Robert Byron, Letter from Tibet

The drawing of Gyantse Dzong Mrs Butler gave me in October 2004. On October 17, 1929, Byron wrote to his mother, ‘I have done one sketch and hope to do another this afternoon in the monastery after lunch.’ Photo: Pierre Zoetterman

Letter from Tibet

On the wall of my sitting room hangs a pencil sketch of a Tibetan hill fort that came to me by way of a translation into Swedish of Robert Byron’s great travel classic, The Road to Oxiana. Stuck to the back of the picture is a copy of pages 139–140 in Letters Home, edited by Byron’s younger sister, Lucy Butler, and published by John Murray in 1991. The letter that begins on page 139 is dated Gyantse, Tibet, 17 October, 1929. It informs Mrs Byron, Robert’s mother, that he has ‘done one sketch and hope to do another this afternoon in the monastery after lunch,’ and  I would like to think that the sketch on my wall is one of the two that Robert Byron made that day.

At the age of twenty-four, he was already a seasoned traveller who had determined to acquire, before he was thirty, ‘such comprehension of the world as to make me a connoisseur of civilisations’.  In his beloved Greece he came to appreciate the significance of his name and Byzantine art, although he was not related to Lord Byron; in Persia he developed his theory on architecture, but Tibet was by far the strangest place he had set foot in, and he loved every minute of it despite the scorching sun, the blisters, the altitude sickness and the sheer oddity of the people he met there. ‘It is all so odd, and the landscape so extraordinary, that it is worth anything.’

While researching an article about Robert Byron for the Swedish daily Göteborgs-Posten in conjunction with the publication of my translation in 2003 I became more and more interested in travel writing in general and the period between the wars, the golden age of travel writing, in particular. I could not resist asking the agent that represented Byron’s literary estate whether it would be possible for me to interview Lucy Butler, who was 93 at the time. She sent me a cheerful reply with a promise of something to eat and lots to drink – ‘though no aquavit!’ So I travelled, as instructed, by train from Liverpool Street Station to White Notley in Essex and walked to Mrs Butler’s home at White Notley Hall where I found something that had never occurred to me: Lucy Butler kept her brother’s entire literary estate in her drawing room.

After shepherd’s pie and wine we cleared a side table – it involved removing Mrs Butler’s own first edition of Oxiana, which had not been quite the same since the Blitz – opened the cupboards wide and brought out piles of brown envelopes bursting with proofs, newspaper cuttings and manuscripts wrapped in old newspapers held together with string. One of the bundles fell open, revealing the original manuscript for The Byzantine Achievement, Byron’s seminal work on the art of the monasteries on Mount Athos in northern Greece. Sorting it all out was long overdue she explained and brought out pen and paper so we could get on with it right away, but we soon gave up and immersed ourselves in delightful conversation instead.

Just as I started to feel that it was probably a good time to leave, I was shown upstairs to take a look at Byron’s drawings. We leafed through a mixed pile on the floor of Mrs Butler’s late husband’s Pugin-papered study. There were pencil sketches, society portraits, and underneath an obscenely large photograph of Goering – Mrs Butler’s husband worked for the BBC in Berlin at the end of the thirties, and the couple happened to live in a flat upstairs from Goering’s mother – were two almost identical sketches of a mountain landscape that neither of us could identify. I guessed Tibet, but I was not sure. Mrs Butler told me that her restless brother seldom got the chance to sit down for any length of time, he was always on the go, but the two drawings did not look as if they had been made in a hurry. Then, completely out of the blue, she asked me whether I would like one, and who was I to argue, so she disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a black bin liner to wrap it in. I caught the train back to Liverpool Street Station where the rather large and cumbersome passepartout was caught by the wind, and I sailed through the crowded streets towards Victoria. It was not until I got home and consulted Letters Home that I found the reference to Gyantse in that letter dated seventy-five ago, almost to the day.

I am yet to discover whether my drawing was among the ‘harsh, stylized landscapes’ that Paul Nash believed made Byron ‘an amateur of distinction’ and that were exhibited in Robert Abdy’s Mayfair gallery in June 1932.

It was his artistic mother that taught Byron to see and understand form, content and relationships, and he did it his way when he compared the Simopetra monastery on Mount Athos in Greece with the Potala Palace in Lhasa, and the ‘flat perpendicular surface’ of such diverse buildings as the skyscrapers of New York, Liverpool Cathedral and the town hall at Stockholm. Byron’s pet hates were numerous, diverse and usually contrary to general opinion, but his feelings for the art and architecture that he loved and admired were strong. In this spirit of comparison the impression of Greece persisted, and after struggling through the wind and the snow of the Tibetan plateau, exhausted and out of breath at 13,100 feet, he wrote in his letter home, ‘You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in a huge country as mediaeval as Athos.’

An elderly refugee couple from Uzbekistan occupied the seats next to me on the plane back to Sweden. You must visit Uzbekistan at least once in your life, they said, it is so beautiful. Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, the land beyond the River Oxus, which Robert Byron came so close to that he could almost smell it, but that he was never able to see, hear or cross.

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