get some things he had left there. Karo is very anxious, on account of his personal liking for the boy, and his long acquaintance with the boy’s family to get in touch with him, and if he is innocent of the theft, or of complicity in it to have him cleared” (ASCSA Archives, AdmRec 1001/1, folder 4, Stillwell relating his meeting with Karo to Carpenter, October 2, 1932).