Connecting the Dots: Peripheral Figures in the History of the American School of Classical Studies. The Case of R. S. Darbishire.

Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Archives is all about connecting the dots. When processing archival material, you often come across documents, photos, or notes that don’t connect in any obvious way with the rest. For this reason all finding-aids have a “Miscellaneous” section.  And such is the case of R. S. Darbishire (1886-1949), a name I came upon in the Carl W. Blegen Papers several years ago, in a booklet of poems; and more recently, while going through a small box of unprocessed material from the Blegen/Hill household on Ploutarchou 9, in a set of architectural blueprints. It took me a while to connect the dots in the Darbishire puzzle.

The Elusive Mr. Darbishire

ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers

In the Blegen Papers, there is a small booklet with a collection of handwritten poems titled “Poems to Order. Thera, June 17-21, 1928. Robert Shelby Darbishire.”  The short poem on the first page is dedicated to CB:

Εξ αδοκήτο [Unforeseen]
You, when I asked, “What shall I do in Thera?”
Unexpectedly in my empty mind
Casually dropped this: “Write pretty!”
Here (unexpectedly) nought else I find.

Darbishire appears in the student list of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA, or School hereafter) for the year 1926-27; he is also thanked in the preliminary reports or final publications of a number of excavations conducted in 1927-1928: Prosymna, the Odeum at Corinth, and Olynthus.

There is very little information about Robert Shelby Darbishire on the web, and one has to type his name in various ways in order to retrieve a few scraps. Born in 1886 at Fort Meade, Florida, he was the son of Godfrey Darbishire (1853-1889) -a British surveyor and a famous rugby player, who immigrated to the States in 1883– and Ann Shelby of Chicago. Robert was unfortunate in losing his father at an early age.  Mother and son lived for a while on a farm they owned in Danville, Kentucky before they moved back to England to be near the paternal side of the family. (Darbishire’s grandfather was Robert Dukinfield Darbishire, a well-known philanthropist and biologist from Manchester.) Nevertheless, the Kentucky farm remained in the Darbishire family’s possession for a long time; mother and son would move back to it after the death of Robert Dukinfield in 1910; and Robert Shelby would retreat to the farm in various periods of his life. In fact, the family papers are deposited at the University of Kentucky Special Collections, and it is from their finding-aid that I managed to obtain good and reliable information about the Darbishires.

The Toynbee Connection

While in England, Robert attended Balliol College following a family tradition. Although without a Wikipedia entry (unlike his father), Robert’s name appears in searches that connect him with the famous British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975). It was at Balliol College that Robert met and became close friends with the slightly younger Toynbee. Together they travelled to Italy and Greece in 1911-1912. Since researchers are more interested in studying the life and work of Toynbee, it is he, who is quoted in the excerpts of the Toynbee-Darbishire correspondence.

We don’t know anything about Robert’s first experience of Greece, but Toynbee’s was negative. He referred to the Greeks and the Italians as “dagos,” dreaded his encounters with them and offensively described modern folk in his letters, while continuously asking himself: “Were the Ancient Greeks like them”? Toynbee visited Greece as a philhellene and left the country as a mis-hellene. “Well, I shall religiously preach mis-hellenism to any philhellene I come across…” he wrote in one of his letters (W. H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life, New York 1989).  Toynbee in old age would retract most of the comments he had made about the Greek folk as a young man, blaming himself for his inability to understand them. Whether Robert shared his friend’s feelings, one could only learn from Robert’s letters to his mother in the Kentucky University Special Collections. Also, unlike his friend Arnold who avoided Greece, Robert would live in Greece for many years.

In the School’s Archives there is only one, but an important, letter from Toynbee. Addressed to Director Bert Hodge Hill from Smyrna on February 10, 1921, he alerts American archaeologists to the destruction of the excavation site of Sardis by the Turks during the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922.

“I am afraid my news… is bad. The house was smashed up by the Kemalists before the Greeks drove them out… I am afraid the damage is very great. Roofs mostly gone, except the roof of a big building at the back of the courtyard which I take to have been the museum; staircases, floors, window frames etc ripped away; safe lying on its side with big hole punctuated in it.. The statues in the central court have been badly defaced – arms, faces, etc mutilated; the pottery in the big shed at the back smashed… but luckily the Lydian inscriptions , which I suppose are the most valuable objects there, are intact, and mostly under cover…” (Bert H. Hill Papers, box 4, folder 4).

Toynbee and his wife Rosalind were engaged in relief work in the Gemlic-Yalova peninsula near Constantinople in the summer of 1921. Their photographic archive of about 160 photos has been recently discussed by G. Giannakopoulos in “Once Upon a Time in Asia Minor: Arnold and Rosalind Toynbee’s Frames of the Greco-Turkish War in Anatolia (1919-1922),” Camera Graeca: Photographs, Narratives, Materialities, ed. P. Carabott, Y. Hamilakis, E. Papargyriou, 2015.

Most of the information about Toynbee’s and Darbishire’s journey to Greece in 1911-12 comes from a biography about Toynbee written by another historian, William McNeill, a giant in the field of macro-history, his most famous book being The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community” (1963). (McNeill was also the first editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies.) McNeill came to know Toynbee personally when he married Robert Darbishire’s daughter Elizabeth (1921-2006). To Elizabeth, Toynbee was known as “Uncle Toynbee” (McNeill, The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir, 2005). McNeill and Toynbee met for the first time in 1947 in Darbishire’s Kentucky farm. During that meeting Toynbee invited McNeill to work for him and contribute essays to a series titled War Time Survey published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs that Toynbee was directing.  Later McNeill would become friends with Toynbee’s second wife, Veronica, and it was through her that he gained access to the personal papers needed to write Toynbee’s biography.

The Greek Years of R.S. Darbishire

Returning to Darbishire, his life can be sketched only in broad strokes. Not much is known about his time in the U.S. after he returned to Kentucky in 1912. According to the biographical note in the finding-aid of the family’s papers in the Special Collections of the University of Kentucky, Robert joined the Near East Relief in 1919-1921, where he met his future wife Ruth Whiting; by 1920 the couple was in charge of the Brusa section.  In 1926, at the age of 40, Darbishire applied to attend the School’s year-long program. In his application, in answering “What ultimate purpose have you in view in seeking membership in the American School” Darbishire answered: “Grasp of historical background of possible work in or for Near East, educational or literary, as preferable to previous Relief work.” And indeed, soon after his year at the School, he would get a teaching job at the newly-founded Athens College in Psychiko.

One of his classmates at the School in 1926-27 was Oscar Broneer with whom Darbishire kept in touch throughout his life. (Darbishire’s daughter Elizabeth McNeill would also correspond with Broneer for many years.) A prolific writer, Darbishire is the only student who submitted at the end of the program, not one, but seven papers, one of which is a long poem (“Prologue for the Prometheus Revival at Delphi”) inspired by the Delphic Games of 1927. I suspect that the Darbishires must have known the Sikelianos couple, and possibly helped in the organization of the games, but I don’t have any written proof of it. Putting in use the little Turkish he knew from his time with the Near East Relief, Robert also helped, in the spring of 1927, with the arrangement of the Turkish section of the newly acquired library of John Gennadius. He excavated at Nemea, Corinth and Prosymna where Blegen entrusted him with one of the excavation notebooks.  Darbishire is briefly mentioned in the introductory note of the preliminary report of David Robinson’s 1928 campaign at Olynthus. Then I lose track of him until 1937 when he communicated to Broneer his permanent address in Hartford Connecticut.

Imagine then my surprise when, last spring, while packing the School’s archival collections for our transfer to the East Wing of the Gennadius Library, we found in a box of unprocessed material from the Blegen House on Ploutarchou, a set of seven blueprints in perfect condition showing floor plans and elevations of the “Residence of Mr. + Mrs. R. S. Darbishire. Psychiko Greece, on Lot #11.” The plans of this exquisite, two-story house had been drafted on May 26, 1931 by Konstantinos Sgoutas (1897-1983), a well-known architect of the Interwar period with many signature buildings in his name. Sgoutas was also the architect of the Athens College at Psychiko. It is also interesting that Sgoutas co-signs the Darbishire plans with the architectural firm of Thompson & Churchill of New York City. My readers will recognize in Thompson’s name, Stuart Thompson, the architect of the Gennadius Library (1926) and of Loring Hall (1929).

Blueprint of the Darbishire House in Psychiko, now part of Athens College. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

At first, I thought that these were plans of a house that was never built, but after I began looking at the buildings on the campus map of Athens College, I discovered the Darbishire House (Κτίριο Darbishire) tucked in between the Ioannis Karas Kindergarden and the President’s House. And the only explanation for why the plans of the Darbishire House had been saved in the Blegen/Hill house on Ploutarchou 9 is Bert Hodge Hill’s connection with Athens College, as a member of its Board of Directors. What I don’t know yet is why the Darbishires left Athens soon after the erection of this magnificent house in Psychiko. Darbishire’s spirit would return to Athens College four decades later: his grandson, John Robert (named after his grandfather) McNeill would teach for a year in 1975-76.

The Campus of Athens College. The Darbishire House is on the far left, between the Kindergarden and the President’s House.


Picturing R. S. Darbishire

I spent many hours on the web trying to find a photo of Darbishire. I found a photo of his father Godfrey (the rugby player), but not of Robert. In the end several incidental pieces of evidence gave me clues to identifying not only Darbishire but his entire family in a wonderful photo from 1926-1927, or around that time.  After he was accepted to the School program in 1926, Darbishire inquired about housing. “I shall have my wife and three small children with me” he informed Blegen in August 1926. Blegen suggested that they lodge in the “Tourist Pension” near Syndagma Square, but in his “Membership Form” of October 3, 1926, Darbishire listed Academy 18 as his address. This was the newly “acquired” Annex of the School, the Palace of Prince George (about which I have written a separate essay, “Living Like Kings: When the Palace of Prince George was the Annex of the American School of Classical Studies”). In the Broneer papers, there is a set of beautiful photos from a costume party in the Annex with several people, of whom I have been able to identify only a few (Priscilla Capps and George Mylonas). The photo of the couple with the three small children had been a mystery to me for years. I then checked the photos in a volume dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Athens College. There, in one of the photos, that of the 1929 class, I recognized the man from the costume party.

Robert and Ruth Darbishire with their three children, ca. 1927. ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Athens College, Class of 1929. Darbishire, third from right standing. Photo: Κολλέγιο Αθηνών 1925-2000. Σταθμοί και Ορόσημα (2001).

Enamored of the Near East  

By 1937, as I noted above, the Darbishires had settled in Connecticut. The family’s new house “is just opposite the Seminary which has a good library, not so much for Greece but anything you want for Asia. I am reading Islamic history and even bit of Arabic, so as to get inside the skin of it… Hope you are not disturbed by wars or rumors of wars…  We keep the farm to retreat to when everything explodes – but perhaps we’ll be caught as absentee landlords,” scribbled Robert to his old friend Broneer (Oscar Broneer Papers, Box 10, folder 1, Jan. 3, 1937). To which, Broneer answered a few months later (May 14, 1937): “I was glad… to see that you are still enamored of the Near East. Have you already mastered Turkish to such an extent that you are ready to embark on a new linguistic venture in Asia Minor? Your letter is already out of date, for the ‘wars and rumors of wars” of which you spoke seem less likely to spread to our part of the world than they did at the outbreak. When the greatest empire in the world can take time off for a coronation spree, international complications must seem to them distant,” alluding with a touch of irony to the coronation of King George VI on May 12, 1937.

Darbishire’s immersion in the study of the Near East produced several essays, all published in the Muslim World, including: “The Christian Idea of Islam in the Middle Ages, according to the ‘Chanson d’ Antioch’” (vol. 28:2, 1938, pp. 114-124); “The Moslem Antagonist” (vol. 28:3, 1938, pp. 258-271); “Mutual Trust in International Relations of the Recent Past” (29:3, 1939, 285-291); and “The Social Principle of Equality in the Qur’an” (vol. 31:1, 1941, pp, 61-68).

I lose track of him again after 1941. His wife Ruth died in 1946 at the age of 60. Through McNeil’s memoir we know that he was in touch with his college friend, Arnold Toynbee, in 1947. It wasn’t, however, in the genes of the Darbishires to live long. Robert Shelby died in 1949, at 63. Broneer lived to be 98. When Elizabeth Darbishire McNeill announced to Broneer in 1982 that she and her husband Bill had become grandparents, he responded by telling her that:

“… all such news are reminders to me that I am everybody’s Grandfather, including your own. You may have forgotten but I belong to the generation of your parents” (Oscar Broneer Papers, box 17, folder 2, April 14, 1982).