Vignettes of a Hellenic heyday

A Golden Age: Faces of Archaeology in Greece

January 28, 2000

"Piet de Jong has more joy of life than almost anyone I know," wrote one contemporary. "To walk down the street with him was a celebration," wrote another. But the public know him only as it were anonymously. His life was spent in the workaday service of Greek archaeology, and every week tourists by the thousand walk past his large watercolours of Minoan life in the Heraklion Museum or through his reconstructions at the site of Knossos, while serious students constantly use his plans and his drawings. But he could also on occasion cheer up fellow members of an excavation team by painting their portraits in caricature. It is these cartoons, over 40 of them, that are published in this collection.

They were made in Greece in the 1920s and 1930s. Their flavour is art deco with a hint of cubism, and their closest parallel today, as Rachel Hood shows, is in the architectural portrait painting of Louis Hellman. The sitters were all variously linked to one or another of the foreign schools of archaeology, British, American, French or German.

Some were famous archaeologists, such as Sir Arthur Evans and Carl Blegen. Some were famous but not archaeologists, such as Dilys Powell, film critic for The Sunday Times until she died aged 93. Some were archaeologists but not famous. Some were neither. What all of them had in common was that they belonged to a time when Greece was still an adventure as well as an object of love. One of the pleasures of the book is the way it brings this whole world to life.

But the people are the main thing. Each is given a full-page colour plate for his or her caricature, a facing half-page photograph (if possible a contemporary one) and a biography. This is followed by an explanation of the caricature, since de Jong's purpose was never just to catch look and character, but to make the picture a reminder also of his subject's achievements and foibles.

Finally there is a list of informants as most of the biographies were researched from scratch. But though the work involved in this must have been heavy the weight is never felt. What communicates itself is a consuming interest in the characters, high or low, famous or obscure.

And what a lot we are told about them all. We hear about their family origins, their education, how they first got to Greece, how much it cost, what they did in Greece and after they had left it (if they did), how they eventually died, and even what their children achieved. As a result we seem to get to know them personally and can enjoy the caricatures as if we were there at the time.

We also learn surprising things. Bucharest cab-drivers before 1914 were Russian eunuchs. The system of passport visas now internationally adopted was initiated by a director of the British School at Athens. Evans as a young man adopted the Balkan habit of keeping one's little fingernails long to prove one's social status and kept to it for his whole life. Admiral Jellicoe and his opponent at Jutland, Admiral von Scheer, once dined together with Evans at his house at Knossos. Sir John Forsdyke KCB chose to sit for his official portrait as director of the British Museum wearing court dress: he was killed at the age of 96 in a fall from his roof when he was replacing a tile. Corn in Thrace used to be threshed under mule-drawn sleds, and the grannies who sat on them were equipped with saucepans to catch the droppings should a mule defecate. George Karo, a genial and long-serving director of the German Institute who had to relinquish his post after Hitler came to power because he was a Jew, once, while giving a lecture, shaved himself with an obsidian blade to show that neolithic technology could work.

And so on. But here at last one can complain. These titbits can be difficult to rediscover because there is no index. The lack is doubtless due to modesty, the author not realising what an interesting text she has written, but the publisher should have insisted on one.

In every other respect the book is handsomely produced and easy to use. It will give delight to all those who remember its protagonists at first or secondhand, and provide indispensable information for art historians, biographers, and for anyone who wishes to explore one of the most pleasant corners of the world of international scholarship.

Maurice Pope was formerly professor of classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

A Golden Age: Faces of Archaeology in Greece: Caricatures by Piet de Jong

Author - Rachel Hood
ISBN - 0 904920 38 0
Publisher - The Knossos Trust
Price - £26.00
Pages - 9

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