THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A DILETTANTE: RALPH HENRY BREWSTER

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.)

ASCSA Director Richard (Dick) Stillwell and architect W. Stuart Thompson at the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum, 1934. ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

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).


15 Comments on “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A DILETTANTE: RALPH HENRY BREWSTER”

  1. William T. Loomis says:

    Thanks, Natalia. As usual, a fascinating account. In yesterday’s meeting of the Publications Committee, Camilla MacKay (Stillwell’s granddaughter) remarked that the new history of the School might be more interesting if it included more stories like this one!

    Rob

    >

  2. Glenn Bugh says:

    Fascinating story, Natalia. It is always interesting to trace the travelers who cross paths with the American School, in this case happily, ever so briefly and tangentially. Is there any hard evidence that women were slipped into Mt Athos or is this just a case of a delicate-looking young monk? Happy New Year and stay safe. Thanks for the contribution.

    • By ignorance, I would say. In his introduction, Brewster included an incident that involved Aliki Diplarakou, Miss Greece and Miss Europe in 1930, who docked with her fiancee’s yacht on one of the shores of Mount Athos and wandered off for a while until she was caught.

  3. Nassos Papalexandrou says:

    Many thanks, Natalia, for this most illuminating report, especially for bringing to our attention Brewster’s book on Mt. Athos. An alternative and very enlightening account of a visit to Mt Athos in the ’30s is published in the last chapter of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, which completes his famous trilogy on his walk on foot from Holland to Istanbul in 1935. Always your fan, Happy New Year, Nassos

  4. rfsutton says:

    Natalia,
    I tried posting this comment to the piece on Haspels but when I went to exit it would no accept my old pw (which it says was stolen in 2013 or something like that) or allow me to change it. It also did not like my my email used as username — and I know of no other for the site. So I gave up. Here it is in any case, since it looks like it was not saved and posted.

    Thanks, Natalia (and Filiz Songu), for shining this fascinating light on one of the most important contributors to the study of Attic pottery. I have always wondered about the disconnect between her early magnum opus ABL and her post-war career, which this helps explain. It also explains something else that has always seemed remarkable: “It was written in English by a Dutch female archaeologist from Oxford who had become a foreign member of the French School at Athens, which published it (Dugas 1937, p. 40).” It is heartening to read how all those scholars helped her overcome the substantial barriers presented by nationalism, a tendency that fortunately continues to benefit us all in our deeply international field. Bob

    The Brewster piece that initially puled me in for some reason was also interesting, but in a more disturbing way, but raises other impotent issues.

    I hope you are all well and surviving this pandemic. The Greek Covid spike shown at today’s MC meeting was disheartening. Susan and I are ok, and the lockdown is not that much different from retirement in many ways. Hopefully we can meet face to face again before too long. Fortunately Peter has been able to visit from Detroit after testing negative and driving straight through; he’s been working at home, so this has been a big pleasure for us all. He’s still working for Ford. Thanks for all you help with recommendations.

    Best to you all,
    Bob
    Robert F. Sutton, Ph. D.
    Classical Archaeologist

    Professor Emeritus
    IUPUI – Indiana University

    376 Merion Rd
    Merion Station, Pa 19066 (USA)

    rfsutton@iupui.edu
    (01) 484.278.4379
    (01) 317.626.6728 (mobile/text)

  5. Edward Hector Williams says:

    It does seem we need a Procopius to write “A Secret History of the ASCS”…there are so many stories that will be lost as the older generation who heard them from the oldest generation disappears. My PhD supervisor, Robert Scranton, told me about the proposal at Ancient Corinth in the 1930s, for example, to blow up the West Shops to get rid of them because it was thought they were Byzantine or Frankish…They were saved when it was realized they were Roman.

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Sounds like a fascinating character. Grateful to learn about Brewster’s book about Mt Athos. Thank you!

  7. Amelia Brown says:

    Thanks for insight into this character.

  8. […] THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A DILETTANTE: RALPH HENRY BREWSTER → […]

  9. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Seifert from Trier has kindly shared the following information with me via e-mail, which I reproduce with his permission:

    “You write that little is known about the period between Brewster’s expulsion from Greece and the beginning of the Second World War. That’s true. But in his posthumously published autobiographic account “Wrong Passport” (a Hungarian edition of the book was published two years ago*) he does give some details (page 224):

    1933, 1934, 1935: That summer I was in Dalmatia and came across about a dozen German girls camping under the olive trees on the gulf of Mlini half an hour by steamer south of Dubrovnik. They sang four-part songs to a guitar, and in the evenings one of them would read aloud. I remember a dramatic passage by Rilke. It was well read. This was not just a silly hiking tour. The leader knew how to create atmosphere. A sacred fire had been kindled in them and whatever they saw or did was enhanced by the new flame. However much they loved swimming in the sunny blue Adriatic, they would have to be back in Germany within a week for the great Nuremberg Rally, starting on September 7. The Führer himself would be there and at the mention of his name their hearts seemed to be throbbing twice as fast.

    1936: I was in Greece that summer. But news of the Olympic Games spread far and wide. The accounts I heard from everybody who had been there were glamorous in the extreme. I could well, imagine the monumental staging of it all. For once the iron hand of Nazi terror and the spectre of the Gestapo had been lifted, so that even foreigners and deadly enemies of Hitler were captivated by the festive atmosphere and returned to their homes with glorious accounts of Berlin. Every German boy’s heart swelled with pride.

    1937 . . . February 1938. From Vienna I went to Graz. It was a few weeks before the Anschluss. My Austrian friends were making little Swastikas in tin and wearing them secretly at the back of their lapels. Everything secret and forbidden has always a special fascination. Graz was then a hotbed of Nazis.

    ‘Ralph cannot understand us’, one of them explained to his pals. ‘He does not know how wonderful National Socialism is.’

    Of course, Ralph knew there was nothing wonderful about it at all.”


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