Spring News

Rupert Smith on Dilys Powell, author of THE VILLA ARIADNE

In January 1926 Elizabeth Dilys Powell married Humfry Payne, the brilliant young archaeologist whose pursuits and enthusiasm were to shape her early life. For the next ten years, until his death in 1936, she perched on the edge of his world, an interested observer, watching him and his colleagues with a mixture of admiration and bemusement, and coming to share his love of the landscape and the people of Greece. 

Powell had met Payne while they were studying at Oxford, she at Somerville, he at Christchurch. In The Traveller’s Journey is Done she decribes him as ‘a combination of the extravagant and the austere. He was extravagantly tall: six foot five, stooping slightly, with an air faintly remote, reflective. In compensating austerity nature had made him thin: long fine bones, long loping stride.’ Their love affair ‘was conducted in terms of escapades: the dance-hall out of bounds, the night picnic on the river, the scramble, for both of them, over the college walls.’ One such scramble led to her being ‘rusticated’ and her final year was spent living alone in lodgings in Oxford, where, motivated by her ejection, she worked hard and was awarded a first class degree. Payne also took a first but was not offered the fellowship he might have expected because, according to Powell, ‘celibacy was still at a premium among teachers of Greek history.’

She goes on to say, ‘Had he stayed at Oxford his career might have been safer and smoother. But his life would have been denied its fulfulment.’ It was to be the short but glorious life for Payne as it was for Pendlebury. And the glory was not long in coming: he had already been spotted by the eminent archaeologist J. D. Beazley while still an undergraduate and with him published a selection of Attic vases after graduation. A little later his work on the painted pottery of Corinth won him a major academic prize and established him as one of the leading young archaeologists of his time.  His appointment to the directorship of the British School at Athens in 1929, when he was still only twenty-seven, confirmed his standing and presaged a glorious career at the heart of the archaeological establishment. 

Contrary to the norms of her time, Powell chose not to be subsumed into her husband’s world. Her reaction to his moving to Greece confirmed what had been implicitly acknowledged between them: that while she was utterly committed to him and shared his love of the country, she would not sacrifice her own career as a writer. This career had become full-time in 1928 when she took a position as a book-reviewer at the Sunday Times so she spent part of her life in London and visited Payne in Athens when she could. 

1926 had also been an important year for the British School. It was the year that Sir Arthur Evans placed the site of Knossos in Crete in its possession. This marked the end of the era of the wealthy archaeologist-visionary and gave the British School a site to rival that of the French at Delphi, the Germans at Olympia and the Americans at Corinth. It was of this enhanced British School that Powell’s husband had became director, and it was as the director’s wife that she scrutinised him and his fellow archaeologists as she travelled with him from site to site.

In Athens Payne was keen to establish himself. He carried out pioneering work in the collection of the archaeological museum while searching for a site to dig that would satisfy his ambition. In July 1929 he went to Crete to explore Eleftherna, a city perched between two gorges in the foothills of Mount Ida, but concluded his report with ‘it will be seen that these results do not encourage the undertaking of a second campaign on the site.’The following year he prospected closer to home, this time making an exploratory excavation at the Heraion near Perachora, a village on the headland that protrudes into the Gulf of Corinth just northwest of the Isthmos. Here he quickly unearthed a small temple, a good deal of Corinthian pottery and a small bronze of Heracles: he had found the perfect site - rich in finds, purely Greek with no Roman overbuilding and as yet unexcavated. And then there was the location. Payne tells us that ‘from the Heraion there is an incomparable view: to the south the mountains of the Eastern Argolid, Corinth and Acrocorinth, the conical mountain above Nemea, and, behind, the peaks above Mycenae; westwards and farther south, Artemision and the Central Arcadian peaks which bound the plain of Stymphalos. The northern view just misses Kithairon and westward lie the three curves of Helicon, Parnassos and Ghiona till the gulf seems almost to close at Rhion and Antirrhion.’ He concludes ‘it is perhaps not only its extreme formal beauty, both in colour and in shape, but the present stillness and desertedness of the whole landscape to the north and east, subconsciously set against the life which it once contained, which makes the view from Perachora one of the most impressive in Greece.’ And to add further to the romance of the site, the temple which Payne had discovered was thought by some to be that of Hera Akraia (‘of the headland’) where Medea, in the final scene of Euripides' play, takes the bodies of her dead children before soaring heavenwards to be united with her grandfather Helios. 

The Heraion rewarded Payne with four seasons of digging and in the second year, 1931, Powell joined her husband and his team for the summer session. While he and his colleague Alan Blakeway, along with a host of workers from the local village, worked long hours on the site, she set up her ‘office’ on the headland and kept up with her writing. She describes the village women riding down to the site ‘to look at the English’, and particularly at her as she tapped away at a type-writer in the middle of the camp. At the end of the season she describes the journey back to Athens with the archaeologists, which took them by caique through the Corinth Canal and across the Saronic Gulf to Piraeus.

Payne’s reports from these years describe a constant stream of discoveries at Perachora, while also making it clear that his fellow archaeologists were equally busy and successful in all corners of Greece. The Americans removed an entire neighbourhood under the Acropolis in order to start digging the ancient Agora. Evans’ success at Knossos continued with his unearthing of the ‘Temple Tomb’, which Payne describes as ‘the most remarkable discovery at Knossos since the finding of the Palace.’ In Olympia William Dorpfeld studied the temple of Hera; in Troy the American Carl Blegen, already famous for his work on Mycenaean Pylos, was busy stratifying Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th century excavations. In addition many of the smaller sites were being explored for the first time: Dodona, the oracle of Zeus in the mountains of Epiros, had thrown up scores of curse tablets; Winifred Lamb was making important discoveries on the island of Chios; the Germans under Kubler were, in 1933, ‘even more successful than last year’ in the ancient Athenian cemetery at Kerameikos. The Greeks too were beginning to play a bigger role in the archaeology of their country, with Anastasios Orlandos having a particularly high profile in these years, running digs in Sikyon, Pellene and Mycenaean Malthi. 

It seemed, from Powell’s point of view at least, that her husband was right at the centre of things: ‘the romantic success of the Heraion excavations, Payne’s learning and brilliance, his blond charm, combined to make him a figure in Greece. The school was regarded with new respect by the Greeks, by the other schools, even by the British colony.’ His charm and learning come across clearly in the photographs of the time, which show a man slightly stooping, with a diffident smile and often wearing a scarf instead of a belt to keep up his implausibly long trousers.  

In April 1936 Payne and Powell visited Mycenae for Easter. They stayed at the Belle Helene Inn which had been a dig-house for Schliemann and was a home-from-home for them as it was for many archaeologists. Sitting on the terrace on their last evening they discussed the idea that they might settle near Mycenae rather than ever returning to England and looked forward to digging again at Perachora in the summer. But neither short - nor long-term plans were to come to fruition. Back in Athens over the next two weeks Payne complained of uncharacteristic tiredness and an aching knee. The pain got worse and he was eventually diagnosed with blood-poisoning and admitted to Evangelismos hospital. There he died a week later on May 9th. He was buried at the church of Agios Georgios in Mycenae, where his grave is still tended by the villagers to this day.

Powell’s future had been snatched away from her without warning and the focus of her life now returned, by necessity, to London. In 1939 she was appointed the film critic of the Sunday Times, succeeding someone who ‘didn't know the difference between a film and a sponge’. She soon established herself as a well-respected critic, whose reviews were honest but sympathetic. She shared a pre-eminent position  with C.A. Lejeune of The Observer, also a woman, and for a while had Graham Greene as a colleague over at The Spectator. While supporting and encouraging much of the new cinema which appeared from the late 50s onwards, she always had a particular admiration for the western, saying that she regarded ‘movement against a background as the basis of cinema’.  In 1943 she married Leonard Russell, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, a marriage which was to last until his death in 1974.

However, for many years her Greek past continued to live inside her and she made frequent visits to the country, first as a grieving widow and later as a lone explorer. She made pilgrimages to Perachora twice before war broke out and then travelled more widely in its aftermath. In 1941 Remember Greece was published; part history, part travelogue, it attempts to explain and promote Greece to her compatriots at the moment that the country fell under the Germans. This was followed in 1943 by The Traveller’s Journey is Done, a third person account of her life with Humfrey Payne, and in 1958 by An Affair of the Heart. In this she reviews her relationship with Greece since Payne’s death, concluding with an account of her visit to Chios in the 1950s as a journalist. Here she met Michael Ventris, recently famous for his deciphering of the early Greek script known as Linear B, which had been discovered by her friend Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos many years earlier. So Powell had, in the course of her long ‘affair’ with Greece, witnessed an entire cycle of archaeological discovery and interpretation, from the romance and ambition of the pioneers to the more considered, scientific achievements of their post-war successors. But it was always the country which really held her attention, and in these four meditations on her early life, behind and around the vivid portraits of the archaeologists, she has left us with an affectionate, insightful and timeless account of Greece and the Greeks.

Rupert Smith runs The Evia School

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