A taste for travel
Robert Byron By James Knox. John Murray, 2003. £25 'A very obstinate man, a conservative and not at all despicable, ' wrote John Summerson of Robert Byron in the early months of the Second World War. Before his death, aged 35, when his ship bound for America was torpedoed in 1941, Byron had made an impact on architecture as a writer and as a campaigner for the preservation of Georgian London. His friend and travellingcompanion, Christopher Sykes, described Byron as 'a man of action, hampered at times by the quietism of a literary disposition'.
Architecture was involved in most of his activities, since, in conjunction with interior decoration and clothes, it was what moved him more deeply, perhaps, than other human beings.
He felt the inadequacy of design in his own time, and hoped that the past of other cultures might reveal some secret key to the future. The books and articles that he wrote about his travels provided his main livelihood, and his readers were able to share vicariously in the danger and discomfort of Mount Athos, Soviet Russia, Tibet, Persia and Afghanistan, through books such as The Station and The Road to Oxiana. At times, Byron seems like a Dornford Yates character, a choleric Englishman abroad making sweeping generalisations about other races, yet his travel writings have remained in circulation owing to his sensitivity and desire to visit places where Westerners had not been before (especially in Islamic countries), and his vivid response to buildings.
Among his shorter pieces of writing, two stand out, both published in The Architectural Review, and both concerned with English cultural matters rather than distant cultures. Since he happened to be in India shortly before the official opening of New Delhi, he had the opportunity to write at first hand about its architecture, under the tutelage of Lutyens. His essay, with his own photographs, took up the whole of the January 1931 issue. For Byron, the Viceroy's House redeemed what he otherwise saw as a corrupted Western tradition.
The destroyers of beauty closer to home were the target of 'How We Celebrate the Coronation' (June 1937), an impassioned plea for retaining Georgian buildings and urban ensembles, which coincided with the noisy beginnings of the Georgian Group, in which Byron played an instrumental early role. He broadcast on the loss of Brunswick Square, which, he said, 'corresponds, almost to the point of dinginess, with our national character. Its reserve and dislike of outward show, its reliance on the virtue and dignity of proportions only, and its rare bursts of exquisite detail, all express as no other style has ever done that indifference to self-advertisement, that quiet assumption of our own worth, and that sudden vein of lyric affection, which have given us our part in civilisation.'
In the later 1930s, Byron wrote more about contemporary architecture, including a review in the New Statesman of the MARS Group exhibition in January 1938, which seems to have been encouraged by Summerson who, as a put-upon organiser of the exhibition, decided that what Modern architecture needed most was intelligent questioning.
James Knox has made this book a labour of love, and was able to interview many of Byron's contemporaries who have since died. For readers whose principal interest is architecture, this subject may seem to have been curtailed, but there is a foundation here for further investigation.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian